Pay as you waste, says EPA

It's a new world for rural trash

  • Old appliances and tires separated for scrounging, Saguache County Landfill

  • Waste collage

    Diane Sylvain
  • The Saguache, Colorado, county landfill below the Sangre de Cristo Range


SALIDA , Colo. "Although the sun shines intensely and the sky is clear, the brutal wind ripping across the northern San Luis Valley makes the day anything but pleasant.

Ernie Dundridge grimaces for an instant as he zips his coat and steps out of the heated gatehouse at the Saguache County Landfill to greet a pickup that just stopped outside. The driver is a regular customer who knows the drill, so he waves her on.

Before he can return to the comfort of the tiny gatehouse, another pickup arrives. This driver is a rookie; Dundridge follows him to the recycling bins and explains what goes where. While they're tossing brown glass in one bin and clear glass in another, a man pulls up to examine the collection of old appliances.

Tape measure and old washing machine part in chilled hands, he's looking for a drive pulley to replace the one that cracked. Another empty truck, a mud-splattered five-ton stake-bed with stock racks, backs up to the pile of old tires. It's a rancher from Villa Grove who's building a bull pen, and he's figured out a way to do it with free materials, mostly bald tires from the county dump.

So it goes on a winter afternoon at a landfill which offers the traditional challenge for rural scrounge artists: making a dump run and coming back with less than you took.

It's fairly easy to come home from the dump empty these days, what with all the "NO SCAVENGING" signs that discourage voluntary informal recycling. But there's another big challenge for rural residents - paying for the trip to the dump. The pickup load of refuse that used to be a free deposit at the local landfill can now eat up a $20 bill as the rural West adapts to new federal regulations which take effect April 9.

EPA rules

Understanding the new federal regulations means dealing with initials. There's RCRA, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, a federal law which has a Subtitle D that allows the federal government to regulate the handling of MSW - Municipal Solid Waste. Think of municipal waste as the trash from households and small businesses, as opposed to industrial residues or sewage sludge.

Under RCRA Subtitle D, the Environmental Protection Agency sets minimum standards for landfills. States, in turn, adopt regulations so that the standards are met by landfill operators, which can be either private companies or public entities. Local government enters the picture because, in the rural West, landfills are often run by county governments. Low population density means trash is a money-loser for private enterprise.

A full understanding of the new federal rules probably requires a law degree, a civil engineer's license and a doctorate in hydrology. But in essence, the EPA wants to keep regular landfills from leaking and turning into Superfund sites. Toxic materials could seep downward into the groundwater below the landfill, spread through the aquifer and pollute wells and springs.

To forestall that, any landfill accepting trash after April 9, 1994, must be lined with plastic and a layer of packed clay. Just above this liner, pipes are laid to collect the liquid (leachate) that percolates down. The pipes are part of a plumbing system that pumps up the leachate so that it can go to a sewage treatment plant.

Since there's no guarantee that a landfill liner will remain impermeable for eternity, the operator is also required to drill monitoring wells around the landfill. Water samples are brought up at regular intervals and tested for the presence of various toxic organic and metallic compounds. If these show up in the test wells, the landfill operator has to take corrective action.

To meet these new regulations, rural counties are taking one of five approaches:

1) Getting out of the waste business entirely, and having private companies collect waste and dispose of it.

2) Getting out of the dump business, but staying in the trash business. In that case, local rubbish goes to a transfer station operated by the county, and from there to a distant landfill.

3) Closing the old dump or dumps, meanwhile designing and operating a new dump for locals that meets regulations while promoting, to varying degrees, recycling and waste-stream reduction.

4) Joining with nearby counties in a solid-waste disposal district to operate one state-of-the-art landfill which collects from scattered transfer stations in convenient locations.

5) Cooperating with a big city like Los Angeles or Seattle that needs a dump, and turning it into a local industry that provides a few jobs - often for lawyers, since such proposals can inspire spirited local opposition.

Rising rates

In most cases, any of these responses results in a big increase in trash-disposal fees. The refuse that I once dumped free in Chaffee County, Colo., now costs $6.50 a cubic yard - about $30 for a heaping pickup load.

Frank Thomas, the county administrator, says it used to cost about $3 to handle a cubic yard of household waste. That meant, to run over it a few times with a bulldozer to shred and compress it, and then cover it with a layer of dirt at the end of the day. The money came from the county's general fund and there were no "tip fees" at the landfill.

Chaffee County couldn't raise local taxes enough to recover the expense of building a new landfill to meet the regulations, and of operating it with the monitoring wells and the like. Thus the tip fees.

Although the precise numbers vary, the trend - an approximate doubling of the cost of handling a cubic yard of trash - seems pretty typical throughout the West. Costs go up even more if the trash has to be hauled any considerable distance to the landfill. A lot more trash also ends up littering the road.

Of approximately 600 landfills operating in the West a few years ago, about half have closed recently, or will close next month.


