Building The Foundation For Tomorrow's Landfills

Landfill operators share an obvious commonality in their profession, but their opinions a-bout landfill practices and the future of landfill management are as di-verse as the facilities which they manage.

Daily tonnage was not the only difference reported by our six landfill operators (the daily tonnage ranged from 100 to 4,000 tons). Topical subjects such as waste alternatives and regulatory compliance struck different chords with different panelists.

Surprisingly, areas of agreement included the cost of implementing Subtitle D, the impacts of flow control and trends toward facility ownership.

Key Landfill Elements Behind every good landfill operation is a good plan. All panelists a-greed that planning, whether financial, technical or both, is integral for a successful management program.

"Landfills are faced with a variety of changing site conditions, regulatory requirements and waste streams," said Doug Coenen, general manager of Waste Management Inc.'s (WMX) Columbia Ridge Landfill and Re-cycling Center near Arlington, Ore. The 50 workers at Columbia Ridge handle more than 4,000 tons of waste daily, most of which arrives via a rail system. The different elements at this site make planning more challenging than a sewage treatment or manufacturing facility, said Coenen.

Richard Carvell, public works director for the city of Charleston, W. Va., agrees with Coenen. Besides di-recting the services of the city's in-frastructure, Carvell also oversees the operation of the city's 60-acre, 10,000 ton-per-month disposal site.

"Key elements to good landfill management include detailed planning, proper execution and complete post-analysis of work," Carvell said. To effectively manage a landfill, he said, managers must orchestrate all resources and comply with a myriad of technical requirements.

Planning extends beyond the technical realm and into the public a-rena, according to Ken Higgins, president of Santek Environmental, Cleveland, Tenn., a construction and management company of publicly owned landfills. "For any landfill program to be successful, you must make plans to involve the public," he said. To do this, Higgins said, establish effective lines of communication with facility neighbors, local officials and the media. "Without an open door policy, even the most efficient landfill can be derailed by neighbor problems.

N.C. Vasuki, general manager and chief executive officer of the Del-aware Solid Waste Authority, Dover, Del., echoed Higgins' sentiments. "Being a good, unobtrusive neighbor" is critical to effective landfill management, said Vasuki, who is the operational director of the authority's three regional landfills.

Managing any operation has its fair share of difficulty and the panelists confirmed that landfill management is no exception - each landfill has its own set of difficulties.

Elias Zuniga, superintendent of solid waste for the city of Edinburg, Texas, lamented regulatory inconsistencies. Zuniga oversees a 100-ton-per-day landfill that serves the city's 34,000 residents.

"Regulatory agencies' inability to decide on how to implement regulations is most difficult to me," said Zuniga, a 21-year veteran of the solid waste industry. "They've (En-vironmental Protection Agency) de-layed the implementation of Sub-title D for so long that it's difficult for our city commission to understand our budgeting needs. It's also an ad-ded burden to operations.

Vasuki, who has an impressive regulatory background, agreed with Zuniga's assessment of regulatory inconsistencies, adding that "uneven enforcement of regulations penalizes superior operators."

Dan Ransbottom, president of Ransbottom Landfill and Excavating, Claypool, Ind., operates a 250-ton-per-day landfill that serves 60,000 residents. As a small, independent operation, the 43-year-old businessman takes a hands-on management approach. "We have a small staff of employees; everyone is very diversified," Ransbottom said. "Our operation is efficient because everyone is trained in all aspects of the business. Every day I'm out there alongside of my employees [and I see that] battling the daily elements is the most difficult management aspect."

Others say lack of education is a problem.

"From the public perspective, I find that local officials and the general public are poorly educated on solid waste issues," said Higgins, whose company is in the process of a 10-year expansion of a publicly owned site. "Landfills are not any harder to operate than other industrial complexes: you must be able to make big decisions quickly and confidently to keep the ship sailing."

"The public does not realize that properly planned, engineered and operated landfills are an essential component of any solid waste management system," Coenen said. "I be-lieve this is the most difficult aspect of landfill management."

For operators like Carvell, who are responsible for other municipal services, landfill management alone can be a tremendous task. "Landfill management has turned out to be much more complex and challenging than other municipal services," he said. "It encompasses much more than the run-of-the-mill management [like] repairing streets, taking care of cemeteries or maintaining bridges. Landfill management in-cludes so many more dynamics."

Certification And Subtitle D Because of the complexity of landfill management, everyone agreed that it is critical for operators to be certified.

"[Right now] there is no shortage of landfill personnel to operate landfills, but [when the EPA begins to] enforce Subtitle D there will be an increased need for better trained and qualified operators," Vasuki said. "Operator certification will become essential to protect owners from lawsuits."

He predicts landfill certification will follow the same standards as the wastewater treatment industry did when EPA issued regulations for Na-tional Pollutants Discharge Elim-ination Systems.

