Guest Column — Recollection Of A Prior Incineration Attempt

By Dr. James Weatherford

The County is taking steps toward having a waste-to energy facility on this island. This has been tried before. The story below is shared, as being central to my experience in that previous effort and my doubts about the current effort.

It was October, 2006. We were enjoying our new little house. After some morning work in the garden, I came into the house to have a drink of water and cool off.

The telephone rang, I answered, and Mayor Harry Kim greeted me on the other end. I had been making noise, publicly, about his plans for a waste-to-energy facility not being a good idea. The Mayor and I had had some heated conversations in his office about his plans and my opposition to those plans. Among other things, the legal and engineering consultants, paid $1.5 million by the County, had fed the Mayor and Council with considerable misinformation.

On the telephone, the Mayor asked me to keep an “open mind” and said he wanted to send me to attend the Waste to Energy Research and Technology Conference in New York City. The conference began in three days. Of course, I said I would go.

The next afternoon I went to a meeting in the Mayor’s Office. DH and AE were also there. They worked in the Mayor’s Administration and would be attending the conference with me. DH (no doubt, at the Mayor’s behest) was substantially responsible for the highly flawed process that had brought the County to being ready to invest in waste-to-energy.

Flights were already booked. DH had the County charge card and would be taking care of the lodging in NYC. Because of the very short time line, the Mayor said a check could not be cut, and therefore the travelers would be cash-advanced funds to cover meals. The Hilo Three — JW, DH, and AE — left the Mayor’s Office each with cash — hundreds in crisp $20-bills — in hand, and flew out of Hilo the next day.

In NYC, The Hilo Three checked into clean, mid-priced, adequate accommodation, 2 blocks from the conference at Columbia University.

The sessions at the conference were informative. JW learnt a lot that reinforced doubts that waste-to-energy was suitable for Hawaii Island, and heard nothing that suggested Mayor Kim’s plan was a good one.

In addition to the sessions, JW had the opportunity to talk with several of the other attendees, mostly private sector and academic professionals involved in waste-to-energy, as well as a few public sector employees. JW seemed to be the only attendee who was a private citizen with doubts about, much less opposition to, waste-to-energy in their home community. Major sponsors for the conference were companies that build and operate waste-to-energy facilities.

One of the County’s consultants, RS, an attorney, invited The Hilo Three to meet him at his corporate office at 5:30pm for a view of New York Harbor. Address: 145th Floor, One Exchange Plaza. For dinner after that, RS had made reservations at an Italian restaurant nearby to their office.

JW accepted the invitation to see the harbor. His co-travelers had other plans, but agreed to join JW with RS for dinner.

After the last conference session for the day, and before heading to view the harbor, JW met in the hotel lobby briefly with DH and AE; and reminded them that everyone received a cash-advance at the Mayor’s Office back in Hilo, so, they all three could and would each pay for their own dinner.

JW traveled alone on the subway. The people of New York City were friendly and helpful with directions. From the stop where he got off the subway, JW walked up Wall Street, which was mostly quiet because the market had already closed for the day.

On the 145th floor of One Exchange Plaza, JW introduced himself and asked the receptionist for RS. A smiling young attorney, in three-piece suit, emerged through thick wooden doors and introduced himself as someone who works for RS. The young attorney then led JW over to a window higher and wider than JW’s little house in Puna. The view of the harbor was indeed awesome. Bridges. Ferries. Barges. What’s that way down there? It’s very small…it looks like the Statue of Liberty … oh, it IS the Statue of Liberty!

Take-home lesson: from an executive suite on Wall Street, liberty is a very small thing.

RS, DH, and AE were waiting at the restaurant when JW and the young attorney arrived. The dinner was exquisite. Not since leaving Adelaide, South Australia more than five years previous had JW eaten in a genuine, white-table-cloth, Italian Restaurant with Italian-speaking-staff. His tab was well over $100, before tip. JW had the roll of twenties from the Mayor’s Office.

