SITING A NEW LANDFILL is almost always controversial. So when the city of Logan, Utah, was ready to site a new landfill to replace its 40-year-old municipal solid waste (MSW) facility, it relied heavily on public involvement and contributions from a local university's faculty and students. With a combination of expertise from industry professionals and the local community, Logan created effective community dialogues that lead to a successful siting.
Do Not Disturb
Logan is the largest city in Utah's Cache County, located in a lush, alpine valley 80 miles northeast of Salt Lake City. The city is an MSW contractor for a countywide service district that includes 100,000 residents in unincorporated Cache County and its 19 cities. Logan provides collection, disposal, recycling, green waste, household hazardous waste and solid waste planning. Since 1973, all of Cache County's waste has been delivered to an 80-acre landfill in an industrial area in Logan.
In recent years, the city became concerned that future regulations might force the landfill to prematurely close. The facility is unlined and does not meet the state's landfill siting requirements. Also, as the city grows, the landfill is being surrounded by new development. In 1996, the landfill was estimated to remain open until between 2010 and 2015. Efforts were made to extend the landfill's life by using an adjacent construction and demolition debris landfill, alternative daily cover, a green waste and recycling diversion program, and improved compaction methods. This extended the landfill's expected closing date to 2024.
However, the city wanted to conduct a new landfill siting study to prepare for when the landfill is no longer available.
The 1,185 square miles of Cache County are split evenly between national forest and developable land. With a well-dispersed population, high water table, quality groundwater that is a source of drinking water and abundant surface waters, the natural beauty makes the area a sportsman's dream. But this also contributed to the challenges of siting a landfill within the county's borders.
E is for Experts
Although the city had extended its landfill's life, it did not waste time looking for a new disposal area. It quickly hired HDR, Omaha, Neb., and AZA Planning and Public Involvement, Herber City, Utah, to initiate a siting study.
To begin, the companies developed a plan outline that included collecting data in phases, creating a reporting structure and ensuring that decisions were made based on open and logical communication process. To ensure the public would accept the facility, elected officials approved a public involvement proposal that outlined key decision points and who would make them. The city formed a citizen's advisory committee (CAC) to collaborate with the public, instill local values, share knowledge of the area and make decisions based on public deliberation. The CAC's decisions would be passed along to elected officials.
The city also appointed a local technical committee to review project data and make recommendations to CAC.
Members of Utah State University (USU), which has been housed in Cache County since 1888, served on the local technical group and CAC.
Step by Step
Once a team was in place, Logan began its study, which was divided into three phases that corresponded to go/no-go decision milestones.
Phase I addressed whether any areas in the county were compatible with landfill development given current regulations and local zoning standards. The city used a geographic information system (GIS) to map the county based on regulatory siting restrictions (13 factors) and restrictions placed by the CAC (five factors). This yielded 11 potential landfill sites.
Phase II compared the 11 sites to determine the best landfill locations. Armed with weighted criteria established by the CAC, team members scored the sites along 24 categories. Based on that evaluation, the CAC recommended five sites for in-depth study.
Phase III asked in-depth questions of the remaining five sites, including:
What is the best site based on field data?
How much construction and operating costs will the public accept?
How does each site compare with out-of-county disposal options?
Because access to the five sites was critical for preliminary geologic and geotechnical investigations, water level sampling and biological and historical surveys, two sites fell out of contention when their landowners blocked studies of their properties.
The remaining three sites were clustered in the northwestern portion of the county. As expected, residents in these areas opposed a landfill in the vicinity.
Of approximately 300 households in the area, 240 residents attended an open house. Comment forms were collected at meetings, e-mailed through a Web site, mailed back from an insert in a direct mailer and generated through a project hotline. This provided a framework that ensured the data collected during Phase III addressed community concerns. In response to the comments, two additional members joined CAC to better represent the cities in the affected area.
Part two of the Phase III involved analyzing the site visibility and community acceptance level. To maintain objectivity, USU provided assistance with methodology, results and reporting.
Shaping It Up
Because of the county's natural beauty, any visual impact landfill created would not be well-received by the public. And during the Phase II evaluation, visual impact was a major concern. This stressed the need for an objective and quantifiable approach to analyzing how the landfill would look and whether the surrounding area would accept it.
Abraham Medina, a USU graduate student in the Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning Department, proposed a visual analysis as his graduate thesis. Under the direction of his professor, John Ellsworth, Medina used the Bureau of Land Management Visual Resource Management (VRM) system to determine how a landfill would affect the area's visual quality. The process began with assigning a “visual resource classification” based on the three potential sites' scenic qualities, user sensitivity and viewing distances.
