Compost controversy clouds recycling efforts

Intervale Center plans to halt existing operation

April 3, 2008

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

When opposition to a landfill erupted, Tom Moreau was already looking for other ways to handle Chittenden County's waste.

Moreau, general manager of the Chittenden Solid Waste District, long understood that the size and cost of the landfill being considered in Williston would be reduced if more trash was reused, recycled or otherwise diverted.

But now, instead of mulling waste reduction, Moreau is trying to stop a flood of new waste flowing into landfills elsewhere in the state.

State regulators say Vermont's largest composting operation, the Intervale Center in Burlington, violated environmental protection rules. The center, which processes almost 20,000 tons of food scraps, non-recyclable paper and other material, said it wants to stop composting, which could mean CSWD has to handle more waste.

"I needed the Intervale compost thing like I needed a shot in the head," Moreau said. "This issue did not come at the right time for us."

Chittenden Solid Waste District, headquartered in Williston, operates and contracts with private companies to run transfer stations, drop-off centers and material reuse facilities where residents and their haulers take their trash.

CSWD, which is responsible for handling all the county's waste, is currently considering a local landfill so refuse no longer has to be trucked to facilities outside the county.

But the long-planned landfill has over the past couple of years generated opposition. A lawsuit has been filed seeking to overturn a 1992 agreement between the town of Williston and CSWD that allows a landfill to be located here. Anti-landfill groups have formed.

Into this already clouded waste disposal picture stepped state regulators, who accused the nonprofit Intervale Center in Burlington of failing to obtain a required Act 250 land-use permit.

The Intervale Center wants out of the composting business because it would be too expensive to conduct the archeological studies needed to get the permit, said Don McCormick, the organization's associate director. The center instead plans to focus on other parts of the operation.

The nonprofit is still accepting compost, but perhaps not for much longer. CSWD would then have to decide what to do with tons of discarded food waste and other material that is now turned into high-priced fertilizer.

Composting and critics

The compost controversy comes as the waste district faces opposition to a planned landfill on Redmond Road in Williston. Critics say it is not needed, arguing the district should instead put more money and energy into efforts to divert waste, such as recycling and composting.

Williston resident Craig Abrahams, vice president of VOCAL, Vermont Organized Communities Against Landfills, said state law requires the waste district to reduce waste before employing landfills. Abrahams asserted that the district has enjoyed annual surpluses of around $1 million and that money should have been used to divert and recycle waste, not buy land for a landfill. If recycling was a higher priority, he said, CSWD might already have an alternative to the Intervale Center's compost operation.

Moreau said surplus revenue has been set aside for long-term capital projects. He said the district has in that way avoided borrowing money and paying interest.

While acknowledging that part of the surplus – $4 million – was designated for the landfill land purchase, he said considerable money also has been plowed into initiatives to divert waste.

Moreau said until residents recycle 100 percent of what they use and funding is available for the technology to process it all, landfills will continue to be needed.

Recycling rundown

Residents and businesses already recycle some two-thirds of their cans, bottles and newspapers, according to CSWD. One goal is to up that percentage, Moreau said.

A bigger potential source of recycling is biodegradable organics, which includes items that can be composted. That type of refuse comprises 28 percent of all material the waste district sends to landfills.

But diverting even some of that waste from landfills won't be easy because of what is known in solid waste circles as the "yuck factor."

"If we're only getting 65 percent of recyclables, how are we going to get people to scrape spaghetti off their plates, put it in a fruit fly-infested bucket and take it down the street in their car?" Moreau said.

The Intervale Center's move away from composting now means that CSWD must find a place for tens of thousands of tons of additional waste. The operation accounts for 92 percent of the material composted in Vermont each year.

Moreau has proposed CSWD take over the composting operation, continuing in the Intervale as a stopgap measure. During a meeting last week, Moreau said, lawyers representing the Vermont Attorney General's Office and two state agencies indicated they might be willing to grant "transition time" on permits to allow the compost operation to continue without interruption.

While CSWD wants to continue recycling the waste, the location and method remains unclear.

In the long run, the district will likely process organic waste by using anaerobic or compost digesters, Moreau said. The technology, however, could cost millions and also comes with permitting issues.

If the district is unable to find a cost-effective, long-term solution, it is still possible material that is now composted in the Intervale could wind up in a landfill, Moreau said.

Back to the future

On Wednesday, the Intervale Center's governing board was slated to meet and possibly make a final decision on when it will quit the composting business, McCormick said. Results of the meeting were not available before press time.

The Chittenden Solid Waste District also faces decisions. Should it move the composting operation elsewhere? Should it stop composting and convert to some other technology to process that waste?

One thing seems clear: Large-scale composting is unlikely to take place in Williston. Last month, Mike Coates, Williston's representative on the CSWD board, asked the Williston Selectboard how it would feel about the town hosting a composting facility.

Coates said he only asked the question because a fellow board member raised the possibility. He said the idea was obviously impractical because it would bring a firestorm of opposition amid the ongoing landfill controversy and increase traffic on the town's already overburdened roads.

Selectboard member Judy Sassorossi had a curt reply to the query. "I don't think it would be appropriate," she said.

Though there was little discussion and no formal vote, Town Manager Rick McGuire said it was obvious that other board members were of a like mind.

"They were all shaking their heads the same way," McGuire said.

Trash totals

Here are the types of waste generated in Chittenden County but disposed of in landfills elsewhere. The numbers, which cover the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, exclude waste that is recycld or otherwise diverted.

Waste type                                     Tons/year             % of total            

Curbside recyclables                            22,437                        16.0            
Other recyclables                                 23,050                        16.4            
Biodegradable organics                       39,230                         28.0
Residue                                               55,633                         39.6

Source: Chittenden Solid Waste District