What's brewing on Baker Road?

While the Reed Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Augusta, Ga., is surrounded by some of the highest priced real estate in metro Augusta, the Baker Road Landfill in neighboring Columbia County is void of neighbors.

"Heck, you couldn't get someone to buy a 12-by-50 [foot] trailer and put it on a lot next to us," says Don Bartles, Columbia County's solid waste manager.

But, according to this quick-witted Southern gentleman whose manners are as impeccable as his 20 years of solid waste experience, the only difference between the 30 million gallon per day water purifying facility and the 320 ton per day landfill is the slight difference in the facilities' titles: The word "treatment" is noticeably absent from Baker Road's name.

However, that might be about to change. In this small, rural community, just a stone's throw away from where the world-famous Masters golf tournament is held, Baker Road Landfill is testing the same treatment technology practiced by Reed Creek's wastewater plant.

In fact, the science being developed by Columbia County's Aerobic Landfill Bioreactor (ALB) at Baker Road may shape the future of solid waste facilities and regulations to come.

They Built a Landfill; Nobody Cam Bartles doesn't mince words when he admits that poor planning was the reason behind Columbia County's decision to remain in the landfill business.

"When Columbia County committed to build a Subtitle D landfill in 1993, it literally was because it had no other options," Bartles recalls. "We were running out of airspace and [local leaders] waited until too late to put together any other viable options to manage the incoming solid waste. Continuing in the landfill business was a decision by default."

After forming a solid waste authority, Columbia County went to the bond market and sold $7 million in revenue bonds to finance construction of the county's first 8-acre, Subtitle D cell.

All looked well at the beginning. However, in less than six months, the county found itself watching as three critical events in the solid waste industry jeopardized the Baker Road Landfill's fate.

"Although the Carbone vs. Clarkstown ruling occurred in 1994, the effects didn't dawn on us until after we'd sold the bonds to build the landfill," Bartles says. "The fallout began to hit our authority when we started asking ourselves, 'What will happen now that the garbage belongs to individuals at the curb rather than to the county?'"

Then, six months before Columbia County opened its first cell at Baker Road, one of the area's largest waste haulers gave Bartles and his peers a taste of life in the post-Carbone era. The large, vertically integrated company built a "marketplace" transfer station within 20 miles of the Baker Road Landfill and, according to Bartles, instantly "whacked $500,000 a year in revenues" from the county's solid waste budget.

"[This company] immediately took traffic that had been coming into Columbia County and high-tailed it out-of-state," Bartles says.

The third and potentially fatal blow to Columbia County's landfill program was delivered in mid-1995. Bartles and his staff had counted on capturing approximately 150 tons of additional daily waste from neighboring rural counties to the west and south.

"We knew [those counties] were going to close their landfills, not because they were smarter than us, but because they just didn't have the money to meet Subtitle D," Bartles explains.

However, instead of patronizing Columbia County's landfill, these neighboring governments bid out their collection needs to private haulers that, in turn, carried the waste someplace other than the Baker Road Landfill.

By the time the initial $3 million cell at Baker Road was complete, Bartles was facing a $500,000 annual revenue shortfall and depleting waste streams.

Tomatoes, Hot dogs and Grandma To safeguard the new landfill's future, Bartles and the solid waste authority pursued a two-pronged management approach: immediate survival and a long-range plan.

"We asked ourselves, 'How are we going to be sure that the facility we've bought and paid for will remain cost-effective?'" Bartles says. "However, we knew we had to be careful when we used words like 'cost-effective.' It's like the word 'love.' You can love hot dogs, and you can love your grandmother, but there are definitely different degrees of love." The same is true, he says, of determining a project's "cost-effectiveness."

In late 1994, ALB, a new solid waste treatment technology being developed by the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Southeast Technology Center in Augusta, caught Bartles' attention.

Similar to the technology used in wastewater treatment plants, the principle behind ALB is to make the microorganisms present in the waste healthier and hungrier by feeding them air and water.

"They eat more, quicker and more frequently," Bartles explains. "Nature's doing what we want it to do, but in an accelerated fashion."