“The visual analysis for this project was one of the first of its kind for a landfill siting study, utilizing an established and defensible process, the BLM's VRM system, in concert with the latest computer graphic and GIS technologies,” Ellsworth says. “Involvement by the public, as well as the citizen's and technical advisory committees, was strongly enhanced and facilitated by the use of these visual analysis tools.”
Next, using key observation points, photo-realistic visual simulations of a landfill at each site were created. That helped to determine whether there was compliance with management objectives of the visual resource classification. Medina also made viewshed maps that displayed the potential sites' viewable areas during each developmental stage.
Based on this information, one site failed to meet the visual impact objectives. At the remaining two sites, mitigation measures were recommended.
It Takes a Village
To ensure public involvement and gain a more balanced view of the landfill siting, the city sought feedback from surveys and focus groups in Cache County. Douglas Jackson-Smith, a USU sociologist, sampled three groups: the communities neighboring the three sites, the city of Logan and the remaining county residents. Arthur Caplan, an USU economist, added questions concerning the willingness for the community to pay for a new landfill and whether it was possible to offset opposition by negotiating benefits for the host community.
The surveys addressed the relative importance of decision-making criteria; major concerns about landfills; favored landfill alternatives, both in and out of the county; and possible compensation programs. This survey was distributed to 960 households, and had a statistically valid 66 percent response rate.
Of the three sample groups, there were minor differences in the responses between the Logan residents and the rest of the county. However, attitudes and the strength of opinions varied among communities neighboring the three potential sites. The results indicated:
Most people were aware of the landfill debate;
Protecting the environment and minimizing costs were top concerns;
Concerns are greatest for water quality protection, nuisances and loss of wildlife habitat;
The countywide sample preferred an in-county site providing greater local control, but communities neighboring the landfill preferred out-of-county options;
Other than communities closest to the landfill sites, all groups ranked the same preferences for in-county sites; and
The amount of compensation required to make the neighboring communities accept the project was less than the maximum the larger community is willing to pay. Therefore, benefits could be negotiated with the host community.
In addition to assessing public opinion, further examination of the sites was needed. HDR provided a technical analysis, conceptual design of the landfill footprints and estimated construction and operating costs for in-county and out-of-county sites.
The technical analyses included a physical description, soil types and geologic conditions, presence of cultural resources, drainage conditions, wetlands, migratory bird and species of special concern habitat, groundwater wells and water conveyance systems, and assumptions for the cost comparisons.
The HDR team also conducted two scoring efforts: one study repeated Phase II using more precise field data, and another evaluated potential landfill sites based on criteria weighted from the community survey, most notably environmental impacts and cost. The results indicated that any of the three in-county sites would meet solid waste permit standards, although some mitigation would be required.
Additional conclusions were:
No “fatal flaws” were identified for the sites;
All three in-county sites would be less expensive than transferring the waste to an out-of county facility;
All three sites potentially would affect wildlife;
No archeological impacts would affect the sites;
The cost analysis and life span favored a site furthest from Logan City and
At the site closest to Logan, soil and groundwater conditions would complicate landfill development.
After all data was collected, CAC had to recommend the best site to the county. CAC had a lot of complex information with inherent contradictions. For example, the community survey identified the site closest to Logan as the best location, but technical data showed it was least compatible for a landfill. Similarly, the next-best site based on cost and technical data was least acceptable to the public and had the greatest visual impacts.
As CAC weighed its choices, it gravitated toward the furthest site, largely because of the visual analysis. The viewshed mapping showed the landfill was visible from both the west and the east. The area's CAC representatives pointed out that the west side was a popular recreation area and was more likely to be developed than the area to the east. Consequently, the CAC suggested moving the landfill's footprint east of a ridgeline that bisects the site to screen it from the recreational area.
The CAC-recommended site was approved, and the city of Logan is moving forward with purchasing property and permitting the site. Some residents still are not pleased with the decision, yet they acknowledge that the study was unbiased and they were treated fairly. The county also is willing to quell residents' concerns by developing additional water resources to be shared with the landfill, a shared fire station or have the landfill maintain local roads during winter.
The combination of industry experts, USU staff, technology and community dialogue helped lead to a successful landfill siting. “The study design was the key to the success of this project, and the public committees were especially valuable,” says Logan Environmental Director Issa Hamud. “Because the Citizens Advisory Committee set policy and buffered the citizens concerns, technical staff's efforts could focus on the facts and information for the project.”
Ann Getz Zimmerman is owner of AZA Planning and Public Involvement, Herber City, Utah. Terry Warner is a civil engineer for HDR's Salt Lake City office. For more information on the siting study, visit www.landfillsitingstudy.com.