RS suggested a tour of the city, and pulled out his corporate plastic to pay for everyone’s dinner. Across the table, DH glowered, and sputtered, “JW says we have to pay for our own.” RS insisted he be allowed to pay. JW asked the waiter for a separate check, and paid his tab in cash, with a 25% cash tip for the waiter.

RS took The Hilo Three on a great tour of the city. Times Square. Greenwich Village. In a bar with folk singing, RS offered to buy JW a drink. “No thank you, Ric.” JW turned to listen to the guy with the guitar and RS went to the bar to buy DH and AE a round. JW went to the other end of the bar, ordered a glass of port for this chilly October evening in Manhattan, paid for it himself with a $20-bill, left the change for the bartender, put $20 in the singer’s (empty) jar, and sat down to enjoy the music.

After more strolling and sight-seeing, with midnight less than an hour away, RS took The Hilo Three into a coffee house.

Chocolate cake and coffee – something JW really enjoys. RS insists he be allowed to buy just this. “Whatever, Ric.” RS paid. The cake arrived. And, RS immediately started working on JW, about how he shouldn’t be so hard on the engineering consultants because it could hurt their reputation. After a few bites of cake and comments exchanged around the table where JW found no support, RS, the lawyer, pressed his point. JW thanked RS for the cake, pushed it away less than half-eaten, stood and headed for the door. RS caught up at the door and suggested maybe he had pushed too hard. “Whatever, Ric.” It was clear to JW why he had been brought to New York City – to be bought.

Epilogue: Back in Hilo, 19 months later, the Hawaii County Council voted down a proposal for Hawaii County to borrow $125.5 million for a waste-to-energy facility.

(Dr. James Weatherford lives in Puna with his wife.)

12 replies
  1. Roy Dean
    Roy Dean says:

    WE THE PEOPLE bear the responsibility for allowing
    individuals operating in an official capacity to continue
    the cycle of lying, cheating and stealing. When WE THE
    PEOPLE decide enough is enough then maybe something will

  2. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    Nice to know my tax dollars are used to fly private citizens to NYC to be wined and dined. Maybe that’s why car registration has jumped $50. per vehicle? Balance that budget? $20. and 25% tips. Taxpayer funds 18% would have been sufficient. LOL don’t know why he thought you could be bought James. Thanks for the inside story. 😉

  3. punated
    punated says:

    All you described was per diem. The lodging was taken care of by the agency. Cash advances for meals and incidental expenses is very common for all forms of business travel including government. The government has long since gone to credit card. Your meals and incidental expenses is not required to be totally spent. The amount dispersed is based on average costs of each meal. If you don’t eat the meal or at the average cost, then it is perfectly legal to pocket the difference. There is nothing in you long drawn out narrative that indicates anything beyond a typical official government business trip. In fact, the only questionable activity seems to be why you, a private citizen, was on that trip on the county’s wallet?

    You know, even in your ramble, Kim said “Keep an open mind”. You never learned and you are becoming as obsolete as your fixed-view of technology is concerned. Why you can’t get it through your skull that there are more than incinerating waste to energy systems. Truly, an old dog cannot learn new tricks.

  4. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:


    Your proclivity for
    I have traveled several times as a government employee and as a government consultant, over the past 30 years.
    True, it is common for some government employees to “pocket” their per diem and let a corporate or political manipulator buy their meals, drinks, and favors; so that this may seem to you, and to those sold-out souls, “typical”.
    That is not how I view it. Indeed, it is a violation of the Hawaii County (and most state and municipal) ethics code for employees to take gifts in such circumstances. As a public servant I did not take gifts.

    As for waste to energy systems other than incinerating, I am well aware of anaerobic digestion (which I think may well have some potential, if it can be scaled small enough) and pyrolysis (which is not yet commercially proven for municipal solid waste). Indeed, that was an issue I raised with some people at the conference and was told that combustion was their only interest.

  5. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    Sorry for the mistype above:

    Punated, Your proclivity for insults and attacks is counter productive. Maybe it makes you feels better, for a brief moment. To others, it discredits you.