Zuniga criticized the certification process, saying today's process is not sufficient to meet the challenges of Subtitle D. "Although certified personnel are available, the acquisition of these certifications is too lenient," he said. "Certification is im-perative, but it must be handled through more stringent courses so that certified operators placed out in the field are [familiar with] all as-pects of waste management."

Carvell agreed, saying educational and governmental institutions have been "asleep at the wheel."

Because of a national educational deficit, Coenen said that WMX has taken the initiative to implement in-ternal education programs.

More commonly referred to in solid waste circles as "D-Day," the EPA's October 9, 1993 deadline has al-ready passed. But all panelists a-greed that the ramifications of Sub-title D will have lasting effects on the landfill industry and future management practices.

"[Subtitle D] will provide uniform minimum standards for the nation and, to a limited extent, create a le-vel playing field for private and public landfill owners. It will improve landfilling practices and force more professional performance," Vasuki said. "It will also eliminate small, lo-cal landfills and force communities to use large regional landfills. It will increase litigation, make landfill siting more difficult and, in general, in-crease the cost of landfilling."

For Coenen, Subtitle D is old hat. Since Columbia Ridge opened in 1990, it has incorporated the new regulations, including composite liners and an elaborate monitoring system. "Subtitle D will have little effect in states that have already developed sophisticated regulatory programs and on landfill operators who have developed sophisticated environmental programs," Coenen said. "From a nationwide perspective, Subtitle D will help add credibility to the fact that landfills are, and must be considered, technical and sophisticated industrial complexes."

"For public entities, the financial implications of Subtitle D alone will result in a dramatic decrease of publicly owned facilities as well as a loss of control over a valuable infrastructure," Higgins said. "EPA's financial assurance test for local government is critical for fledgling authorities and smaller governments that have the volume to stay in business."

Subtitle D has hit close to home for Zuniga. "The rising costs of Sub-title D have forced us to consider re-gionalization as a viable alternative," he said. "Volume is needed to run a cost-efficient landfill. As a small community, we can stay in the landfill business, but it will cost citizens. We've got to regionalize."

Most of the panelists agreed that Subtitle D was the catalyst for re-gionalization. But is the regional ap-proach necessary?

"Subtitle D definitely sheds new light on the term, 'volume sensitive,'" Higgins said. "We have proved that landfills do not have to be large, re-gional mega-fills to be cost effective. At 200 tons per day, we're implementing Subtitle D for less than $30 per ton."

Faced with the possibility of re-gionalization, Ransbottom said he's counting on his relationships with local haulers to keep his fees to a minimum and to remain a single-county landfill. "Service is one thing that we pride ourselves in," he said. "There are a lot of small haulers here so it's to our ad-vantage to work with them. If we go out of business, they do too."

To Coenen, re-gionalization is in-evitable. With the high cost of be-coming an environmentally sound landfill, it is natural to see a movement toward e-conomies of scale. Regional landfills have the means to enhance and be-come efficient for regulatory activities, he said.

Regionalization can also lead to waste alternatives.

Despite its e-volving status, the feasibility of waste alternatives is a poor attempt and a temporary panacea to public outcry, according to the World Wastes panelists.

"Although none of the alternatives are viable due to the much lower costs of landfilling, we are in the process of initiating a recycling drop-off center to meet the growing in-terest in the public and private sector for recycling," Zu-niga said.

Carvell likened some of the al-ternatives to "fads." "Recy-cling and composting are present-day political fads that enjoy the investment of money and time in a number of programs," he said. "Some of these programs have a sound ba-sis; others do not."

Vasuki and Higgins agreed that landfilling is the most cost-ef-fective disposal method. "The move to seek alternatives is driven by federal and state reduction mandates and by the public's distaste for landfills," Higgins said. "We're currently in an age of enlightenment, but none of the al-ternatives, as we know them now, are as cost-effective as landfilling. I think we'll come full circle and discover, like the nuclear waste industry, that storage is the best management practice."

"Landfills will continue to be the lowest cost disposal option in most areas, but a well-balanced system will include a first-class landfill, waste-to-energy conversion, recycling and limited yard waste composting," Vasuki ad-ded.

Regulations And Flow Control Of all the issues, flow control was a major point of contention among the panelists. Some viewed it as another form of unnecessary government regulation; others said it was vital to the futures of local government and small- to mid-sized private providers of solid waste services.

"Flow control is critical if local governments have any chance of retaining ownership and control of their landfills," Higgins said. "Without a guaranteed volume, fi-nancing and the future feasibility of publicly owned landfills is virtually impossible to accomplish or predict. From a private perspective, flow control puts all providers of solid waste services on a level playing field."

Vasuki agreed, adding flow control may be the lesser of two evils. "Flow control is necessary for orderly business development. Without flow control, hodgepodge business practices develop and lead to further consolidation of the solid waste industry by large firms. As consolidation de-velops, large firms will create problems for themselves and invite political intervention through public utility control legislation. Municipal solid waste collection and disposal will become a controlled public utility if the United States Supreme Court rules against flow control in early 1994."