If the new EPA regulations were designed to prevent groundwater contamination, and there wasn't a problem with groundwater contamination from dumps that handled only household waste, do the new rules represent expensive regulatory overkill for sparsely populated counties in arid territory?

The EPA thought so when it issued the draft regulations in 1992. There was an exemption from the monitoring requirement, and much of the West qualified: less than 20 tons a day, less than 25 inches of rain a year, no other disposal system nearby, and no evidence of earlier groundwater contamination.

For once, county officials were almost pleased with the EPA. Its rules recognized that not all of America was populated and humid with a high water table, and that a landfill in Wyoming didn't have to be run the same way as one in Ohio.

But in 1992, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) took EPA to court, charging that the rural exemption violated the intent of Congress when it passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The District of Columbia Appeals Court agreed with the environmental group on that charge. RCRA requires groundwater monitoring "as necessary to detect groundwater contamination."

You can't detect it unless you monitor it, explained Jim Simon, NRDC senior attorney in New York, "and so the monitoring wells are necessary unless you can prove that there's absolutely no chance that a landfill could affect groundwater."

The group's position, Simon said, is that small communities in arid areas deserve the same level of protection as any other communities, and that the proposed EPA exemptions were not based on good science.

Simon said there are many factors which might determine whether a landfill will contaminate groundwater: size, climate, geology, type of waste, topography, etc. "We asked the EPA if it could identify any single factor, or combination of factors, which will predict whether contamination will occur. The EPA could not."

Nonetheless, he said, "the EPA had an exemption based on two factors - size and aridity - even though the EPA admitted that there is no way to predict, based on those factors, whether a landfill will pollute. A small landfill in an arid area can pollute, and the only way to be sure it does not is with monitoring wells."

Thus the exemption for rural counties in dry climates vanished in a federal court decision. All they got out of it was a six-month extension on compliance, from Oct. 9, 1993, to April 9, 1994.

Good science?

Perhaps the EPA wasn't basing its exemption on good science, but when it comes to trash, it's a lot easier to find guesswork and mythology than good science.

Start with household waste, which seems pretty benign in comparison to industrial waste. Kitchen scraps, torn clothes and old newspapers certainly aren't toxic. But common household substances like nail polish, oven cleaner and paint thinner are toxic materials that can pollute groundwater.

According to the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, about 1 percent of all household garbage is hazardous waste. That may not sound like much, but it adds up quickly. The average American generates about four pounds of trash a day. A county with 10,000 people produces 73 tons of toxic waste every year, even if it doesn't boast a single industry.

On the other hand, if there are problems resulting from landfills in the West that handle only household waste, they aren't big problems. State officials mention a few suspicious places, but nothing catastrophic. That could be because those toxic chemicals are basically harmless if they stay in place and don't leak outside the landfill.

The Garbage Project found that most such chemicals do stay in place. If they leave their container, they attach to nearby dirt or debris, and aren't likely to even reach the leachate collection system, let alone escape from the liner to be detected by the monitoring wells, which will be in operation during the landfill's active life and for 30 years thereafter.

The groundwater monitoring sounds like a good way to catch little problems before they turn into big problems, but in many respects hydrology - the study of water in motion - is more an art than a science, especially when it comes to subsurface water.

So says Gene Rush of Salida, who recently retired from the U.S. Geological Survey after a career as a hydrologist.

"You can never be sure of the lateral flow rate of groundwater," he explained. "Assume that the liner was breached, and toxic compounds leached down below the landfill. It might be years before that contaminated water reached the nearest well and you knew you had a problem. But then, it could be a big problem, and it would be too late to do anything about it."

Rush recalled a big federal study in the Phoenix area some years ago, "where they applied all the formulas to predict the status of the region's groundwater in 20 years. And 20 years later, the predictions were off by an order of magnitude. Often, that's as close as you can get in hydrology."

So there's a question whether expensive monitoring wells can detect leakage in time to make any difference. There's no scientific analysis which can tell us whether a county might better protect its environment by putting scarce tax money into a recycling program rather than into monitoring wells for substances that might never reach the water table.

If monitoring wells are indeed necessary, why only on landfills operating after April 9, 1994? The West has thousands of potentially toxic dumps, many dating to the days when dead mules, empty cans, mercury amalgamates and cyanide residues were casually tossed into the nearest gulch - and most of those sites won't be monitored.

Trash is less a scientific issue than a political, financial and legal question. There isn't much good science, and what there is doesn't provide sufficient answers for most of the questions society needs to ask.

Personal hygiene

For the past year or two, as counties complied with the new regulations, trash dumping fees have been on the rise. Given the traditional culture of the rural West - rugged individualism and minimal social responsibility - this could mean a big increase in illegal dumping, either along roads or on public lands.

Checking every county and every ranger district from Idaho to New Mexico is an impossibility, but a local survey revealed a pleasant surprise: Nobody's seen any substantial increase in illegal dumping since landfill fees began rising.

Ann Ewing, forestry technician in the Salida Ranger District of southwestern Colorado, said the main problem since local rates went up is that "people with summer homes use the campground Dumpsters. We've found mattresses, tires, toilet seats, grass clippings."

