Minding Landfills

THE RECENT RECESSION DRILLED giant holes in state and local government budgets, leading many to seek revenues through tighter enforcement of regulated businesses. Landfills have not escaped attention, and most managers have focused intently on the task of complying with regulations that govern their operations. At the same time, landfill managers have begun to notice that their facility closure dates lie only a decade or so ahead, and they are doing all they can to conserve space. In particular, everyone is eager to test the space-saving benefits offered by the most important landfill development since Subtitle D: bioreactors.

Recently, Waste Age (WA) held a roundtable discussion with landfill executives managing disposal facilities across the country. We asked about the issues that are driving the landfill industry.

This year's participants are:

  • Mike Ettner, general manager of Republic Services' Kestrel Hawk and Mallard Ridge Landfills in Wisconsin;

  • Steven Fontana, deputy director of refuse disposal with the city of San Diego;

  • Mark zu Hone, environmental management system project manager with the city of San Diego;

  • Dan Miles, director of operations with the Southeastern Public Service Authority (SEPSA) in Chesapeake, Va.;

  • Frank Velazquez, landfill manager at the Salt River Landfill in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is owned by the South River Pima Maracopa Indian community.

WA: What are landfill managers' greatest concerns?

Ettner: Regulatory compliance. In recent years, regulators have placed new emphasis on regulations related to clean air, permit compliance and financial assurances related to site maintenance after closure.

Fontana: Our greatest concerns are maximizing compaction and lifespan, while maintaining regulatory compliance. We're very tightly regulated by a number of agencies, and we have to be careful to avoid fines and penalties.

Miles: It's important to us to provide quality service to our municipal and private customers, as well as to our residential customers. We spend a lot of time surveying and meeting with our customers about the services they expect, in terms of hours of operation, ingress and egress times, and so on. We want to give them what they want, but we do not want to overshoot the mark and unnecessarily raise costs.

Velazquez: As our landfill approaches a firm closure date in 2015, it is important to us, as well, to maximize airspace without running afoul of regulatory requirements.

WA: What are your goals for your landfill?

Ettner: Our goals include being a responsible neighbor in the community, insuring that we have a safe work environment for employees and operating an environmentally sound landfill.

Zu Hone: Environmentally appropriate operation. Our Miramar landfill was the first municipally operated facility in the country to receive ISO 14001 certification in relation to environmental standards. The reason we did this was to demonstrate our commitment to environmental goals to our organization.

Miles: We've put our chief goal in writing: to design, construct, operate and close our landfill in the most environmentally safe and efficient manner.

Velazquez: To extend the life of the landfill. We hope to accomplish this by applying innovative technologies such as bioreactors and computer-aided compaction surveys.

WA: Is finding new landfill sites and capacity a concern?

Fontana: Yes, but given the difficulties of finding new sites and the expense of building them, we are working to maximize our space and extend our landfill's life. To do this, we're maximizing compaction and recycling, the usual steps. But we're also applying some innovative ideas. For example, we have partnered with a private concrete and aggregate company, which digs our holes for use and extracts rocks to make sand and gravel. They're not only taking the material out of the landfill, they are paying us for it.

Miles: Our permitted capacity will carry us for another six years. We have developable land that will last for another 18 years. And we have purchased 550 acres that will enable us to go out 12 years beyond that. Our member communities are only obligated through 2018. So our capacity is actually greater than our contractual obligations to accept waste. Still, we feel comfortable that we'll be permitted for expansion and that our member communities will want to continue to use our landfill.

Velazquez: We operate on tribal land. While we have lots of available land, we don't necessarily want to site another landfill on it. This is our third landfill, and the community sees this as an important business. But are we in it for the future? We don't know. The council that governs us makes those decisions.

WA: How are regulations affecting your business?

Ettner: I have yet to see a regulation or condition of compliance that doesn't add costs.

Fontana: They add to business costs, but in some areas, we have been able to persuade regulators to alter their policies. For example, when we install a new liner, we are required to use clay from Missouri. We were able to demonstrate that local materials performed just as well as Missouri clay, and so we were given a waiver. That reduced our costs.

