On a windy, winter day in the desert, flocks of birds might appear in the sky over the Apex Regional Landfill in Las Vegas. Up there circling with the birds might be puffed-out plastic grocery bags, which tend to take off like birds when a strong breeze kicks up. The winds whip up plenty of dust and, occasionally, odors.
Owned by Phoenix-based Republic Services, the 2,200-acre Apex facility ranks as one of the nation's largest landfills. Like landfill operators across the country, General Manager Mark Clinker spends a substantial amount of time dealing with nuisances like dust, odors, wind and birds. Landfill owners must take these problems seriously, however, as they not only affect workers but a site's relationship with the surrounding community.
The Dusty Desert
Because of its proximity to Las Vegas, Apex must comply with strict air-quality regulations — the facility can be fined if it doesn't control dust, which is abundant in the Nevada desert. Winds regularly whip up dust, while a private limestone mining operation on Apex property generates its own dust.
Managing dust requires water. "We use about 150 million gallons of water per year to control dust," Clinker says.
Gravel roads also release dust when trucks roll across them. To deal with that, Apex has paved five miles of its main roads.
Apex road crews also keep the landfill's secondary roads covered with road millings or grindings. "Grindings are more durable than gravel and less expensive," Clinker says. "This is an effective way to control dust on unpaved roads."
Conversely, Tim O'Donnell, a Republic Services general manager who oversees two landfills and two transfer stations in central and eastern Pennsylvania, must deal with the nuisance of mud. The mud can get so thick after a hard rain that O'Donnell has installed on-site tire washes so that trucks don't track mud onto the local roads. O'Donnell also notes that landfill operators in the area will even sweep the local roadways during particularly muddy periods.
What's That Smell?
"Garbage smells," Clinker says with a wry smile. "The working face will produce odors. That's part of the landfill business. Here, we're lucky enough to have 2,200 acres, and the odors tend to dissipate before crossing the property line."
Still, Clinker spends time dealing with odors that might affect people working on the site, such as the 300 to 400 truck drivers that make their way in and out of the landfill each day as well as the employees of the mining operation and the landfill.
"Managing the gas collection system properly is the key to managing landfill odors," Clinker says. "We regularly do odor surveys to locate odors. Sometimes the odors are mild and won't bother anyone. For bothersome odors, we'll use neutralizers to polish the air."
When it rains — not a major concern in the desert — Clinker says he uses neutralizer on garbage spilled from trucks traveling the facility's roads to eat the bacteria that causes odors.
More recently, Clinker began to recycle cardboard and other paper products that absorb odors from the waste instead of placing them in the landfill. "As we have gotten better at recycling, we have reduced the volume of materials that absorb odors," he says.
Back in Pennsylvania, O'Donnell says that controlling odors requires a multifaceted approach that includes the daily cover and final cap, a methane collection system and recycling. "Deodorizers and neutralizers have a place," he says, "but you can't effectively control odor with just deodorizers and neutralizers."
O'Donnell's facilities conduct daily odor surveys and provide surrounding communities with a 24-hour odor hotline. "No landfill can succeed today without a comprehensive odor control program that includes feedback from neighbors," he says.
Blowing In The Wind
Most landfills must deal with wind blown trash. In the Nevada desert, the winds don't just blow, they roar with the strength of tropical storms.
At Apex, the wind speed reaches 60 miles per hour and whips up enough trash to keep a seven-person litter crew busy. "They patrol for litter and install litter fences," Clinker says.
Apex has a total of 2,000 feet of portable fences. The fences are in 100 sections, each about 20 feet long and 15 feet high. The crew sets up the fences along the working face in the hopes of trapping blowing trash before it gets too far.
According to Clinker, Republic Services mandates three layers of fencing between the working face and the property line. The portable fencing forms the first layer near the working face. The second layer of is set up about 1,000 feet away from the working face. The third fence is at the property line.
The fences trap a lot of trash, and the litter crew drives along the fences and vacuums up the litter. Under Clinker's direction, the crew recently started separating plastic and metal containers and paper and recycling the materials.
"The biggest challenge is plastic grocery bags," Clinker says. "They take off and fly as high as 200 feet — they look like birds up there."
Birds probably rank as the most annoying of all landfill nuisances. Mercifully, their visits are seasonal. "We spend a couple of months a year dealing with birds," Clinker says. "Sea gulls, starlings and crows usually show up in the late winter and early spring."
Birds are irritatingly smart. "You have to use more than one tactic to control birds," Clinker says. "You can scare them away by firing a starter's pistol. After a while, they will get used to the sound and ignore it."
Clinker uses a number of tactics. His crew has built a unit that uses helium balloons to fly up into the flocks of circling birds. A flapping kite attached to the unit startles the birds, and they fly away. The kite also has reflective tape that glares in the sun. The birds don't like that.
"We regularly fire a loud propane cannon and starter pistols with blanks," Clinker says. "And we're building a portable lighting system on a small trailer. It will have a 30-foot tall mast with light bulbs and balloons. You have to continue to aggravate them in several ways until they go somewhere else."
Another tactic is to seal off the food sources that the birds want. Cynthia Langston, solid waste director for the city of Casper, Wyo., has started bagging waste flowing into the city's landfill. "Since we started bagging, about 75 percent of our bird population has disappeared," she says.
Casper's solid waste department chose a bagging system made by EnviroBale, an Australian company that distributes products in North America through Accent Wire of Tomball, Texas. "Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality has approved this system as an alternative daily cover material," Langston says.
The system has gone a long way toward solving the Casper landfill's bird problem. It also prevents blowing litter, and has greatly reduced odor.
The Casper facility has a section that only accepts construction and demolition (C&D) refuse, which can't be bagged. "There is still some mixed waste in the C&D cell," Langston says. "Turkey vultures and coyotes occasionally dig a couple of feet down into the C&D cell looking for food. That stopped when we started mixing crushed glass in with the daily cover."
Langston also uses bird spikes to keep birds from perching on the baler building, where the waste arrives at the facility.
Still another technique for controlling birds is to scare the daylights out of them. At the High Acres landfill in Fairport, N.Y., Jeffrey Richardson, senior district manager with Waste Management of New York hired Falcon Environmental Services, Inc., a company that uses falconry to solve bird problems at landfills.
"Over the years, we've tried a number of tactics to control birds, but with little success," Richardson says. "We've tried stringing monofilaments to disrupt flight patterns. We've also tried pyrotechnics. Falcons are unquestionably the best bird-control measure we have employed to date. Our resident gull population has declined from more than 30,000 to fewer than 100."
The falcons also have dealt with other scavenger birds including turkey vultures.
Falcon Environmental Services breeds and trains the falcons to chase the birds away, not to harm them. The falcons show up daily at different times, Monday through Saturday, while taking Sundays off.
No one likes sacrificing time, labor and money to deal with nuisances like dust, wind, odors and birds when there is so much regular landfill work to do. But nuisances do merit some attention. Some, if not many, jurisdictions, spurred on by voters, have tightened regulatory enforcement of landfill nuisances in recent years.
"In Pennsylvania, we're seeing increased regulatory interest," O'Donnell says. "Historically, the regulatory provisions haven't been enforced. But that is changing."
In light of potentially increased regulatory scrutiny, landfill operators might find that reviewing and refining nuisance control measures will protect against fines and other penalties while improving the facility's image in the community. Of course, the converse is true as well: uncontrolled landfill nuisances can turn a landfill into a community nuisance.
Michael Fickes is a Westminster, Md.-based contributing writer.