Pennsylvania County Protects Environment with Landfill Fees

Funding for environmental projects in Schuylkill County, Pa., is coming from a somewhat unlikely source — landfills. Using the disposal fee charged for trash disposal at Schuylkill County landfills, the Pennsylvania state legislature, in 1999, decided to provide grants for local environmental projects.

Already, hundreds of thousands of dollars from landfill fees have been used to establish an endowment fund for environmental endeavors. During the 1980s and 1990s, the state collected a total of $1.1 million from the 25 cents per ton fee on trash. Of the $1.1 million, $750,000 will be placed into the Schuylkill County Conservation and Environmental Improvement Endowment Fund, to be administered by the Schuylkill Area Community Foundation, Pottsville, Pa. The county still is determining how it will spend the remaining $350,000.

Additionally, the Foundation hopes to grow the fund by up to $50,000 per year by investing in the stock market and encouraging individual and corporate donations.

The county is hoping that earnings from the fund will help finance two ongoing county projects — the local John B. Bartram Trail, which might become part of the National Trails System, and recreational facilities for Sweet Arrow Lake, a local manmade lake.

“The hope is that these earnings will lessen any taxpayer burden for the ongoing maintenance of these projects,” says Mary Kay Bernosky, Schuylkill County's real estate director who oversees the solid waste and environmental departments.

Landfill disposal fees originally were collected to prepare for possible problems that could have occurred during landfill closure, according to the county. But with many landfills carrying insurance to cover closure costs, the fees could be used for municipal needs and special grants.

To qualify for a grant, local groups will have to fill out an application and meet state guidelines that require the fund be used only for conservation and recreation.

County Commissioner Jerry Knowles says he would like to see the funds go to impoverished communities to install or improve sewage plants, water systems and other utilities.

“It doesn't make any sense to me,” Knowles says, “to talk about a countywide parks system while we continue to pollute our environment with untreated sewage.”

Bernosky says both county-level and municipal projects are being considered as grant recipients. Funded projects are likely to change from year to year.

“It's likely that it will be different every year because of ever-changing environmental needs,” says Terry Sadusky, executive director of the Schuylkill County Community Foundation. “Each year, the county will take a look at where the unmet need is.”

The Community Foundation has been in operation since 1967 and maintains assets of more than $7.5 million representing 77 different funds. The Foundation already has been supporting conservation projects through an existing Nature Fund, funded by a private donor, Sadusky says.

The funds are part of a broad effort by Schuylkill County to make environmental protection a priority. Located in east-central Pennsylvania, the county encompasses about 779 square miles. It currently operates two municipal waste landfills.

Although much of the county remains a pastoral agricultural landscape, it has a long history of coal mining, which left many areas polluted and stripped of vegetation. For example, the county contains the headwaters of Swatara Creek, part of the Schuylkill River watershed, which has been heavily polluted by acid mine drainage and sedimentation.

Today, through wetland restoration and other environmental efforts, the creek has been cleaned up, and trout have returned.

The county also has instituted several other environmental initiatives, including both curbside and drop-off recycling programs, and other programs to better manage solid and hazardous waste. According to its most recent recycling report, the county reached a 31.5 percent recycling rate in 1999.

The county also emphasizes environmental education. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Harrisburg, has awarded grants to school programs that use computers or other technology to advance environmental education.

Schuylkill County is poised to broaden other local governments' notions about how landfill fees can be used. Such fees often are used for landfill- and other waste-related activities but rarely are used for unrelated environmental projects. “This is one concrete benefit that is derived from the landfills in the county,” says County Commissioner Forrest Shadle. “These funds help improve the quality of life of our residents at no additional costs to taxpayers.”