How much trash is too much?
Proposed landfill regulations spark debate over height
of piles, length of waste pipes
By Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published January 5th, 2005
Landfills could be getting bigger in Wisconsin.
New rules proposed by the state Department of Natural
Resources would allow operators to build landfills that
rise nearly 67% higher.
These and other measures are viewed by the DNR as a way
to keep landfills operating longer, and to put off the
inevitable and controversial task of finding new places
to build them.
But smaller landfills worry about added costs. Environmentalists
also say the rules embrace flawed technology that could
cause polluted groundwater.
Environmentalists complain as well that the DNR flip-flopped
last year on a key issue that would have provided more
money to care for landfills long after their dumping days
The rules are bound to affect southeastern Wisconsin
- the home of five municipal landfills.
One controversial change would let landfills use longer
pipes to carry away polluted landfill water called "leachate."
Pipes could have a maximum length of 2,000 feet - a 67%
increase over the current limit of 1,200 feet.
Factored in with other regulations, that means the tops
of landfills could rise from a maximum of 150 feet high
to 250 feet high - a prospect that environmentalists derisively
call "Mount Trashmores."
Another important change requires operators to come up
with plans to stabilize landfills more quickly. That means
landfills could recirculate leachate or add other liquids
to speed decomposition and reduce potential pollution.
Rules worry operators
In comments to the DNR, small-landfill operators worried
that the rules favored large landfills.
"By allowing landfills to grow larger, the proposed
rule permitting 2,000-foot leachate lines could have a
monumental negative impact on small municipal landfills,"
said Meleesa Johnson, solid waste administrator for Portage
Major landfill operators said they liked most of the
"If we don't allow landfills to get bigger at one
site, that would mean that we have more landfills,"
said Gerard Hamblin, regional engineer for Waste Management
Inc., the largest landfill operator in southeast Wisconsin.
"The question should be, 'How do we manage waste
in the best way?' "
That jibes with the thinking of the DNR.
"(These rules) draw us into a bigger policy question,"
said Al Shea, administrator of the Air and Waste Division.
"We are eventually going to run out of landfill space.
There are basically two options - either expand at existing
sites or develop new greenfield sites."
There are still years of space in landfills in southeastern
Wisconsin, according to the DNR. But new sites can take
years to be approved, and local opposition is virtually
The home of Barbara Witt of Menomonee Falls has a well
and is adjacent to Waste Management's Orchard Ridge landfill.
She lives with a transplanted kidney and has a suppressed
immune system. Witt plans to sell her house this year
because of the landfill and the odor, dust and constant
ebb and flow of gulls looking for a meal.
She is against extending leachate lines to 2,000 feet.
A bigger landfill, she says, means "a greater chance
of those lines clogging or breaking" and polluting
More waste could be trucked in
Another concern of environmentalists, and something that
the DNR agrees could happen, is that bigger landfills
might mean additional waste trucked in from outside of
Wisconsin law limits the ability of localities to veto
a landfill. In addition, Wisconsin's proximity to major
markets in northern Illinois and Minneapolis and St. Paul
could spur more trash into the state, the DNR says.
The new rules were proposed at the urging of Onyx Waste
Services Inc., a landfill operator, after the DNR placed
limits on the maximum length of leachate lines in 1996,
and landfills were forced to petition the agency for a
variance to lay down longer lines.
The lines are hardened plastic pipes - 6 inches in diameter
- and are buried in stone atop a high-density plastic
liner. Rainwater trickles through buried debris and picks
up pollutants along the way. Water is collected in the
spaces between the stone and in the perforated pipe and
is carried off the sloped site and into sewers.
The DNR had concerns that the lines - which can become
clogged - might not get properly cleaned out.
With newer technology and more experience by the industry
using the lines, the DNR thinks clogged pipes can be cleaned,
said Suzanne Bangert, director of the Bureau of Waste
Management at the DNR.
Until now, Wisconsin landfills have been designed as "basically
a bathtub," Bangert said. "If you get water
in it, you try to remove it and send it to a sewage treatment
The new rules could change that by allowing landfills
to recirculate the leachate. That would let organic material
in the trash decompose more quickly.
"We are now suggesting that the bathtub design is
a long-term liability," Bangert said. "That's
a pretty significant change."
Environmentalists oppose both longer leachate lines and
the process of sending water back to the landfill.
Regardless of what regulators and the industry say, technology
has not improved - longer lines are still subject to clogging,
said one opponent, Peter Anderson, president of RecycleWorlds
Consulting in Madison.
"It's not that someone had a eureka in the bathtub
and made things better," Anderson said.
Landfills, he said, always are said to be built with
"state of the art" technology, but some sites
eventually have problems. He noted the former Refuse Hideaway
Landfill in Middleton in Dane County, which operated from
1974 to 1988, needed government cleanup after volatile
organic compounds were found in monitoring wells.
As for adding leachate back to landfills, Anderson said
it would turn them into the "consistency of wetlands"
and make them more prone to collapse or failure.
The DNR rejects those claims. It also says that longer
lines are used in surrounding states.
As for the effect on smaller landfills, the DNR agreed
that some smaller landfills have closed in the past decade,
and others have banded into regional operations to economize.
Some say rules fall short
The rules also rankle environmentalists for what's not
After more than a year of meetings between the DNR and
the garbage industry and environmentalists, the agency
decided not to consider whether to establish a new way
to underwrite the cost of fixing a pollution problem at
a landfill 40 years after it shuts down.
Landfill operators are currently required to care for
a site forever. But the way regulations are written, their
responsibility is unclear if, 40years after a landfill
is closed, problems crop up and require remediation.
The DNR for a time considered language that would have
required new upfront payments by the landfills to cover
these problems. But officials dropped it last year and
put the matter off for now.
Environmentalists are embittered by that, and say the
DNR caved into industry demands.
The Sierra Club issued a news release last fall and said
that political appointees of the DNR overrode warnings
of the staff and capitulated to demands by landfill companies
to loosen regulations.
"The decision was pretty straightforward to me,"
said Shea, the air and waste regulator who signed off
on the rule.
There were many unanswered questions and industry officials
and environmentalists were divided on the payment issue,
said Shea, who was appointed by DNR Secretary Scott Hassett.
He also emphasized that state regulations on long-term
care of landfills were already stricter than federal law.
As for caving to industry or political pressure, Shea
said he never met with landfill representatives or environmental
groups on the matter, and no one above him at the agency
or the governor's office pressured him.
Added Lynn Morgan, a lobbyist and spokeswoman for Waste
"I would say that this allegation of political hanky-panky
is issued from the lofty and isolated peak of the Mount