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Buying Time, Selling Air

December 1, 1997

9 Min Read
Buying Time, Selling Air

Cheryl L. Dunson

When county officials christened the 169-acre Iredell County Balefill in Statesville, N.C., they never anticipated a mixed blessing of increased waste streams and a delayed permitting process. The result has been a monetary boon to county coffers and sleepless nights for Solid Waste Director Ron Weatherman.

Since the implementation of Sub-title D regulations in the early 1990s, the 14-year veteran of the solid waste industry admits he's encountered more regulatory challenges in the last four years than in his entire career.

"It seems like it all came at one time, too," Weatherman says. "From white goods and tires to new cap designs, it's been a struggle to keep on top of everything. We've just been run crazy with records on top of records. That's not to say [records] aren't good, but it hit us all at once, and we've got a lot on our plate."

The county's $9.3 million balefill has seen waste streams steadily climb from 450 tons per day (tpd) when it opened for business in 1992 to a current 600 tpd average.

Supported by a community of diverse industries, more than 60 percent of the county's waste stream is commercial and industrial. Tucked to the north of Charlotte and to the west of Winston-Salem, Iredell County appears to be an isolated island with a tight hold on its waste streams. But, Weatherman is ever mindful of the threat private landfills would pose to the county's lucrative market.

"Right now, we're not bothered with outside interests trying to take waste out of this county, but I don't see it staying that way forever," Weatherman says. "Private waste haulers are after this commodity called 'waste.' Everybody wants it because there's money involved and, in the absence of flow control, I know my situation could change tomorrow."

Weatherman believes if the county lost a fourth of its waste stream, the balefill could remain an economically viable disposal option for the area. "But, we must stay competitive with private operators," he notes. "Coupled with a state-mandated 40-percent waste reduction goal by 2010, it'll take innovation and delegation to stay competitive."

With a delay in his permitting process and increasing waste streams, Weatherman and his staff have been forced to get creative to extend the life of his existing cell. By reconfiguring the slopes and strategically placing loose waste in the cell instead of baled waste, Weatherman has bought more time for his county. But, the tension is building.

"We've worked well with the regulators and continue to get great inspections. But, we're waiting on a permit that's been into the state five months and here we are headed into winter," he says. "Our permitting process is too long. I'm not pointing fingers; I'm simply stating a fact."

Wondering aloud about the next five years, Weatherman says he anticipates regulatory hurdles with the design of closure caps. "In our state, it's still up in the air as to what caps to use. I'm not convinced that what we know now won't be the same in five years. I foresee it as a big hurdle - and a very expensive one."

Gold Coast Competition In the early 1990s, waste streams at the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Ore., were averaging approximately 4,000 tpd. Today, daily tonnages at the Waste Management Inc. (Oak Brook, Ill.) facility have grown to some 6,000 tpd. And, while the lucrative Gold Coast continues to reap a garbage harvest for Division President Norm Wietting and his landfill staff, competition is fast, furious and fickle.

"Probably the biggest issue we've been faced with is the renegotiation of two of our primary contracts with Portland Metro and the city of Seattle," Wietting recalls. "We actually bid them in 1989 and 1990, and both cities wanted to renegotiate them about a year and a half ago even though they were long-term contracts."

The catalyst for compromise was the advent and establishment of competing landfills owned by Rabanco, Bellevue, Wash., Tidewater, and USA Waste, Dallas, in the Portland-Seattle metropolitan area. Although 40 to 45 percent of Columbia Ridge's waste is delivered by rail from the Pacific Northwest, Northern Idaho and Vancouver, Portland Metro and the city of Seattle are the landfill's biggest customers.

"Back when we originally bid the contracts, everyone was scrambling for landfill space. Since then, there's been a fair amount developed which means there's more competition," Wietting says. "Four years ago, everyone was at the end of developing their sites and systems. Now, everyone's pretty much comfortable."

The result has been more disposal options for municipalities, prompting local officials to reevaluate their existing agreements and to demand that landfill owners fine-tune their prices.

Capping Competition and Slopes Since the formation of the Great River Regional Waste Authority in Ft. Madison, Iowa, in the late 1980s, two members have seceded from the union, more than half of its waste stream was lost to private haulers, and the authority's landfill management contractor has been fired.

A series of mistakes and misgivings have forced authority officials to streamline operations, secure guaranteed markets and creatively cap an over-designed and developed cell.

