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Yakama Nation Blocks Hawaiian Trash Shipment

Meghan Walker

The Yakama Nation has blocked a Seattle–based company from shipping 20,000 tons of trash from Hawaii to a landfill in south central Washington. The tribe is worried the garbage may contain invasive species. But the owner of the shipping company says the trash is safe. KUOW's Meghan Walker has the story.


On the island of Oahu, big bales of garbage have been piling up for almost a year.

Owens: "The main facility has the baled trash in kind of like cubes. They're stacked about three to four bales high and maybe more than a hundred to two hundred bales on site that you can see from the roadway."

Marcus Owens is with the State Department of Environmental Services in Honolulu. The trash he's talking about is headed to Washington state. That is according to a plan by Hawaiian Waste Systems, a company based in Seattle.

Owens: "Now their other two rented facilities have those bales in shipping containers stacked up about three containers high on two separate properties. Altogether they have about 20,000 tons of trash."

The trash was going to be barged across the ocean and up the Columbia River to a big landfill near the Oregon border. The landfill is within the ancestral lands of the Yakama Nation.

But last month, a US district judge issued a temporary restraining order against Hawaiian Waste Systems. That was at the request of the Yakama tribe. The tribe is also suing the USDA.

Harry Smiskin is the Yakama tribal chairman.

Smiskin: "USDA just didn't talk to Yakama nation when they opted to start shipping this garbage from Hawaii to our seeded land area and that was totally unacceptable."

Smiskin says the federal government failed to recognize the tribe's treaty when the USDA negotiated with Hawaiian Waste Systems.

Smiskin: "It's a sagebrush, steppe area. There is a large amount of Native American traditional foods and medicine. A lot of game, deer, rabbits. And as most people may not be aware of, we retained our rights under the Treaty with the Yakamas of 1855 to continue to gather food and travel and visit those areas. And they just didn't take in those aspects when they were talking about bringing that garbage out there."

Smiskin also claims the USDA didn't thoroughly analyze the trash for invasive species.

Smiskin: "We don't know just what is really in the Hawaiian garbage. You know they assured us that this is triple wrapped and quadruple wrapped and is not subject to puncture and so forth. But we actually had pictures of this garbage sitting on the docks in Hawaii and the quadruple wrapping of the plastic had tears in it, and you can see critters running around and rodents running around the dock, and that really concerned us that we'd end up with rare or exotic species of bacteria or germs or something of that nature here, or even the rodents themselves, that we didn't know what they were."

But Hawaiian Waste Systems says the bales are completely safe. Here's company president Mike Chutz.

Chutz: "The process is that this municipal solid waste is essentially vacuum packed. It is baled and then compressed and wrapped in eight layers of very thick plastic. That makes the bail what is called anoxic, meaning oxygen cannot get in or out of the bale. The process as stated by the USDA requires us to allow the bale to sit for a minimum of five days, which is the time that it has been determined it would take to kill any organisms or microorganisms that might be in the bale."

Hawaiian Waste Systems was hired by the city of Honolulu to ship up to 100,000 tons of trash a year. Permitting issues have kept the trash from being shipped. And Chutz says the lawsuit will only mean further delays.

Chutz: "The importation of this solid waste being done in the manner that it is going to be done has no significant impact on the environment. We feel very confident that that is the case. We feel very confident that that position, as taken by the USDA, will be vindicated."

Hawaiian health regulators have already fined Hawaiian Waste Systems $40,000 for improper storage of the trash. The company promises to re–wrap the bales prior to shipment.

For KUOW News, I'm Meghan Walker.

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