When they're caught, usually by a campground host, "we explain the rules, and so far, they've been cooperative."

The local Trout Unlimited chapter has adopted 11 miles of highway for semi-annual cleaning, and its volunteers report no perceptible increase in roadside trash. Much the same was true in the Leadville and Fairplay ranger districts of Colorado, although the rangers thought there might be more dumping of trash down old mine shafts.

The Canon City BLM office administers the entire eastern slope of Colorado, and there, Dave Hallock said he was "kind of surprised there hasn't been more illegal dumping after rates went up. I was real concerned that it would happen along the back roads."

The BLM did increase patrols. "We'd watch for people with truckloads of trash and then follow them," Hallock said, "just to see where they were going. That might have discouraged people who otherwise might have made a habit of it."

Forest rangers say that dumping cases are hard to prosecute; it isn't like Alice's Restaurant.

First the rangers must identify the source of the trash, and then prove that a specific person dumped it. Unless there's a witness, the usual excuse is that "we hired this kid to clean the shed, and we told him to take the trash to the dump. How were we to know he just kept the money and dumped the trash out in the woods?"

One ranger, Chuck Dunsee in Fairplay, carries rubber gloves, and when he finds a bag of trash, he will sort through the used Pampers, looking for something with an address. "Two or three times a year, I can nail somebody."

Although other ranger districts generally just issue a warning, all of Dunsee's offenders go before the U.S. magistrate. The maximum penalty is a $5,000 fine and six months in prison; the usual penalty is a $75 fine and an order to clean up the mess.

Some informal enforcement also exists. When Trout Unlimited members were cleaning the roadside a couple of years ago, they found a big pile of household waste, complete with addressed material. One angry angler loaded his pickup with the trash, hauled it to the offender's home, and dumped it in the front yard.

That was before the rates went up; by all accounts, the rising landfill fees haven't caused any meaningful increase in dumping along highways or on public lands.

A community institution

County landfills don't usually inspire good feelings, but the Saguache facility, which sits eight miles north of town in south-central Colorado, is an understandable exception.

Nobody has figured out how to recycle mattresses, slick magazines, and light bulbs, but Saguache handles just about everything else: paper, cardboard, clear glass, brown glass, green glass, aluminum, tin cans, batteries, motor oil. Yard wastes go into a compost pile, and dead animals go to an alligator farm.

Re-use - that is, scrounging - is encouraged just as much as recycling. There's a wood pile to feed stoves. There's also a row of old appliances and bicycles to provide spare parts to keep others running, and sometimes there are even working machines.

Old tires are a major problem at most landfills, but people haul them away from Saguache. There was the Villa Grove rancher building a bull pen, and old tires adorn the top of most mobile homes in the San Luis Valley because their weight keeps the strong winds from ripping off aluminum roofs.

Old tires, as well as used cinder blocks, bricks and the like, sometimes go into innovative houses. Saguache County doesn't have a building code, and over by the town of Crestone, a lot of modern pioneers seem willing to experiment with offbeat building materials when the price is right.

To encourage people to use the landfill, tip fees for county residents are low. A pickup load is $1.50, and if you bring in anything ready for recycling, you get a 50 cent discount. If all your load can be recycled (that is, if it's all sorted, cleaned, and bundled), there's no tip fee.

Although there is some income from recycling - about $100 a month - and from tip fees, the Saguache Landfill is nowhere near self-supporting. Brad Jones, county administrator, estimates the annual subsidy from general county funds at about $5 a resident, in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year. "And that doesn't include depreciation for capital equipment."

Ellen Cox, county recycling coordinator, says that 1993 was the first year they kept good records since the opening of the new landfill in 1990. The goal was to divert 20 percent of the material that would normally get buried in a landfill, "and we're well over that." In loads from Crestone, she noted, more than 80 percent goes to recycling, rather than the landfill.

This doesn't just happen, she pointed out. "We work with service clubs to place recycling bins in towns, and we even run school field trips. We've got a lot of community involvement, and we're always looking for ways to increase it."

So while Moab, Utah, might boast of having the most scenic dump in America, "We're trying to run the best rural landfill in America, and I think we're getting there," Cox said. "It's a community institution, and people are starting to brag on it a little."

As well they should. Saguache County has been losing population and is one of the poorest counties in Colorado, but it runs a landfill that both serves the community in every possible way and meets all state and federal regulations. Officials from other Colorado counties have toured the Saguache Landfill, and one, Custer County, will use it as the model for a new landfill that opens this spring.

Could Saguache be a model for the rest of the West? Only when people start paying as much attention to their trash as to their food or television reception. Most of us, alas, find it easier to fill the Hefty bag and then complain about rising rates and tighter regulations.

Free-lance writier Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colorado, and is editor of Colorado Central, a new regional monthly magazine.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Washington county splits in half over proposed dump

- State-by-state trash

- Federal land managers put up no-dumping signs

- A guide to some trashy reading matter

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