By 1996, ALB was ready for testing on an actual landfill. The DOE's goal was to see if a landfill could isolate a strain of microorganisms that feed on carbons, a major component of municipal solid waste, either by creating a "designer bug" or by feeding existing ones.

A waste characterization study performed on Columbia County's waste stream found that it was 75 percent organically based, making the Baker Road Landfill ripe for the project.

"The bug wants anything from a tomato to a pair of pants," Bartles says. "Treated two-by-fours and concrete aren't on its menu."

The DOE offered Columbia County a $250,000 grant to become the guinea pig of a one-year pilot program to actively treat the county's landfilled waste instead of just storing it.

The theory was exciting to Bartles, but he still had to battle to get the county and the Georgia Environmen-tal Protection Division (EPD) to agree with the DOE on the project's viability. "Can you imagine convincing elected officials to embrace something as off-the-wall as bugs eating garbage?" Bartles says.

County officials, concerned about Baker Road's future and about what they would do with their waste once the landfill capacity was gone, agreed to work with the DOE. However, the Georgia EPD dug in its heels, forcing Baker Road officials to spend the project's first seven months making pledges and promises in order to win state approval.

"They made us cover every base - indemnification, monitoring, bonds, leachate running off-site, removing leachate from the liner, etc.," Bartles says. "But, to their credit, they did allow us to implement the project through a minor modification to the landfill's operating permit."

Let the Cooking Begin In January 1997, work began in earnest on the landfill's second 8-acre cell over the first 8-foot lift of waste.

The DOE's "designer-bug" concept was scrapped due to cost, so project coordinators focused instead on enhancing the Baker Road Landfill's environment for existing microorganisms to accelerate the degradation process.

Half of the cell received ALB's heated air and leachate treatment. For comparison, the remaining four acres received only leachate recirculation.

Using a 5-horsepower motor with a blower, ambient air was pumped into the landfill's leachate collection system. The air then was filtered through pantyhose and forced out of the system up through the waste mass.

Leachate re-entered the cell via 20 vertical wells with varying depths. A 2-inch PVC pipeline fed leachate from the facility's storage tank to a half-inch feed line with a pressure-controlled emitter, delivering one gallon of leachate per hour.

This irrigation system mirrored native peach orchards' technology, which injects moisture directly into the ground instead of spraying it into the atmosphere. The ALB-treated cell's moisture content averaged between 30 percent to 40 percent.

Because of the time lost spent haggling with state regulators, Columbia County's one-year pilot program had lapsed to five months, which was not enough time to achieve and maintain the ideal 140 degree temperature for a "good cook" and, most importantly, the desired 10 percent reduction in volume.

In May 1997, the county and its contractor, American Technologies Inc. (ATI), Oak Ridge, Tenn., agreed to a six-month extension of the pilot program to compensate for the delay in starting the project. In January 1998, despite achieving a less-than-desirable 5 percent drop of the cell's floor, the county and ATI agreed to grant the pilot a second six-month extension, citing the positive effects on the landfill's methane gas generation rates and leachate strength.

"To be considered a success, we had to see the floor drop 10 percent," Bartles says. "Despite the failure of the first [six-month] extension, the solid waste authority knew that this [project] needed time to run its course."

A payment performance provision negotiated between Columbia County and ATI meant that the contractor would receive no payment if the floor dropped less than 4 percent. If the volume was reduced 4 percent to 6 percent, ATI would receive 50 percent of its payment. And it only would receive full payment if the floor dropped more than 6 percent.

If At First You Don't Succeed ... By the time the pilot was extended a second six months, program coordinators had gathered enough empirical data to recognize their mistakes. "We were having good cooks, but the missing ingredient was weight," Bartles explains.

Because the pilot was being conducted over the cell's first 8-foot layer of waste, the area didn't have enough volume to make a noticeable difference in the reduction of the cell's floor.

"We knew [the failure] couldn't be attributed to consumption of waste by the bugs because the scientific data was indicating ideal temperatures, clean leachate and the production of CO2 [carbon dioxide]," Bartles says.

"These were all indicators that the organic mass that the air and leachate were traveling through was being consumed," he continues. "Otherwise, we'd have been producing CH4 [methane], and the leachate would have been getting dirtier instead of cleaner."

