Hawaii Garbage Faces New Obstacle En Route to Washington State Landfill After Yakama Tribe Objects

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Over the weekend, Hawaii news outlets were reporting that the first shipment of Honolulu garbage was likely only weeks away from coming to a Washington state landfill near the Columbia River. Hawaiian Waste Systems, the Seattle-based company that has a contract to ship 150,000 tons of waste from Honolulu to the Roosevelt Regional Landfill (pictured at right), told reporters it believed that final approval from the US Department of Agriculture was imminent. But now there appears to be a new holdup in the approval process that has already dragged on for years and sparked controversy across the Pacific.

The Yakama Nation, which has treaty rights to fish in the Columbia River, has demanded a meeting with the USDA over what it considers "exotic" garbage that could contaminate the region.

Yakama Chair Harry Smiskin tells Seattle Weekly that such a meeting will be held tomorrow at the tribe's headquarters in Toppenish. According to Smiskin, the federal government is obligated by treaty to consult with the Yakamas about anything that might adversely affect the land around the landfill, which the tribe ceded in 1855.

Smiskin says the tribe is worried that "imported" rodents from Hawaii could contaminate the ground water and river, while Hawaiian fruit flies could decimate farms on the reservation, which lies about 50 miles north of the landfill.

Environmentalists have raised similar concerns--ones the USDA eventually discounted after multiple reviews over five years, according to agency spokesperson Lawrence Hawkins. (See the USDA's latest assessment on the shipment of Hawaii garbage.) In May, the USDA gave Hawaiian Waste the go-ahead for the garbage to be shipped. But the agency suspended its approval earlier this month, just as the company was about to load bales of trash onto a barge, after inspectors found tears in the plastic covering.

Hawaiian Waste Systems president Mike Chutz, talking by phone from Honolulu, says the company rewrapped the bales and has received word from the USDA that it will lift the suspension any day now.

He did not know about the meeting with the Yakama Nation, however, until told by SW. Exasperated, he pointed out that the tribe had an opportunity to comment when the USDA was conducting its review, but waited instead "until the very, very last minute to exercise its right" to be consulted.

It's unclear, however, what power the Yakama Nation really has over the matter. Hawkins says it's a "legal question" he cannot answer.

But he adds that the USDA intends to "fully explore" the tribe's concerns. Meanwhile, Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is running for governor, has been threatening to call off its contract with Hawaiian Waste if it doesn't get the garbage moving, and soon.

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