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Special Report: Landfills

Piling High

Article-Piling High

How tall should a landfill be allowed to grow?

One of the best things landfills have going for them is that when they run out of cells to fill out, they have another direction they can expand: up. Height increases are a great way to increase the capacity of a landfill without extending its footprint or running across parcel lines. But developers should keep the issue of height in mind when dealing with the general public. It can cut both ways, either helping or hurting a project, and savvy operators should take that into account in the permitting process.

Height is taking center stage in northeastern Pennsylvania, where the Keystone Sanitary Landfill—already tall at 255 ft.—is seeking an allowance to rise another 220 ft., for a total height of 475 ft. This proposal is necessary to extend the life of the landfill, which only has about nine years of capacity remaining. The expansion would add about 50 more years to the life of the landfill, according to the Scranton Times-Tribune, which is reporting on this fight.

As is often the case, residents opposed to the Keystone landfill are seizing on this issue to put an end to a facility they detest regardless of height. They’re speaking out against the vivid notion of a “mountain” of trash, which can be a compelling argument to folks worried that the natural beauty of their area will be spoiled.

The operators of Keystone will have to make the case to the public and to regulatory agencies like Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection that this height request is a fair one. The Keystone people have already taken a good first step in commissioning CECO Associates, a consulting firm, to create renderings of how the heightened landfill would appear from a variety of vantage points. By demonstrating to residents what their views will actually look like, they will have a strong counterpoint to the worst exaggerations of NIMBYs.

Keystone also has a strong economic track record that it can fall back on in its fight. Most landfills aren’t able to boast of employing 140 locals, as Keystone can, and its management should not hesitate to call upon these individuals at public hearings and forums. (While NIMBYs often pack a room, 140 employees can tilt a crowd in the other direction.) It also pays its two host communities, Dunmore and Throop, 41 cents and $2.02 per ton of waste stored there, respectively—generous figures that should be quantified and presented to residents as a proportion of the municipalities’ education or public safety budgets.

Regardless of how the fight over Keystone Sanitary Landfill ends up, those in the waste industry should be thinking about the height of their landfills and what implications that can have for potential NIMBY battles. On the one hand, a landfill’s owner needs to be conscious of the area’s “skyline” and the effect that a particularly tall landfill would have on views from a variety of common vantage points throughout the surrounding community. In these cases, it may be better to present to the local zoning authority a flatter, longer landfill proposal than what might be otherwise preferable, in order to head off a touchy point of contention.

But height can work in a developer’s favor as well. Building up—as opposed to building across—can diminish a landfill’s footprint, minimize abutters directly bordering the facility, and avoid environmental flash points like streams and rivers. Under ideal circumstances, developers can engage in a conversation with realistic neighbors about whether their preference would be for a taller, narrower facility or a shorter, wider one. Compromises like that between the industry and residents help defuse NIMBY anger and make regulators and permitting authorities very happy. 

Darden H. Copeland is the managing director of the Calvert Street Group, a public affairs consulting firm focused on state and local affairs, land use and development and grassroots lobbying.

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