“Sleeper” House bills address groundwater pollution from leaky landfills

By Gregory Nickerson
January 17, 2013

This week the House Minerals Committee approved two bills aimed at remediating landfills that contaminate groundwater in Wyoming.

The bills come after a six-year policy effort to monitor and clean up waste facilities that began under former Gov. Dave Freudenthal.

House Bill 65 would help fund groundwater remediation efforts at 11 high-priority landfills identified by the Department of Environmental Quality
House Bill 65 would help fund groundwater remediation efforts at 11 high-priority landfills identified by the Department of Environmental Quality. (Courtesy of Wyoming DEQ — click to view)

House Bill 65 would provide $40 million from the Permanent Mineral Trust Fund to address 11 top-priority landfills. Remediation costs are split 75 percent state/25 percent local, so communities have some “skin in the game.”

House Bill 66 provides $5 million for state loans to help small communities shut down leaking landfills and transfer waste to regional landfill sites.

Both bills will now be introduced to the House for debate.

Landfill remediation is a quiet issue that hasn’t caused much controversy because it’s long been a priority for both the legislature and the executive branch. Political support behind landfill remediation has translated into sizable appropriations from the state coffers in the past.

In 2006 the legislature started providing funds to reimburse communities for groundwater monitoring around landfills.

Then in 2011 the state set aside $15 million to clean up landfills, followed by an equal amount in 2012 for the 2013-2014 biennium.

Last November, Governor Mead’s supplemental budget recommended the state devote $15 million to fix landfills in fiscal year 2014. He also proposed another $20 million if funds become available from rebalancing of the state’s income portfolio.

“The Governor supports making sure the funding is provided in a flexible enough way to address a wide variety of concerns and problems associated with landfill remediation or closure and the transfer of solid waste,” said Renny MacKay, spokesman for Gov. Mead.

In total the bills passed since 2011 plus those under consideration could provide more than $85 million for landfill remediation.

The issue with landfills started generations ago, when engineers didn’t take much care to preserve groundwater quality. Since Wyoming is so dry, conventional wisdom said landfills wouldn’t leak.

Until the 1990s, the state was in denial that buried trash could leach out pollutants into groundwater. But monitoring wells showed otherwise, causing the Department of Environmental Quality to alert Gov. Freudenthal about the problem in 2003.

More recent monitoring efforts show that at least 69 landfills across Wyoming actively leak dozens of toxic chemicals.

Volatile compounds move underground by attaching to methane released by decaying garbage, said Carl Anderson, solid and hazardous waste administrator for the Department of Environmental Quality.

When the methane gas encounters groundwater, the pollutants leach out into aquifers, which in turn feed domestic wells and stock-watering facilities. That presents public health risks, Anderson said.

“This is one of the biggest sleeper environmental issues in the state,” said Shannon Anderson of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, who is no relation to Carl Anderson.

Starting in 2011 the DEQ established criteria for prioritizing solid waste facilities in need of cleanup, as laid out in statute 35-11-524. Using a scoring system they selected landfills with high numbers of pollutants above protection standards that also stood in close proximity to groundwater and residences.

The 11 highest-priority landfills identified for cleanup contained potentially toxic elements like arsenic, lead, selenium, and barium, along with chemicals like trichloroethene, benzene, and vinyl chloride.

The DEQ says cleaning up just the 11-top priority landfills would take 20 years and cost the state $31 million. A report on those costs is available here.

Possible methods for remediation include groundwater pump-and-treat systems, and barriers to control groundwater migration. Another option is digging up old landfills and hauling waste to a new lined landfill. Communities can also install landfill caps to prevent leaching problems.

The DEQ expects another 12 to 17 small landfills to close in the next 3-7 years. Costs for capping all those landfills could be as much as $40 million, plus another $17 million for waste transfer.

Carl Anderson said the DEQ estimates that a full remediation of known leaking landfills could cost $250 million dollars over a period of 20 years.

“This is a problem caused over generations and it’s inappropriate to dump that responsibility onto small municipalities,” said Rep. Mike Greear (R-Worland). “The state’s policy is we’re going to find money to remediate the problems.”

Greear serves on the House Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee and has been one of the leading legislators on this issue. He said he first learned about leaking landfills from Howard Johnson, an engineer with the Inberg-Miller firm that operates five offices around the state.

The state seems to have learned its lesson on the need to protect groundwater from landfill seepage. New solid waste facilities in Wyoming like those in Casper and Cody were built to standards that protect groundwater.

To learn more about landfill remediation, read the white paper published by DEQ last year.

Gregory Nickerson is the government and policy reporter for WyoFile. He writes the Capitol Beat blog. Contact him at greg@wyofile.com.

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Gregory Nickerson worked as government and policy reporter for WyoFile from 2012-2015. He studied history at the University of Wyoming. Follow Greg on Twitter at @GregNickersonWY and on www.facebook.com/GregoryNickersonWriter/

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  1. Greg- you might consider appending this article by looking into the situation here in Park County and immediately adjacent in Big Horn County. Park County was forced to spend a large amount of money — many millions—to line its landfill outside Cody. In order tor ecoup costs, other smaller landfills and transfer stations were closed so the trash could be trucked to Cody , and tipping fees of $ 90 / ton assessed for using it. No other choice except illegal dumping. Well, the City of Powell took umbrage at this and decided if they had to close their city pit ( they did ), they would ” shop around” for a new dump. And Lo!—the tiny town of Cowley just over the county line made them a heckuva deal, charging way less than the Conty tipping fees to dispose of Powell’s municipal garbage. of course, that shortchanged Park County in its goal to pay off the Cody landfill upgrade ( $ 7 million ??? )

    Guess what ? —the dump in Cowley is unlined, and it’s native groundwater is already so polluted anyway that they don’t have to comply. No plans to line it are on the horizon. Dump away . There are no plans to my knowledge to force the Cowley landfill to clean up its act while it is simultaneously undercutting the county landfill in Cody. The City of Powell saves a couple hundred grand a year by hauling to Cowley instead of Cody. Can’t say I blame them.

    My solution is to establish a county-wide Solid Waste District based on the allowed 3 mil property tax levy for such things. Same as funding Fire Protection , cemetaries, weed and pest, conservation districts,e tc etc etc. Wyoming has over 600 such special districts already . There are I believe 5 existing county SWD’s in Wyoming.

    Cowley is getting a free pass. Powell is opportunistically going where the best deal can be had. The rest of my county is stuck with the bill. I do not see the Cowley dump on the list for remediation.

    As a matter off act, this DOES have an odor to it….