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Macon faces five-year countdown to ready more landfill space

The trash keeps piling up, and if Macon County doesn’t do something soon, its landfill could be overflowing.

By conservative estimates, the section of the Macon County dump now in use will be full in less than five years. Each day, about 125 tons of trash from county and town residents are brought to the facility.

Five years may seem like a sufficient amount of time to dig another hole and open a new section, but it’s not that simple. The landfill construction and permitting process through the state can be arduous, time consuming and wrought with delays — not to mention costly. Expanding the landfill could cost as much as $4 million.

Macon County Solid Waste Director Chris Stahl said even though the county will start the process for opening a new section in January 2013, it could take more than 4.5 years to get it done — leaving only a six-month cushion before the current section reaches its limit.

“We’ve got about six months of buffer,” Stahl said. “A rainy season, a delay with the state in permitting, a lot of things can stretch that timeline out.”

The county has $2.4 million in its landfill fund, but it is unknown how much of that could be tapped for the expansion. Enough must be kept in reserve to pay for equipment and machinery, plus the cost of closing out the landfill when it reaches the end of its lifespan.

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One of the most time-consuming parts of the process is a year-long monitoring stage. The county must conduct studies at the future dump site to determine the depth of the groundwater table and the quality of the groundwater — which can be used as a baseline if there is contamination in the future.

The studies will also determine what type of rock and soil the section is made of to guide construction plans.

The new section will not just be a hole in the ground either — a modern landfill costs around $250,000 per acre to build. The new section will be about 16-acres on the surface. Its floor will be lined with an impermeable clay and plastic membrane, equipped with drainage system that pumps contaminated water to a nearby wastewater treatment plant.

The current section, known as cell II, is a 12-acre plot. It has been in use for 15 years so far, with another five to go before it is full. Stahl hopes the new cell will have a 30 year lifespan.

Once that’s full, however, the county could face the ever-difficult task of finding a new landfill site altogether.

“It’s not easy now,” Stahl said. “And it won’t be any easier in the future.”

Since 1998, the amount of waste dumped in the Macon County landfill on a yearly basis has increased by more than one-third, from 21,000 tons in 1998 to 29,000 tons in 2011. In 2015, the amount of trash is expected to nearly reach 31,000 tons.

Many local governments no longer have their own dumpsites and chose to export trash to large commercial landfills, often in South Carolina or Georgia. After the new section fills up, all that will remain of the current landfill is a four-acre plot that may not be worth the investment to develop it into a lined cell.

But one advantage the county does have in its race against an overflowing trash problem is technology. Since 2003, the county’s Solid Waste Department has been able to increase the compaction rate of trash going into the landfill from 1,100 pounds per cubic yard to 1,600.

In layman’s terms, Stahl said that means is now they can fit more trash in the same size hole.

Stahl was hopeful that in the near future the county may be able to utilize some sort of process, or increase recycling, to even further extend the life of the landfill. But, he didn’t know what exactly.

“We don’t know what waste will look like in 30 years,” Stahl said. “There are a lot of technologies being developed.”

For example, Pigeon Forge composts its trash, which allows about half of its volume to decompose before taking up space in a landfill. Stahl said the “touristy” nature of the Pigeon Forge’s trash, consisting of a lot of restaurant trash and organic matter, makes this a viable option for Pigeon Forge but maybe not for Macon County.

Other methods of disposal incinerate the trash and burn the resulting gases as forms of energy. But, many of these technologies are still being developed and may not prove fruitful for Macon County, Stahl said.

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