HAWAII ISLAND: A classic example of the saying the more things change the more they stay the same.

If you followed the local elections in 2008 – the ones that resulted in victory for the current mayor Billy Kenoi – you might remember one question that was guaranteed to come up at every forum and debate.

How will our elected leaders deal with our growing trash problem?

Most candidates opted to punt when faced with this question, and with good cause. The issue is incredibly complex and there is no easy answer.

The Hilo landfill is nearing the end of its life expectancy. The giant mountain of trash is said to be the highest point in Hilo. When we had our camera up on the landfill summit in 2009, we were actually looking down on the airplanes that were landing at the Hilo Airport.

So, fast forward to present day, four years later … with another election looming… what about trash has these councilmembers so on edge? The short answer: trucking garbage from East Hawaii to West Hawaii… something Kona residents have said time and time again is not acceptable.

But its more than trash policy that powers this disatisfaction. And to understand that part of the story, we need to take you back…

It was in early 2012 that the County Council became irked over a study – completed by hired consultants – that recommended the county truck garbage collected at solid waste stations in East Hawaii across the island to this location in North Kona, the Pu’uanahulu Landfill.

When the consultant contract – and recommendation – was made public, it resulted in an outcry that carried over to this Town Meeting in Kona, where Mayor Billy Kenoi outright denied that there were any plans to carry out the recommendation.

But things are never that simple, especially during the political season. In a few months, voters will once again decide on who will lead the county for another four years. Therefor, all management decisions are under extra scrutiny… something Kenoi is well aware of…

And so is his opponent, council chair and mayoral hopeful from Honokaa, Dominic Yagong. At the very same meeting … which was not billed as a forum but sure felt like one… Yagong vowed to ban cross island trash trucking.

Meanwhile, Hunter Bishop, the Deputy Director at the Department of Environmental Management, downplayed the outcry after the Kona meeting. In defense of the department’s decision, he mentioned that the trucking study was actually called for in the county Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan … the same plan that Yagong made mention of in Kona. Bishop even blamed the newspaper for inciting the unrest over the recommendation. But, as he would soon find out, the worst news for the department had yet to be printed by the local paper.

Meanwhile, we went into our archives … back to 2009 when the draft Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan was being vetted through public meetings…and we found this story, deep in the digitized recesses of our website, told by Tim Bryan. In it, consultants say trucking waste will be studied as an option for the extending the life of the landfill.

And so Bishop’s first defense seems plausible… but it was what was uncovered next that caused the real damage. An investigative report by Nancy Cook Lauer in Stephens Media newspapers revealed the county had already begun to truck more rubbish across the island – part of a “Pilot Project”. It was revealed the County started the east-to-west trash hauling project in January, but apparently never told the County Council, or the mayor, who  had made the “no trucking” statement in Kona, even as the extra garbage was being hauled to Puuanahulu.

And so on Tuesday, the council committee on Environmental Management gave their approval to Yagong’s trash trucking ban … quickly and with little discussion… but not without a few jabs at the department.

Also, Environmental Management officials told the council that the pilot project was finished. But the damage to credibility has been done.

The whole affair points to what seems to be the greater issue with the department. A branch of the administration that is in constant flux, the department has seen a number of directors come and go in recent years. It is obviously a challenging position, as Lono Tyson – one of the former department heads – explained to the council in 2010.

Which brings us back to where we were four years ago… Few answers, but plenty of pontificating: the politics of garbage in an election year here on Hawaii Island.

[produced by David Corrigan and Stephanie Salazar]