Landfill Operators Still Struggle With State And Federal Regs

"If your state regulatory agency passes a rule, ignore it," advised a local solid waste official at a recent technical seminar. Frustrated by inconsistencies and seemingly arbitrary decisions by state regulatory agencies, the solid waste officials gathered to discuss the disparities between new federal and state landfill regulations.

Although this local official's advice is quite drastic, his sentiments are resounding across the country as landfill managers grapple with the nebulous facets of Subtitle D and the challenges posed by state regulations.

In particular, closure and post-closure monitoring requirements have caught many landfill owners off guard. These owners say they have not been educated about the new standards which, according to some landfill officials, do not conform with sound engineering practices.

Incongruities such as these have led to a host of unanticipated costs and remediation plans. To make the best of a world of unknowns, landfill owners have proposed some creative solutions which range from simple negotiations with regulators to enterprising financing plans.

Early Closure Ramifications Monitoring requirements remain a stark reality for owners who closed their facilities early to escape the costly regulations. As it turns out, most of these owners reportedly have incurred more liability than anticipated.

"Many landfills shut down before the October 9, 1993 deadline," said Gregory N. Richardson, a containment and remediation expert in Raleigh, N.C. "This resulted in a tremendous amount of lost airspace and deficient final covers," he added.

"Those who followed the rules and closed early to avoid Subtitle D are now walking into a remediation or restoration program," Richardson said. "The game is groundwater contamination. State regulators are coming at landfill owners from a different direction and those who shut their facilities early don't have the income to implement stringent monitoring requirements." If they're looking for a culprit, said Richardson, landfill owners should search closer to home rather than pointing their fingers at federal officials.

"EPA recognized numerous problems that were raised during the public hearings for Subtitle D," Richardson said. "And as a political agency, they allowed leeway for [the problems]. There's no facet of Sub-title D that a state regulatory director can't write an exemption for. Unfortunately, some state agencies wrote all that out and it has hurt communities," Richardson concluded.

One Size Fits All North Carolina's rigorous solid waste management plan has divided the strongest of allies.

The state's solid waste regulations, which are imposed by the North Carolina Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources (NCDEHNR), represent a "one-size-fits-all" approach to regulating solid waste landfills, according to Phil Carter, solid waste director of Wake County, N.C.

"Our state government didn't want to be concerned with variances," Carter said. "It doesn't have the finances or the expertise to look at site-specific locations." According to Carter, North Carolina's actions have perpetuated the philosophy that local governments need to use regional landfills.

Carter cites excessive groundwater monitoring requirements as an example. "Ninety percent of the state's unlined landfills are now in some stage of Appendix II monitoring," he said. "No one can tell you what their costs are going to be."

Wake County owns two landfills. One facility complies with Subtitle D regulations while the other is awaiting a new permit. The county contracts the facilities' operation to Santek Environmental Inc., Cleveland, Tenn. Using tipping fees generated by approximately 220,000 tons of waste this year, the county will finance every aspect of the landfills' development and operations. Carter said the county will incur an estimated $4.5 million in closure and post-closure costs.

"I don't know how much the advent of Appendix II monitoring will increase our estimates," he said. "I only know that the additional costs will be a result of Appendix II monitoring. Ultimately, it will increase our tipping fees."

Richardson believes that Super-fund has fueled NCDEHNR's decision to make the regulations more stringent. "Even though North Carolina does not have any Super-fund sites, it still has excessive groundwater monitoring regulations," he said. "The state is trying to identify candidate sites." Under Sub-title D, many landfill owners were told that if they closed their landfill by October 9, 1993, they wouldn't be relieved of the responsibility for any future groundwater contamination and would still be a prime candidate for CERCLA, said Richardson.

To prevent tougher regulations in the future, Carter said he and his peers want to form a research and development team with the North Carolina chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America as well as city and county associations.

"The team's intent is to pool funds and expertise to develop recommendations for future landfill rules," he said. Right now, said Carter, the regulations are based on a "sounds-good, feels-good, cookie-cutter mentality. We need to align the regulations with federal standards."

If It Looks Like An Onion ... Landfill owners in Arizona also have been challenged by their state's regulations. For example, some areas of Yavapai County, where the average annual rainfall is less than 11 inches, have groundwater that is more than 1,800 feet deep. Today, the county is faced with approximately $3 million in unanticipated closure and post-closure monitoring costs, despite having already closed several of its small sites years ago.

"Let's treat this issue like an onion," said County Supervisor Bill Feldmeier. "If you peel the skin off, what are [the regulations] all about?" he asked. "We don't have a problem protecting groundwater due to the depth and we don't have any evidence of contamination, but yet we must comply with regulations that are stricter than the EPA's."

