Local landfill: Does Vermont need it?

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Opponents to a 66-acre Chittenden County landfill planned for Williston have posed the question repeatedly: Does Vermont need it?

Solid waste officials agree the state’s landfills have capacity for about the next 15 to 20 years. That capacity may come at a cost, however, financially and environmentally, according to the landfill’s planners.

Vermont’s landfill capacity

Vermonters last year dumped into the state’s landfills in residential trash alone the equivalent of roughly 1,000 Boeing 747 jumbo jets, loaded with over 400 passengers and their luggage – more than 430,000 tons. Chittenden County was responsible for about one third of that.

Coventry and Moretown receives most of the state’s trash, as the homes of the state’s two major landfills, though a hefty one-third of Vermont’s total residential trash went out of state in 2004, according to the Waste Management Division of the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts landfills shared the bounty.

Williston boasts the only potential new Vermont landfill, according to state records. Two unlined landfills that can accommodate 1,000 tons a year operate in the towns of Bristol and Salibury; the solid waste districts in Hartland and Sheldon are permitted for landfills, but they are not planning to build anytime soon, according to the state.

If the current rate of state trash continues, and current permit applications are approved, both Coventry and Moretown are on tap to accommodate it for roughly the next two decades, according to their on-site managers.

Beyond that is anybody’s guess, they say. The Moretown landfill, owned by North East Waste Services, sits on 250 acres, according to general manager Tom Badowski, and at most 20 percent of that would be filled over the next two decades. Only 10 percent of the 1,000 acres Rutland-based Casella Waste Management Inc. owns at the Coventry landfill has been used or will be used in the next 20 years.

“I think there are always plans (to expand), but it’s not necessarily up to us because it’s so far in the future,” said Joseph Fusco, Casella Waste Management vice president for communications. “Suffice it to say there’s significant capacity for the state of Vermont for many years to come.”

The costs

Money is one factor the Chittenden Solid Waste District, the entity planning the landfill on Redmond Road in Williston, points to when explaining why a local, publicly owned landfill makes sense.

District estimates indicate a regional landfill in Williston – owned by the District, a nonprofit municipality – would cost consumers 25 percent less in fees alone. To have private companies collect, transfer and dispose of Chittenden County trash costs about $12.7 million a year, the District estimates. The local landfill would save about $3 million a year.

That doesn’t include the costs – financial and environmental – to Vermont roads and air. Diesel-fueled tractor-trailers haul each year the equivalent of 233 jumbo jets in weight to Coventry in the Northeast Kingdom, a 73-mile trip on mostly back roads. The remaining trash makes its way to Moretown, 35 miles away.

Local opponents have argued truck traffic will not change if Williston hosts a local landfill; they contend the for-profit landfill companies will just truck trash in from out of state to pay the bills. Landfill officials had two different responses.

“We like Chittenden County’s waste, but it’s not life or death for that facility by any stretch,” Casella’s Fusco said of the Coventry landfill. He said the company probably would not seek out-of-state trash. “There’s plenty of market opportunity, if you will, in the state of Vermont.”

Badowski at Moretown’s landfill said otherwise.

“We’re always looking to grow our business as any company does,” Badowski said. “If trash is taken away through the Chittenden Solid Waste District, inevitably we’d have to look other places to replace that.” In or out of state would be possible markets, he said.

Environmental protection

The cost of not building a local landfill may also come environmentally, says Tom Moreau, district manager for the Chittenden Solid Waste District.

Though both Coventry and Moretown landfills meet Vermont state standards, neither meet the stricter environmental regulations of New York state, Moreau said, but the Williston landfill comes much closer.

There are three primary differences between what is planned for Williston and the state’s current landfills, according to Moreau: a two-foot layer of clay, recirculation of leachate, and active gas collection systems. The two-foot layer of clay beneath the liner serves as extra insurance should the heavy plastic liners be punctured, Moreau said, offering added protection for groundwater.

Also the Williston landfill, instead of extracting leachate – or “garbage juice” – and taking it to a wastewater treatment plant, would re-circulate it within the landfill. This is important, Moreau said, because the U.S. does not have treatment standards for certain elements – like some pharmaceutical drugs, for example. Since they are not regulated, he said, they can be released into the Winooski River or lakes even though their effects are not known. Re-circulating leachate, on the other hand, allows those organic elements to break down and become inactive over time.

Finally, Moreau said, the Williston landfill would capture methane gases released from the decomposition of trash far more aggressively than what is done at Coventry or Moretown. This is better for Vermont’s air, he said.

Vermont state statutes require that municipalities assume responsibility for their own solid waste.

“If we’re going to be responsible for it… (and) if you can lower your risk by putting in more environmental controls, and it’s not going to cost more, wouldn’t you want to do it?” Moreau asked.

Raising the bar

Moreau said the solid waste district would have one less reason to pursue a local landfill if Vermont’s landfill regulations required Coventry and Moretown to add more environmental protection. That would require legislative action.

“Of course we would want to have the very best protection for our environment,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy committee. “I think it’s not a bad idea if we make the requirements stronger. The question is always what is the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the bottom line.”

The committee’s work schedule is tight for the upcoming legislative session, Lyons added; climate change and water oversight are big topics on the agenda.

Encouraging waste reduction would be easier under local control, Moreau said, since the nonprofit solid waste district has no financial incentive to ignore new waste reduction technologies that come along. Local control is possible through other avenues, however, like franchising, Moreau said; if the District allowed companies to bid for trash collection, it could maintain control over the trash, requiring new technologies to be used prior to landfilling.

Moreau said if those reasons were not issues, economics would be the primary remaining driver for the push for the local landfill.

“If it just came down to economics, I have no idea where this county would come down,” Moreau said.

Some in the county have already decided. The Williston Neighborhood Coalition, a resident organization formed to oppose the project, announced last week they have received the first of what they hope will be many funding grants. New England Grassroots Environmental Fund awarded the group $1,500.

Those funds, and any others, will be put toward one purpose, according to Craig Abrahams, one of the coalition’s founders: “To fight the landfill.”