Stacking waste higher and increasing the production of air through vertical wells in 50-foot grids became the project team's next course of action. Program coordinators decided to duplicate the infrastructure with as little manhours and material as possible as the cell grew.

"There's not a thing out there - except for the pumps - that you could not buy at a hardware store," Bartles says. "The manhours alone didn't justify going back and recovering the wells as the cell increased in size. We decided to put them out there and cover them up. Vertical wells moved upward like the layers of a cake."

As the pilot finally came to a close in July 1998, program coordinators realized another critical factor that had hurt the program's success: A "state of starved air" had prohibited microorganisms from reaching their maximum health.

"We needed a bigger air delivery system," Bartles explains. "We weren't delivering all the air the bugs could use.

"But with more air, the temperature is liable to increase, and you've got a lot of materials [in the landfill] with different flash point levels," he explains. "It's a fine line."

If and when the pilot program becomes a permanent fixture at the Baker Road Landfill, Bartles says he will increase the size of the air delivery system and the monitoring.

At press time, the pilot's results were being compiled for county commissioners to decide the program's future. "It's no guarantee that we'll go to the next level," Bartles concedes. "Whatever we do, though, will have to be paid for through the landfill's tipping fee. So, that will come down to what the market can bear."

But, whatever ALB's fate at Baker Road, there's no denying that Bartles has acquired some mind-boggling precepts about the technology's future and its role in the landfilling of solid waste.

"One of the reasons that I and other staff members have embraced, nurtured and supported [the ALB program] is because we see its potential," Bartles says.

According to this solid waste veteran, the majority of the costs in operating a landfill are tied up in building it and purchasing the equipment - both expensive endeavors for items that depreciate and eventually render themselves useless.

"But, technology appreciates," Bartles says. "You tweak it and adjust it, and it performs better. For example, a compactor's iron always will depreciate, while the technology's per-unit cost always will get better."

The Baker Road Landfill's 16-acre footprint has a lifecycle cost of $33 million, of which $11 million is principle and interest payments and another $11 million represents closure and post-closure costs.

"One-third of the facility's lifecycle cost occurs after the cash register is closed and after we quit taking trash," Bartles says.

If ALB is successful in stabilizing waste mass so that it no longer reacts with air and water, Bartles is convinced that he will have a strong argument with state regulators to reduce his facility's closure and post- closure requirements.

"We're talking serious coins here," Bartles says. "If you've stabilized the waste mass so that it's no longer a threat to the environment, it's, in effect, neutralized.

"Considering that, why shouldn't I be allowed to reduce the number of years [required for] monitoring and sampling it?" he says.

Bartles acknowledges that, without the backing of empirical data, getting state regulators to buy into a reduction in closure and post-closure requirements will be a tough sell. "But, I'd love to see it happen because at one time in the state of Georgia, every county had a landfill," he says. "That means we've got 300-plus ticking time bombs out there. What if we could render all of them inert and non-reactive?"

Of the Baker Road Landfill's $32.50 per ton tipping fee, $22 per ton is used to service debt and to accrue funds for closure and post-closure needs.

If ALB can return 15 percent more life to the Baker Road Landfill, Bartles estimates that the 115,800 additional tons he'll be able to landfill on a liner that's paid for will net him $2.5 million in profit.

"We all know the liner will be around [for a long time], so let's use it more than once and recoup additional revenue on our initial capital expenditure," Bartles says.

Love Thy Neighbor The positive image ALB has generated in the local community and with state regulators has been a blessing to Bartles' solid waste program. Visitors have journeyed to the Baker Road Landfill from as far away as Vietnam and Korea, where land is scarce and growth rates are high.

"What's the most feared words a citizen can hear from a landfill?" Bartles asks these visitors. "'Hi, neighbor.'"

Visitors snicker. "People laugh, but why?" Bartles says. "There's no difference between what we're doing at the landfill and what the facility treating 30 million gallons of flush water each day is doing.

"I look at it like this: There's two waste products in a household. One comes in a bag, and the other you flush," he says. "Which facility would you rather live next door to?"