To illustrate this point, Feldmeier cites the Bagdad Landfill, which is located in a copper mining town. Because of the severity of the groundwater's depth, water must be transported 20 miles to get to the town's residents. Bagdad's estimated closure costs are $224,000, although the county says it "closed" the facility last year. "We had to close this site so we could afford to close a new landfill," he said.

Feldmeier remains hopeful that ongoing negotiations with the Arizona Department of Quality will benefit the environment as well as the county's budget.

Site Specifics Are Important Unlike its Western counterpart, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (MDEP) wants to make its landfill regs site specific, especially in regard to design and closure monitoring requirements.

"Our regulations are no more stringent than the federal regulations," said Clif Eliason, an MDEP environmental specialist. "[Regarding groundwater monitoring,] we're proposing to EPA that we test sites at different frequencies based on the travel time of potential pollutants."

Eliason also said MDEP believes some indicator pollutants and alternative techniques can accurately detect the spread of pollutants, at a lower price than groundwater sampling.

"We're still presenting our case to EPA," he said. "At the right sites, we believe that geophysical monitoring techniques are equivalent to, or better than, physical groundwater detection monitoring."

MDEP's proposed regulatory changes could have far-reaching implications for states who mirror Maine's climate and hydrogeology.

"Because groundwater is very sensitive to contamination, we have stricter compliance boundaries and design requirements," he said. "But there are certain advantages on the design side that can lower [pollutant] travel time. Therefore, we're willing to negotiate with the landfill party to incorporate additional engineering safeguards based on site specifics."

MDEP also initiated a creative financing plan to help rural communities manage the financial repercussions of closure under Subtitle D regulations.

Since 1987, Maine voters have consented to six bond issuances, totaling $49 million, to assist municipalities with closure responsibilities. The Solid Waste Remediation and Closure Program pays for 75 percent of closure costs.

"It encourages landfill owners to get moving with their closure," Eliason said. "The legislation has been modified to reduce the state's share of closure costs if closure is delayed in the future."

Keeping The Gates Open Richardson is a firm believer that landfill owners who chose to operate past the October 1993 deadline may be in a better position financially to meet the challenges of closure and post-closure monitoring.

"Shutting your facility because of the deadline was not a good trade-off," Richardson said. "It would have been more beneficial to let landfills keep operating, which would have enabled them to save money by delaying the construction of a transfer station or lined facility. With the cost savings, landfill owners could have paid for a better cover."

Richardson questions the integrity of final covers because of the number of unlined facilities in the nation and the regulatory push for more aggressive groundwater monitoring.

"If you have a good liner under a facility, there's less reason to have a good cap," he said. "Conversely, if you know you're in an unlined facility, you have a very good reason to construct a good cap."

Communication Is The Key Tennessee's closure regulations, which include higher permeability standards for clay caps and twice as much compacted clay, are more stringent than federal regulations.

The differences provide regulators and operators with an opportunity for discussions that can result in a flexible approach to implementing seemingly inflexible regs.

Bradley County, Tenn., owns the local landfill which has been managed by Santek since the late 1980s. Back then, portions of the 170-acre landfill had undergone closure, but proper surveying and engineering practices led company officials to discover a great deal of settling which led to the reclamation of valuable airspace.

"In the original state-approved closure plan, the final geometry of the landfill had a flat top," said Robert Burnette, a facility engineer with Santek.

"Later, we were instructed to incorporate a 5 percent minimum slope. Fortunately, we received permission to use waste to achieve the landfill's final elevation and, in turn, it provided us with more air space."

The compromise also saved the county a considerable amount of money, since achieving final elevations with just soil would have impacted previous financial assumptions for closure and post-closure monitoring.

When the permitting process began for Bradley County's recent 10-year extension, the hydrogeological survey indicated that on-site soil didn't consistently show recompacted permeabilities of 1 x 10-7 cm/sec. Working with officials at the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), the management company negotiated an alternative design incorporating two feet of compacted clay at a permeability of 1 x 10-6 cm/sec. and a geosynthetic bentonite clay liner.

"The regulators realized the longevity of the permit and understood the soil balance of the entire site," Burnette explained. "Their willingness to work with us on an alternative design had a potential economic impact to the long-term facility construction."

Based on his experience, Burnette advises landfill owners to build a strong technical foundation for alternative design compliance and to be persistent communicators.

"Support regulators 100 percent to help them gain an understanding of the technical foundation of proposed modifications," he said. "Familiarize them with on-site specifics like long-term soil availability and construction practices in relation to regulations and engineering design."

Regulations may appear to be black-and-white issues, but by being creative and using equitable standards, flexibility can flourish between landfill owners and the regulatory community.

"Oftentimes, clarifying something as simple as why final closure can't continue through the dead of winter, despite a 180-day regulatory deadline, can result in an environmentally and economically successful project. Communication is the key to building relationships with regulators," concluded Burnette.