Miles: In our region, there is a trend among local governments to plan future growth with Unified Development Ordinances or UDOs, which govern building designs, landscaping and traffic flows. We have to watch UDOs carefully, especially those related to traffic, and gauge their impact on our landfill operations. We're also seeing a growing interest at the state level to tax trash in the hopes that higher costs will provide incentives for residents to reduce the amount of trash they throw away. Currently, the state is considering a fee of $5 per ton of waste coming into the landfill.

WA: What regulations could help your business?

Ettner: Wisconsin is an example of a state that takes a more aggressive approach to regulation than the federal government. For example, Wisconsin limits the length of leachate collection lines to 1,100 feet. I don't think federal regulations impose a limit. So here's an instance where the regulated length of a collection line limits the landfill's design.

Fontana: If regulators would reduce fees or allow us to move to performance-based regulations — where we would demonstrate that we can produce the required results — there is room for significant monetary savings.

Miles: We use a non-prescriptive Subtitle D alternative liner system in our landfill. Virginia has taken the position that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not allow wet cell (bioreactor) technology in alternative liner designs, even if they meet or exceed Subtitle D performance criteria. The EPA has been studying that issue, and we are awaiting a long-promised white paper that may allow wet cell bioreactor technology in landfills like ours.

Velazquez: Since we are regulated by federal rules, we also are interested in changes related to bioreactors that the federal government is considering.

WA: Have landfill bans and recycling affected your business?

Ettner: Wisconsin has a very aggressive and comprehensive recycling program, as well as absolute landfill bans on tires, appliances, compost, lead acid batteries and waste oil. Recyclable materials are not banned as long as they come from a community with a certified recycling program. We can accept recyclables from those communities. All of the communities that we serve have certified programs. On the other hand, we view banned items as a way to expand our business. We've set up special drop-off areas that manage these materials according to state regulations.

Fontana: California has banned a number of materials from white goods to cathode ray tubes (CRTs) and tires. These items carry what we call function costs, in that they require additional funds to keep them out of the landfill. We now have to assign departmental staff to screen materials through inspections at the gate and in the trash areas. On the recycling side, our department has a division that works with recycling programs, and there are costs associated with insuring alternative reliable disposal options. As you know, California mandated a 50 percent diversion rate by 2000. San Diego has reached 44 percent. This has helped us to use the landfill more slowly. So that has been of value to us.

Miles: Short and sweet: bans and recycling requirement have been in place for years in Virginia, and do not affect our business today.

Velazquez: While we are not subject to state regulations, we try to follow them whenever we can. While landfill bans have not been implemented in Arizona, there are recycling requirements that have slowed our growth somewhat. But we're not really unhappy about that. Volume isn't everything. Growth in small spurts is fine.

WA: How beneficial is bioreactor technology?

Fontana: We're just starting to look at bioreactors. I think the idea could be beneficial if you have inexpensive sources of water. Here, in an arid climate, it is problematic to apply the proper ratio of water to waste. But we are thinking about it.

Miles: We think bioreactor technology holds great promise. First, we have a contractor who buys our landfill gas (LFG) to generate electricity. Another company adjacent to the landfill uses LFG for boiler fuel. Bioreactors would increase the amount of gas we can produce and sell. In addition, settlement created by bioreactions would help conserve space. We plan to use bioreactors with inward gradient cells. With an inward gradient design, you excavate cells below the groundwater — which increases available space. Then you dewater the site, put in the liner and collection systems, and place the trash. The garbage offsets the buoyancy of the groundwater, which pushes in against the bottom and sides of the liner. If the liner leaks, the groundwater pressure will push water into the cell, and we would collect it and use it for the bioreactor.

Velazquez: Bioreactor technology would add five to six years of life to our site. We're just completing our final cell, and we've designed it as a bioreactor. We're hoping that by the time it is done, the federal government will allow us to use it as a bioreactor.

WA: How can managers better community relations?

Ettner: At our Mallard Ridge facility, we have more than 600 acres of property, and we're using 85 acres for the landfill. We've restored 250 acres as prairie and wetlands. Every year, we plant more than 55 species of native grasses and flowers. We have built observation decks and installed 5 miles of nature trails. Ever year, nearly 1,000 school children visit for a picnic and then tour the facility. We have had outdoor church services here. And we host an annual 5-mile Mallard Ridge Trail Run to raise money for the local Rotary Club chapter. These activities have led to real benefits for us. We originally conditioned Mallard Ridge as a facility that would not expand. Recently we proposed a 48-acre expansion. We're currently finishing the public comment period and have received no objections to the expansion.

