Certified Improvement: Landfill Operators Make The Difference

As stringent regulations make operations more complex, landfill owners are taking a second look at landfill operator certification courses. Sending your most important employee off-site to attend the classes may be a minor inconvenience, but the benefits far outweigh the costs.

On a typical day, an operator at a 500-tons-per-day municipal sanitary landfill facility with 10 employees faces many situations that require the operator to be an experienced, competent individual capable of dealing with landfill employees and customers, government agencies, engineers and public and corporate management. Other responsibilities include knowledge of all aspects of landfill operating regulations, design, construction and daily operations, including time and financial management.

The Big Picture Not long ago, landfilling was a fairly simple operation. When a landfill was needed, most localities filled a valley or excavated trench with waste. The decision was guided by the cheapest and most convenient locations, with no consideration for physical characteristics or the potential for future environmental problems at the site.

Landfill operators had experience in public works departments or as heavy equipment operators. Public sector operators received little training for heavy equipment operation and maintenance.

Heavy equipment operators had a basic understanding of landfill equipment operations, but never were specifically trained for landfill management. Early operators also received minimal safety, environmental and regulatory training. Most operators had not been introduced to the engineering and technological issues associated with developing and properly operating a landfill.

In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set forth Sub-title D regulations to improve the safety of existing and future solid waste landfills that accept municipal solid waste. These regulations set standards for landfill location, design and operation and also required groundwater monitoring and corrective action for groundwater contamination. The regulations specify what must be done when a landfill permanently closes and how the owner or operator can provide assurances that the landfill can meet the costs of closure and post-closure care.

Landfill owners face a risk when their site is run by an uncertified operator who is not experienced or well-versed in all phases of construction, regulatory requirements and proper operational procedures. Hiring or training a certified operator can protect an owner's multi-million dollar landfill investment.

In addition, waste industry experts believe that the number of landfills will decrease over the next few years and the remaining ones will be larger and more complicated to operate. The newer landfills must have financial assurance mechanisms and environmental monitoring systems. As a result, operators will need to know how to effectively manage landfills with annual operating budgets of more than $1 million and 50- to 100-year life cycles.

The Certification Trend Many states are still developing their landfill operator certification examinations and regulations. In Virginia, for example, the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation and the Virginia Board for Waste Management Facility Operators began working with a testing company to develop a series of examinations to certify landfill operators. The goal of the certification program is to protect the public's safety, health and welfare, according to George Bridewell, a Department examination administrator.

"All current, interim-certified operators in Virginia were given an opportunity to respond to a job analysis survey outlining what was important in their facility operator positions," said Bridewell. Several waste management experts, including consulting engineers, Virginia Department of Environmental Quality employees, landfill owners and managers wrote questions for the multiple-choice exams.

Passing the test certifies operators as competent in the areas of regulations and enforcement, solid waste identification, sanitary landfill operations and management and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.

Specific Tasks When selecting an employee for operator training, the landfill owner should choose a person who demonstrates a high level of competence and knowledge of landfill operations. The landfill operator should understand and keep up with the facility's requirements such as groundwater and gas monitoring and hazardous waste screening.

According to Jeffrey Joyce, an interim certified landfill operator and president of Joyce Construction Management Inc., Richmond, Va., a good landfill operator "plans the activities for every day, week and month. He has taken into consideration all the possible problems that may arise. He has ordered and scheduled the arrival of materials to complete planned tasks for the week, and he has everything under control before it happens. No such luck!"

He adds that unplanned events in a typical day can include personnel problems, broken equipment, uncooperative weather, illegal dumping, pesky seagulls, creative budgeting, emergency management meetings and unexpected state inspections.

To meet the minimum EPA landfill operating regulations, the landfill operator must:

* Adopt procedures to detect and prevent the disposal of hazardous waste and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) waste;

* Apply at least six inches of earthen materials as daily cover;

* Take measures to prevent or control rodents, flies, mosquitoes or other animals or insects capable of transmitting disease to humans;

* Monitor methane gas concentrations and implement remediation activities when concentration limits are exceeded;

* Comply with State Implementation Plans (SIPs) under the Clean Air Act and with a general prohibition on open burning;

* Control public access to the landfill site and prevent illegal dumping;

* Control stormwater run-on, run-off and surface water pollutant discharges;

* Prohibit bulk or non-containerized liquid waste disposal except for household (non-septic) waste and leachate generated by a landfill operating with a specified composite liner and leachate collection system; and

* Create and maintain detailed, up-to-date operating records.

With a certified operator on site, the landfill is more likely to comply with state and federal regulations. In Virginia, for example, the Department of Environmental Quality requires 27 of 33 operating items to be covered during the course of a landfill inspection. Requirements include gas, leachate and stormwater management, groundwater and gas monitoring, routine compaction and covering of waste, waste screening, safety, and record keeping.

The landfill operator must be able to effectively communicate with inspectors, state and local officials and members of environmental and community groups.

Reaping The Benefits Measuring the effectiveness of landfill operator certification can be difficult, especially in states where operator training has not been required in the past and certification programs are still being developed. Minnesota's landfill operator certification program, which grew out of a wastewater treatment program, has been in place since 1982. The program consists of a written examination and mandatory continuing education every three years.

Minnesota has felt the benefits from 10 years of operator certification programs, the promulgation of Subtitle D and new state regulations, said Roberta Wirth, senior pollution control specialist at the state's Pollution Control Agency. Since 84 of Minnesota's 134 landfills have closed since 1983, attendance at the three-day certification course continues to grow and many operators now come from construction, demolition and debris landfills. As a result of the certification trend in Minnesota, the state is now considering a landfill operator program for composting.

The benefits of certification are as varied and numerous as the activities taking place at a landfill site every day. The operator who has been trained properly can become an integral part of a team of waste professionals made up of the operator, engineers, geologists, environmental scientists, accountants and lawyers working together to ensure that the landfill remains a safe, successful and profitable operation.