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Landfills hustle to catch tainted rain water before it seeps away

When it comes to landfills, rain isn’t just inconvenient — it’s dangerous.

In 2009, the White Oak landfill in Haywood County had to contend with more than 35 million gallons of rainwater seeping into disposed waste.

While 80 percent of that rainwater is absorbed by the trash, the remaining 20 percent transforms into a contaminated liquid called leachate, which poses significant environmental and health risks.

The region saw about 62 inches of rain last year, falling just three inches short of the 1973 record. And if the rain wasn’t bad enough, the county got 22 inches of snow in December.

“It’s just a constant battle out there,” said Stephen King, waste director for Haywood County.

The White Oak landfill collects its leachate into a pool then hauls it to a wastewater treatment plant, an endeavor that alone cost $56,000 during the previous year when the region was in an extreme drought.

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According to King, each inch of rain produces about 27,000 gallons of water — per acre. The landfill presently takes up 21 acres and is about to heap on 8.8 acres more.

“We had to double the capacity of the leachate pond just to accommodate the new cell,” said King.

The county faces several alternatives that might help lower costs in the long run. They include housing an internal wastewater treatment or running a sewer line directly to the wastewater plant that already exists.

Denese Ballew, landfill manager for Haywood, said both options would be costly, but the county is in the process of doing a cost-benefit analysis of the latter, less expensive option.

“You have to have the cost to justify doing something like that,” said Ballew, pointing out that not every year will be as wet as 2009.

Federal law mandates that landfills properly treat leachate, and state laws are even more stringent, according to Ballew.

Modern landfill designs include liners and leachate collection systems, but almost all landfills that opened in North Carolina prior to 1993 have neither. Groundwater contamination continues to emanate from these unlined facilities. Another volatile byproduct from landfills is the build-up of methane gas from decomposing trash.

Haywood County hopes to alleviate both problems by installing a methane collection system at the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill. Extracting methane might also help keep contaminated water in check.

“If we have a positive suction on the landfill, we can prevent the water from migrating away,” said King.

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