ILLEGAL DUMPING: THE LANDFILLS IN OUR BACKYARD
RESIDENTS IN KAPOLEI AIM TO RID THEMSELVES OF AN ISSUE THAT HAS SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE STATE AND NATION
As the final bell rings at Mauka Lani Elementary School in Kapolei, on Panana Street, youngsters hurry out of their classrooms and make their way onto a sidewalk regularly covered in refrigerators, washing machines, mattresses and other ambiguous garbage.
Illegal dumping, or the disposal of waste in an unpermitted area, is common in dark, unlit back roads around Oahu, but Panana Street is a perennial hotspot for the crime, and it often occurs in broad daylight with no repercussions.
“Nothing’s been done about it, nothing,” said Robyn Rife, a Kapolei resident, who lives nearby. “The city knows it’s going on, and they’re not doing anything to stop it. They were when it was election time. They were trying, but after election time, things got quiet.”
After years of filing complaints and hearing that solutions are on their way, frustrated residents and parents are attempting to take matters into their own hands.
The side of the road on Panana Street in Kapolei is often covered with bulky items.
Maryann Laskarakis, resident manager at the Palehua Villas apartments located behind the dump site, is working with the City and County of Honolulu to have shrubs planted on the side of the road where the illegal dumping occurs, in hopes that it will stop the crime.
“If they put something there, like bushes or shrubs, things like that, where there’s nowhere to put this rubbish there, there’s nowhere to put it. You know, that can stop [offenders],” said Rife.
The proposed areas already have been cleared of grass and taped off, leaving those gleaming green lawns usually covered in the litter looking desolate.
Laskarakis isn’t stopping there. She’s posted fliers around the neighborhood that show bulky item pick-up dates, the cost of fines, and contact information for anyone who witnesses an offender.
Hawaii State Representative Chris Lee supports this kind of action and believes that community participation is an effective deterrent for these types of crimes.
“It really comes down to being able to effectively organize the community so that when something does happen, people who see something can report that, and that can lead to an arrest or another resolution,” said Rep. Lee. “Without that, it’s very hard to do anything effectively.”
Waimanalo is another area of Oahu that has struggled with illegal dumping, but Rep. Lee explained that through the efforts of residents there, the number of incidents has gone down.
“The community back there organized itself, and people have been communicating, taking down license plates of suspicious vehicles and especially being able to pass that information onto police officers who can actually take action,” said Rep. Lee. “And numerous people have been cited and caught, and the problem has got better in recent years as a result.”
“It’s very dangerous in this area because the school is next door,” said Laskarakis. "We told the city over and over, somebody will open the door and you’ll find a kid in there, a child in there.”
“Rarely, rarely, because it’s known that they’re not supposed to be illegal dumping, so when people do it, they’re not trying, they’re doing it pretty fast, they’re just tossing things off the roadway. They just toss it out and then they’re, most of the time they’re gone by then, and the people who call are usually just passer byers,” said a Kapolei police officer, who asked to remain anonymous.
The trash isn’t just an eyesore for parents such as Rife, whose daughter attends Mauka Lani Elementary; she views it as a health hazard.
“All these kids walk by all that stuff. All that stuff, all the time, all that trash. All those kids who walk by, they can get hurt,” said Rife.
Laskarakis echoed Rife’s concerns.
“It’s very dangerous in this area because the school is next door,” said Laskarakis. “Contractors would dump refrigerators, freezers, different things like that and with the kids walking to school, what do the boys and girls like to do, play around in [them]. We told the city over and over, somebody will open the door, and you’ll find a kid in there, a child in there.”
Steps have been taken to deter the illegal dumping on Panana Street in the past, but nothing has stuck.
In 2015, Councilwoman Kymberly Pine had two APN Alarm Company surveillance cameras installed on the second floor of Palehua Villas to catch dumpers in the act, but two weeks later they were stolen from their perch. After those cameras were taken, residents stationed their own camera, but that too was stolen, according to Laskarakis.
In 2006, the punishment for those convicted of criminal littering, a petty misdemeanor, was increased from a $25-to-$500 fine to a $500-to-$1000 fine. Last year, the fine for illegal dumping was increased from $500 to $2,500, but it’s rare to catch offenders in the act, according to the Honolulu Police Department.
Sidewalks are now blocked with caution tape in efforts to deter further dumping before planting.
And children aren’t the only ones in danger around open dumps, certain items can be toxic to the environment and human life in general.
“Well, ozone depleters come from refrigerator products, coolants, ice chests, electric ice chests, air conditioners, refrigerators, freezers, anything of that nature, right,” said Cox. “There’s an oil in there and that presents a health risk, but also the gas, you shouldn’t be breathing it, so if someone dumps it, that’s maybe being inhaled.”
Strands of caution tape are the only barrier between illegal dumpers and Panana Street’s sidewalk until the planting agreement is finalized, but that deterrent has actually brought the criminal activity closer to home.
“We’re trying to get approval to stop it completely, but since we’ve locked that area now we’re having issues on our property where people are actually coming into our property and dumping into our own trash cans,” said Laskarakis.
And while displacing the dumping may be a symptom of blocking off popular areas with shrubbery, Rife believes that it is better than the alternative.
“Probably, but at least it won’t be where the kids are walking," she said. "I mean as horrible as that sounds. If they have cameras up they can catch license plate numbers and things like that.”
In the state of Hawaii, neighborhoods are serviced twice per week on different days, once for refuse pickup and another for recyclables, but bulky item collection is only once per month, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Services website.
On top of that, transfer stations are only open from noon to 6 p.m., and environmental activist Carrol Cox accredits much of the state’s illegal dumping to these circumstances.
“Some people work all day, and they come home and they pick up, and they go over and the transfer station closes at six,” said Cox. “Because it’s trash so you don’t [keep it], so you’re encouraged to, or inclined to dump it somewhere, right?”
The issue of illegal dumping doesn’t stop at Panana Street, or even Oahu for that matter. From Hawaii to the Continental United States, open dumps have become a significant problem on a national scale.
Rep. Chris Lee explained that it’s been an issue for decades, but without the resources to station police officers at every possible dumpsite, it’s a difficult crime to prevent.
“The bottom line is, I mean I hear this from HPD all the time, no penalty is going to serve as a deterrent if people know, just know that they are not going to get caught or unlikely to get caught,” explained Rep. Lee.
City workers remove more than 500 tons of illegally dumped material each week in Detroit, according to a report by the Associated Press, and Chicago spent $1.5 million removing 32,000 tons of illegally dumped materials in 2016, according to Chicago Tonight.
But these cities have recognized the importance of a change, imposing harsh laws against illegal dumping and taking steps to catch those who do it anyway.
More than a dozen hidden cameras were placed at open dumps, leading to 22 arrests in Detroit. Those caught dumping in Chicago face a $1,500 fine for the first offense, and in September a bill was proposed that would put a $30,000 dollar fine on repeat offenders.
Los Angeles, on the other hand, is adding thousands of trash cans and assigning teams to report abandoned bulky items throughout the city.
As the number of open dumps in Hawaii grow, it may not be long before the state follows these strategies, but for now, a couple of bushes will have to do.
“In a perfect world, people just wouldn’t do it because they’d know it was the wrong thing to do,” said Rep. Lee. “And that means adequate education and good relationships in and around the community with neighbors. Unfortunately in our society today that’s clearly not what people are being exposed to.”