Zu Hone: In San Diego, we have a native species vegetation program, as well as a school program for tours. Our department is internationally recognized for its work, and we attract visitors from around the world. Part of our ISO 14001 certification requires us to communicate with stakeholders and interested parties. An outside firm periodically audits our responses to questions from interested parties. By being open and willing to answer questions, we've built good community relations.

Miles: Two points: Do what you say you are going to do. And do not cover up problems or pretend they don't exist.

Velazquez: We use a Web site where citizens can enter their complaints and express their needs. We pay attention to complaints and use them to try and improve our operation.

WA: What new compaction techniques and cover materials benefit landfills?

Ettner: I advocate 100,000 pound-plus compactors. In addition, Republic has challenged its facility managers to use high-volume waste such as shredder fluff or foundry sand as an alternative to insitu clean soil for daily cover. We also use tarps or plastic covers as alternative covers. We also try to keep the working face as small as possible. These steps reduce the soil's cost.

Fontana: We are studying the possibility of going to heavier compactors. Right now we use the Caterpillar 826, and we're considering the 836, which is heavier. We've also adapted our global positioning system (GPS) to help. In the cab, a screen shows the outline of the cell boundaries. As the operator moves back and forth over the surface, the system paints the screen with different colors. When the screen turns green, it signals the operator that optimum compaction has been reached. So we never over or under compact.

Miles: With the arrival of bioreactors, we need to look at compaction differently. Traditionally, we've tried to cram as much garbage as possible into landfill holes, trying for 1,000 to 1,400 pounds per cubic yard of compaction. I think this will have to change to accommodate leachate re-circulation, which will require compaction densities that are loose enough to let the leachate percolate through the garbage and work down to the collection system. Yet you want densities tight enough to saturate the waste and encourage decomposition. So we need to begin thinking about optimum compaction for bioreactors.

Velazquez: We use a Caterpillar computer-aided earthmoving system to help us increase compaction while maintaining a uniform lift. The system also uses GPS technology to evaluate the changes in waste elevations as it compacts. In terms of daily cover, we have an automatic tarping machine for our open face. It reduces the use of soil, which uses up volume.

WA: What incentives exist to develop landfill gas to energy (LFGE) projects?

Ettner: I'm concerned about this. If tax credits go away, we'll have to look to higher prices for landfill gas.

Fontana: As a public entity, we don't worry about Section 29 tax credits. In San Diego, our mayor has a goal of using renewable energy sources like LFG, and we use our gas to power operations at the landfill. We have partnered with a private entity that does use the tax credits for fronting the development, installation and maintenance costs of this system.

Miles: Tax credits are important in that they enable us to attract contractors to build co-generation systems. But our stance has always been to be sensitive to the environment first and foremost. Even without the tax credits, I feel comfortable that our organization would extract gas and look for environmentally acceptable uses.

WA: What will drive the business in five years?

Ettner: Managing landfill costs will be a continuing challenge, especially in terms of environmental monitoring and maintaining compliance with regulatory requirements.

Fontana: Most of the current factors will still be in play in five years. We'll probably see increased regulatory controls as well in areas such as stormwater runoff.

Miles: There will be three drivers. First, there will be growing competition. As the distinction between privately and publicly operated landfills diminishes, we'll all operate on a level playing field. Second, there will be new environmental regulations, particularly related to air quality. For years, regulators have focused on protecting groundwater. Today, they feel comfortable about compliance in that area, but they are not comfortable with air quality. Third, new liner technologies will become important. We expect to see thinner, lighter, more flexible liners that will offer economic advantages.

Velazquez: Bioreactors all the way. Bioreactors will be the key to everything within five years.

Michael Fickes is Waste Age's business editor based in Cockeysville, Md.

WasteExpo Watch

Don't miss the Landfill Operations Workshops at WasteExpo 2004 in Dallas.

Part I: Monday, May 17 8:30-3:30 p.m.

Part II: Tuesday, May 18 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.

The session will provide landfill owners and operators with management skills to improve efficiency, reduce costs and increase profits. Attendees will receive a certificate of completion. For more information, visit www.wasteexpo.com.