KAILUA-KONA — Staff shortages in the county Department of Environmental Management forced the closure Friday of two transfer stations in Kona, an issue that’s repeatedly plagued the department in recent months.
The shuttering of the Keauhou Transfer Station in Keauhou Mauka and Keei Transfer Station in Keei left residents looking to properly dispose their opala in the North Kona and South Kona locales no choice but to hold on to their household waste for the day or make the trek north into Kailua-Kona.
It’s about 10 miles one-way from the Keauhou Transfer Station to the Kealakehe Transfer Station, and some 20 miles from the Keei Transfer Station.
The Keei closure comes just days after the county began accepting again greenwaste at the site. It was closed for three months after the facility reached capacity in late March.
“We can’t let this get out of hand,” Resident Laurie Kepaa said. “It’s a constant battle day-to-day if we can dump our trash.”
Kepaa tried to take her garbage to the Keauhou Transfer Station Friday morning but was turned away — told at the gate by a security guard that no workers had shown up, necessitating the facility’s closure.
The Kona resident is not only concerned about trash piling up at the gate or along roadsides and the vermin that follow, but also what appears to be inaction on the county’s part to remedy the situation.
“This is not right,” she said, noting she posted her frustrations to Facebook and also contacted Mayor Harry Kim’s Office. “We need more people to make complaints to get the county to get their (expletive) together and get these transfer stations open.”
The department’s Solid Waste Division announced Friday morning that both transfer stations would close at 8 a.m.
The division cited “staff shortages” as the cause for closure of both sites.
Solid Waste Division Deputy Chief Michael Kaha said they were unanticipated and had to be put into effect after the facilities opened at 6 a.m. Friday because only three employees showed up for work to cover facilities in an area spanning from Ka‘u to Kona. Six people called in sick.
“This (Friday) morning was a scramble,” Kaha said. “I had to bring in people from Hilo and Waimea to come in to help me out in both Ka‘u and Kailua-Kona.”
But management could only call in so many, and can’t force someone to work overtime, which resulted in the division having to make a choice on what facilities to keep open Friday.
“It’s a numbers game,” Kaha said.
That meant closing stations that serve smaller communities, like Keei and Keauhou Mauka, in favor of keeping in operation the centralized Kealakehe Transfer Station, which also accepts greenwaste. Waiea Transfer Station, located about 10 miles south of Keei, isn’t open Fridays.
Kaha also noted the division had only one driver available and positioned that worker at Kealakehe because it’s closest to the West Hawaii Sanitary Landfill in Puuanahulu. Each station needs at least one driver and attendant to operate.
“It’s a number of different reasons,” he said, “but If I had to give one reason, it’s that I can service more people with the people I have” at Kealakehe.
He said the division understands the public’s frustration, but wanted to let the community know that employees on-duty are working as hard as possible.
“We do try,” he said. “There are a lot of people at work today who are working hard to provide the services.”
Since the start of the year, the county has closed due to staffing issues transfer stations on at last four Fridays. In addition, a lack of personnel has forced greenwaste operations to cease at the Kealakehe Transfer Station on at least two occasions, most recently last Friday.
In late March, a source in the county told West Hawaii Today that staffing issues existed, discrediting theories floated to the newspaper by residents that included coordinated sick-outs on the part of workers due to tensions with management.
When asked about the possibility of Friday’s closures being prompted by a concerted effort by employees, Kaha said he did not know if that was the case.
The division employs about 40 attendants and 30 drivers in West Hawaii. Several positions are vacant due to retirement, but the division is currently interviewing for replacements, Kaha said.
Mayor Harry Kim said Friday afternoon that the availability of other jobs in West Hawaii is creating a “problem” for the Wastewater and Solid Waste divisions in recruiting employees for “not the best of jobs for some people.”
“It’s surprising how many of those workers do come from East Hawaii and have to travel because in West Hawaii, certain jobs are not easily filled,” he said.
Kim apologized for the inconvenience, but noted that a last-minute call-in for whatever reason puts a strain on any department.
“Sometimes it is not possible to keep things open,” he said.
The Keauhou Transfer Station was set to reopen as regularly scheduled today from 6 a.m.to 6 p.m. Keei Transfer Station is normally closed on Saturday, and was set to reopen as regularly scheduled Sunday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We have people scheduled to come into work tomorrow, like we did today,” Kaha said.