Honor Thy Neighbor

Imagine someone saying, “My neighbor is a landfill and a nice addition to the community.” Are you kidding? How can this be?

Well, start with a few of your own personal experiences. A good neighbor is someone who is honest and who you can get to know, who looks out for you and your family, and who does not harm your property.

What makes a bad neighbor? Again, think about your life experiences: noisy parties, loud engines such as those on a motorcycle or a four-wheeler, barking dogs, smoldering burn barrels, litter, a lack of visual screening, encroachments on your space. The list goes on.

As a landfill owner and/or operator, you start at a distinct disadvantage — almost everybody in society needs you, but nobody wants you. And frankly, landfills have issues such as truck traffic, odors, litter and noise.

Therefore, a landfill operator needs to be courteous and communicative, acknowledge neighbors' concerns and issues, and then do something to address them. This needs to be done at the local level. Taking action at the corporate level only is not effective. It's the landfill team that will win hearts and minds and build trust among its neighbors.

Reach Out

To get to know your neighbors, develop outreach programs. Typical programs include education efforts at community meetings or public presentations. But, also consider creative outreach activities such as an annual, landfill-hosted barbecue; door-to-door meet-and-greet efforts; or a Thanksgiving turkey giveaway.

Veolia operates in one community that was in need of a police firing range and another that was looking for youth hunting and fishing grounds. To accommodate these needs, the company proposed the use of some landfill buffer properties. The firm also worked with neighboring farmers, allowing extra feed to be stored in landfill buildings. At the Glacier Ridge Landfill in Horicon, Wis., Veolia worked with a state conservation group to store agriculture equipment and seeds for wildlife food plots.

Other neighbors have appreciated environmental improvements such as prairie plantings, fish rearing facilities and Boy Scout gathering places. As part of a reforestation project, a local Boy Scout troop plants on one of Veolia's landfill properties. And the company is working with the local trout fishing organization to build a trout rearing raceway and initiate a youth fishery education program at the Greentree Landfill in Kersey, Pa.

Several of the company's landfills also sponsor litter pickup programs, which allow supervised youth groups or area non-profit organizations to come to the properties and get paid for their work. The groups also become educated about how solid waste is managed.

Some landfills even provide in-kind services for the local community. The Greentree Landfill provides free snow plowing services for its neighbors, and the staff of the Emerald Park Landfill in Muskego, Wis., routinely mows the lawn for an elderly neighbor.

All of these activities encourage interaction between a landfill staff and its neighbors, and they also set the stage for open and honest communication between the parties.

They've Got Issues

Every landfill has its own set of circumstances, such as number of neighbors, haul routes, waste types and loading rates. Some landfill neighborhoods are very rural, while others may be heavily populated. These attributes affect how a neighborhood gets along with a landfill operator. Broadly speaking, these issues often involve environmental protection, property devaluation, odor, litter, noise, truck traffic, dust and/or aesthetics.

Open a dialogue with your neighbors about these issues and explain what is being done to address them. Presentations on the science and engineering involved in modern-day landfills typically can lessen concern about the majority of these issues.

Science-based information is available from reliable, third-party sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, colleges and universities, research organizations such as the Environmental Research and Education Foundation and state regulators.

Some neighbors may never accept the science of landfills, however, and a landfill operator needs to accept their position. One of the better comments a landfill operator can receive is to have a neighbor say, “I understand a landfill operator's position based on the science, but I am still opposed to a neighboring landfill.” Now you know where you stand.

Hopefully, if you've put in the time to get to know your neighbors, they will feel comfortable enough to call you directly when they have a concern. At that point, you can work directly with the neighbor to investigate the situation, remediate it, if necessary, and demonstrate to the neighbor the steps that have been taken to improve the situation. A good landfill operator will work to alert neighbors ahead of time and explain what will be done to ease concerns.

A neighbor near the Rolling Hills Landfill in Buffalo, Minn., could not tolerate the backup alarm noises from the landfill equipment. These are required safety devices that cannot be eliminated.

To help alleviate the tension, the company demonstrated how the landfill alarm noise levels were lower than that of motorcycle or truck traffic. Still, the neighbor considered these other noises to be tolerable, but not the landfill backup alarms.

To resolve the situation, an additional vegetative buffer was installed at both the landfill and in the neighborhood. This resolved the situation, and also developed trust between the neighbor and the landfill.

At another site, a neighbor was only bothered by noise during the very warm humid months when his bedroom windows were open. Veolia worked with the person to have air conditioning installed in his home.

Residents in Hilbert, Wis., were concerned about maintenance of the roads leading up to the Hickory Meadows Landfill. To resolve it, the landfill manager worked closely with the local roads department and reached an agreement to share the maintenance costs.

Other landfills have experienced concerns over surface water drainage. The solution has been to work with local drainage districts to create additional storage capacity and wetlands. These mutually beneficial scenarios were achieved by establishing working relationships between the landfill and the community.

A Comfortable Co-Existence

There are worse neighbors than landfills. In fact, a landfill can be a great neighbor. It just takes communication, trust and a willingness to work with the surrounding community.

Todd Watermolen is vice president, engineering and compliance, for Veolia ES Solid Waste Inc.