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.)