Fire ants add to compost cost

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Preventing the spread of little fire ants and other invasive species could add as much as $600,000 a year to county mulching operations.

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Preventing the spread of little fire ants and other invasive species could add as much as $600,000 a year to county mulching operations.

The County Council Finance Committee on Tuesday unanimously advanced county administration’s request to solicit contracts for up to $2.4 million annually for operations turning green waste into mulch at the county landfills in East and West Hawaii.

In addition, unlike under the current contract, the county will test a method of killing fire ants at the green waste operations at the Hilo landfill using a windrow method, known as PFRP, or “process to further reduce pathogens.” That consists of creating rows of green waste and turning them as the organic matter breaks down, creating heat to kill the ants.

The current contract, costing $1.8 million annually, expires Dec. 31.

“We see this as a step in the direction of a compost operation,” said Solid Waste Division Chief Greg Goodale.

A 2009 study found organic matter accounted for 114,000 tons, or 54 percent, of the waste heading to the landfill. Beefing up the green waste program has the benefit of giving residents a local mulch option, and increasing the lifespan of the two landfills.

Concerns about spreading invasive species have kept the county from trucking green waste and mulch across the island. In particular, West Hawaii property owners worry about fire ants and coqui frogs hitching rides in the green waste generated on the east side of the island.

“I know there’s been less participation on the west side, but there’s still a great deal of concern or fear,” said Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille.

Wille wanted to expand the PFRP program to three locations so residents around the island would have access to the semi-digested mulch. She was turned back by Goodale, who said the lack of freshwater at the West Hawaii landfill in Puuanahulu would greatly increase the cost. He said the technology needs to be proven before expanding it to the west, north and south regions of the county.

Puna Councilman Danny Paleka wondered if the county should bring the entire program in house, using county workers instead of contracting it out. He noted that after four years, spending almost $10 million, the county would have no facilities or equipment to show for it.

“I look at the money and I expect to come away with something tangible on the ground,” Paleka said.

That’s not the route the administration wants to take, however.

“We don’t want to be in competition with the private sector,” Goodale said.

Despite the cost, council members favored the new approach.

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“We don’t want to get to a point where we are now with the coqui frog and said, ‘Whoa, we should have invested at the front end,’” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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