  6. Ken
    Ken says:

    The question becomes then – WHAT DO WE DO?

    As JW’s diatribe states, in June of 2006, the idea of WTE was being floated.

    At that time, the Hilo landfill, was at capacity, and was operating in violation.

    Since then, a full 8 years later, WHAT HAVE WE DONE?

    Secretly trucked waste to Kona. Got caught. Recently, a whole host of citations, including criminal charges and fines issued against illegal operation of the landfill.

    The only suggestion that has consistently been brought forth and beaten like the dead horse that it is – is to “reduce, reuse, recycle”

    It would take 2 years to build a modern current WTE plant.

    It would take 2 to 5 years before any new GEO could be constructed and brought on line.

    But our landfill can’t take it anymore.

    And at what cost for any of this?

    About the only thing left that can and has consistently been buried at the Hilo landfill is the collective heads of this County’s leadership.

    And in 8 years NOTHING.

    How long does anybody think it would take to change this entire islands waste stream habits? Starting with the tourism industry.

    But then again, Emily has already suggested to “haul it to Kona” so what the hell.

    And if anyone thinks that GEO or WTE is expensive, wait until this County is ordered to shut down the Hilo landfill and build a new one.

    Compared to what that will cost, GEO and/or WTE will look like you filled the postage meter.

  7. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    lots of things get ignored, talking on the cell phone while driving? not enforced, school van driver full of kids just hit an old man driving along. School bus driver on da phone. What was the driving/smoking ban? lol
    How about Peaceful Skies? Choppers in Paradise still flying over residential areas. But the raising of auto reg. jumps $50. Consultant fees are the gravy.
    Tourist trade generates the most waste, disposable living. Where did that boat load of mattresses end up?

  8. Brian F , Jordan
    Brian F , Jordan says:

    James in past writings has wished I would stay out of the country. Happily the villagers of Nanning Guangxi Province and Napo PRC benefited quickly. When one violates their publically stated intelligent principles over a personal dislike this no place in politics. Just as prejudicial remarks have no place in a public forum. Recently if you listened at environmental meetings one candidates has a loose cannon who just seems to be unable to display a a vocal uninformed dislike for those they do not know. She told me how I had done nothing for the community. When I informed her who I was, she yelled prove it. Show me something you’ve done. At the Malama O Puna State Forum she was at it again and my wife informed her to stop slandering me in public. The candidate said was not aware of the behavior. I believe her.
    Having said that James and I are in agreement on that incineration is not a first or even a second choice.. The good Dr. has pointed out on numerous occasions that we still have heavy metal and chemical, sludge by products to deal with.
    In 2002 I suggested TDP which converts all waste to oil. Since then Pyrolysis has been found to be less expensive and creates many fossil fuels from a variety of waste. Thus reducing fossil fuel dependence and re routing much of the waste stream. The Sierra Club on Maui and Nationally find this a elegant and cleaner solution. Studies since then show that infrastructure is less expensive and waste can be turned into far more inert waste char. Wal Mart has shipped waste back for years. This practice helps pay for mandatory minimum shipping charges and lowers their waste management fees. I am glad James a long time resident of PUNA is advising his candidate on environmental matters. As the candidate has only been a resident in Puna since 2012. She needs such advisors. The cost of Waste to electricity is not efficient 37%. The cost of creating additional fossil fuel and building reserves is a more intelligent and flexible use of waste conversion. Char or carbon black are both usable and profitable by products. Sadly having worked in Waste Management profit is more important to them then environmental concerns. You see Waste Management wins either way unless we re-route trash by categories. Trucks will make money driving trash to Kona or a syndicate based corporation will make a massive profit building a Waste to energy plant. I would suggest a County referendum first. Though it is not a State House . I would advise a prototype. with a small funded state project. Fed funds can then build a pyrolysis system for less. Local Recyclers and Metal dealers have already discussed used material for the prototype.

    Brian Jordan American Society of Safety Engineers, HAZWOPER and Fema ISO National Incident management , OSHA Instructor for Construction Industry and DoD projects.

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