WMX's Coenen disagreed, adding that long-term contracts and the competitive bid system are better alternatives to flow control legislation.

"The nation's economic system is based on competitive forces which maximize efficiency and minimize the cost of goods and services," he said. "Unrestricted, government-mandated flow control laws can create artificial monopolies with higher costs and low efficiency."

West Virginia is one of only three states in the nation where solid waste is regulated by the Public Service Commission (PSC).

The agency exercises substantial control over certificates of needs and disposal rates, Carvell said. "The Public Service Commission certification process screens out most unneeded landfills in a manner very similar to flow control," he said. "It also keeps competitor rates in check, but the hearings and administrative process are tedious and expensive."

Panelists were divided about competition within the landfill industry. Representatives of publicly owned facilities said competition is strong only among a select few; private owners said the marketplace is aggressive.

"Continued permitting of very large landfills in the absence of flow control will increase competition in the short term," Vasuki stressed. "As companies go out of business or sell out to large companies, competition will decrease."

Not so, according to Coenen. "The landfill business is very competitive, as it should be. Subtitle D will help level the playing field so that the true costs of proper environmental management are recognized in pricing."

Higgins said that the issue is not that simple. "The landfill business is competitive during this time of change," he said. "In a few years, there will be very little competition because major disposal facilities will be owned by large companies who control the hauling industry. In essence, the landfill business will be a private, non-regulated monopoly."

Public Or Private Faced with issues ranging from technical to legislative, all panelists acknowledged some degree of private intervention is destined to occur.

"Public ownership with private operation is perhaps the best long term policy," Vasuki said. "Private ownership, even with monies set aside for post-closure care will create a future problem, particularly if the company goes out of business in the intervening period. It is too early to predict the trend; a lot will depend on the flow control ruling."

Vasuki was the only panelist who considered solid waste authorities to be viable assets in the landfill arena. He said they bring professionalism to management practices, prevent political gridlock and create equal conditions for all collection companies - small, medium and large.

Carvell stressed that the level of sophistication in to-day's landfills dictates some degree of private involvement. "Today's landfills require a level of specialization and state-of-the-art technology that defies the same degree of management by many government entities," he said. "The trends are toward private ownership and public ownership/private management."

Higgins said cost will mandate public/private relationships, but local government must maintain some control of their facilities. "Privatization will enhance landfill management, but once local government loses ownership of its facility it becomes a captive customer."

It is an exciting time for the landfills of today. Opera-tional changes are coming to the forefront as regulations, finances and waste alternatives force landfill managers to decide on their operations' immediate future as well as the not-so-near.

Richard F. Carvell, public works director, Charleston, W. Va. Carvell has 12 years of solid waste experience, including 10 years with a major solid waste management company. Carvell's responsibilities include directing all of the city's functions and infrastructures and overseeing the operation of the 10,000-ton-per-month city landfill. The 60-acre Charleston Landfill accepts solid waste from several other cities under West Virginia's Waste Shed Regions.

Douglas W. Coenen, division president and general manager, Waste Management Inc. (WMX), Arlington, Ore. With an engineering and regulatory background, Coenen has more than 14 years' experience in the MSW industry. He currently oversees the handling of more than 4,000 tons per day of non-hazardous wastes at the Columbia Ridge Landfill and Recycling Center. Waste is delivered through a containerized rail service covering a 600-mile round trip from areas such as Portland, Ore., Seattle and other Pacific Northwest areas. Coenen serves on the Solid Waste Advisory Committees for Oregon and the Portland Metropolitan Service District.

Kenneth D. Higgins, president and chief executive officer, Santek Environmental Inc., Cleveland, Tenn. With more than eight years of experience in the landfill industry, Higgins formed Santek Environmental, a full-service construction and management company for publicly owned landfills, in 1985. He currently operates several publicly owned, single-county landfills and was named to "Who's Who Among Rising Young Americans" in 1991.

Dan Ransbottom, president and owner, Ransbottom Landfill and Excavating, Claypool, Ind. The Ransbottom Landfill is family-owned and operated. The landfill handles approximately 250 tons of solid waste daily. Ransbottom currently serves on the Kosciusko County, Ind., Solid Waste District Board.

N.C. Vasuki, chief executive officer and general manager,The Delaware Solid Waste Authority, Dover, Del. Vasuki has been with the authority since 1976. Previously, he directed the Division of Environmental Control for the State of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environ-mental Control. Vasuki was elected international president of the Solid Waste Association of North America for two consecutive years (1991 and 1992) and has written 41 technical publications.

Elias A. Zuniga, solid waste management division superintendent, Edinburg, Texas With almost 21 years of solid waste experience, Zuniga oversees the city's 100-acre, 100-ton-per-day landfill, which serves Edinburg only. A graduate of Pan American University, Zuniga is currently a member of the Executive Solid Waste Select Committee for the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. Zuniga has been with the city of Edinburg since 1972.