Originally intended to serve four counties with a projected waste stream of 70,000 tons per year (tpy), the authority was financially dependent on flow control ordinances to repay its $8.9 million investment which included two transfer stations, a material recovery facility and its Subtitle D Lee County Landfill. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled flow control unconstitutional in its 1995 Carbone decision, the authority's fully-integrated system began to unravel. Based on the court's decision, two of the authority members were free to choose cheaper disposal options, causing waste streams to plummet and financial woes to spiral.

Director Randy Hartmann inherited the authority three years ago when it was at the height of its problems. "We were spending in excess of $600,000 for recycling and our Bond Anticipation Note was coming due every year or two with the principal not being paid," he recalls. "We had this stranded investment being the first in the region to develop a Subtitle D landfill with a tipping fee that wasn't market competitive."

The landfill was at the crux of the problem since its tipping fee was funding all other services offered by the authority, and operational issues were crippling the facility's efficiency. Hartmann and his staff immediately went to work to revamp the program.

"We had to reduce the tipping fee and look for another way to pay for integrated services as well as look for a way to cut expenditures," he says. "We went on a hunt to streamline operations, beginning with the termination of the existing landfill operator's contract."

The authority's private operator had no landfill experience, and his waste filling sequencing was resulting in a massive generation rate of leachate and stormwater comingling. The landfill's first 22-acre cell was designed for 70,000 tpy, Hartmann says, which caused him to look at the facility with "raised eyebrows."

"We never saw volumes that high. We're currently averaging about 50,000 tons per year and have 12 years of developed capacity," he says. "So, essentially, we've got a 22-acre bathtub open to the elements and there's nowhere for water to go because of the landfill's configuration."

The authority's 1.5-million-gallon retention lagoon was unable to handle the 8 million gallons of leachate that the land- fill was generating annually. The authority was forced to truck and treat leachate to a nearby wastewater treatment facility at a cost of 2.5 cents per gallon.

Recognizing that he had to reduce the size of the cell to get his operational costs under control, Hartmann approached state regulators with an innovative leachate evapo-transpiration system consisting of seven acres of an interim cap planted with poplar trees. By recirculating leachate onto the cap, the trees serve several purposes. "They will act as a sponge and transporate more water into the atmosphere, and they'll eventually be harvested which will bring in income," he explains.

The trees are planted on 13-foot centers, enabling landfill employees to apply organic materials such as sludges between the rows which eventually becomes topsoil. "It should provide a mechanism for competitive fees for organic waste, and at the end of 12 years when we have to install a synthetic cap, we'll have six to eight feet of topsoil," Hartmann explains. "It's a win-win situation." With a golf course to the north of the landfill, he says the trees are excellent litter control and are aesthetically pleasing to neighbors.

Realizing that it had to secure waste streams in order to stay afloat, the authority began offering discounted tipping fees and guaranteed disposal capacity to members in return for waste delivery pledges. "One of the biggest fears we have is being able to attract waste to our facility," Hartmann says. "Just recently, one of our largest independent haulers was bought by a private company that owns a landfill. We're asking ourselves, 'Do we need to become vertically integrated and get in the collection business?' Up until now we've said, 'no.'"

Communicating - Trial and Error Communicating design and engineering theories to landfill personnel and actually seeing them implemented isn't always as simple as reading a blueprint. When Rob Burnette, vice president of engineering for Santek Environmental Inc., Cleveland, Tenn., joined the landfill management company five years ago, he soon learned consistent and effective communication with landfill personnel results in fine-tuned facilities and stronger, more pragmatic landfill designs.

Managing publicly-owned landfills across the Southeast, Santek structured its internal engineering company to be a help-mate to its managers. "By combining engineering and construction as part of daily operations, we're there as constant technical support," he says.

"Just because an engineer designs something and it's approved by state regulators doesn't always mean it's the most practical plan to implement."

Burnette's design of a stormwater flap and its reception by one his landfill managers is a good example of how critical communication can be in the field. On paper, the flap was designed to tie to the bottom liner and wrap over a dirt berm with no foreseeable problems.

In the field, however, synthetic liner incurs folds and creases, resulting in shortened length. "Going out into the field, I, as an engineer, got to hear the hands-on, mud-on-boots frustrations with my design, and the landfill manager got to hear my frustrations with his ability to construct the flap," Burnette recalls. "I was able to take his knowledge and input and make the engineering product better in the future."

Although personal pride often can override constructive criticism, Burnette says getting feedback from his landfill managers is crucial to the landfill's overall efficiency.

"As an engineer out of the consulting world, the first time I was told my design couldn't be done in the field, I was personally offended," he says. "But, I've learned that to be a responsible engineer whose goal is to assist landfill managers, I've got to have that kind of rapport in order to make my designs and drawings better. And, just as importantly, we've got to communicate for the overall betterment of the landfill."

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