A simpler solution

The recession bought Haywood County a little extra life in the landfill, thanks to less construction waste and commercial trash.

A pit that everyone thought would be full by now still has more than a year left. But some of the credit is also due to the county’s new solid waste director, Stephen King, who’s proved a zealot for recycling in his three years on the job.

Last year, recycling was a break-even operation. The money made selling recyclables covered the cost of handling, sorting and disposing of them.

Trash, on the other hand, is a $4 million per year cost.

“I can’t generate revenue off the stuff we put in the ground,” King said. “I have to come up with a way to manage it, not just for that day, but for eternity.”

It drives King crazy to see things that could be recycled buried in the earth at such a high cost.

“You tell me where the priority should be,” King said.

“Could you imagine if everybody devoted more effort to recycling? We wouldn’t have to be coming up with solutions to deal with this.”

King’s preaching — as well as the glaring line item in the county’s budget every year — prompted Commissioner Kevin Ensley to finally start recycling. He’s so into it now that he plays the role of recycling police with other family members — even recycling things like cardboard paper towel tubes and the boxes that toothpaste come in. He’s cut his household trash from five to six bags a week to only two.

“I don’t think I am going to save the planet by recycling, but I know I am saving my tax money,” Ensley said.

In a personal experiment, King split open people’s trash bags to see how much was getting thrown away that could be getting recycled. At least 50 percent of what’s being thrown away could be recycled instead.

“Why are we digging more holes to put recyclables in?” King said

Landfill for sale? Profit motive may prompt Haywood to sell landfill space

Haywood County commissioners are deciding whether to sell off space in the county’s landfill, allowing trucks from elsewhere to dump their garbage here for a fee.

There’s only 30 to 40 years of life left in the landfill. Selling space will obviously shorten the life. Commissioners have to decide whether the money to be made is worth it.

“This is a very serious decision,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “We need to make absolutely certain what we are doing here because it is very, very important.”

The landfill was bought and built on the taxpayers’ dime, and filling it up with other people’s trash could cost the county later.

But the thought of making a couple of million a year selling landfill space — enough to offset the county’s own landfill costs — is too tempting to ignore.

“I think right now we have an asset, and we would be wise to explore every possibility of maximizing it,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger.

Commissioners have pledged to look before they leap, however.

“If we fill up our landfill too quickly, then what? Where does the future lie?” asked Commissioner Bill Upton. “We have a great resource because so many other places don’t have a landfill.”

Stephen King, the county’s solid waste director, isn’t overly concerned about the day Haywood’s landfill runs out of space, however. By then there will be other ways to deal with trash, he said.

“I foresee that burying trash in the ground is not going to be the only option 10 or 15 years down the line,” King said.

See also: A simpler solution

Taxpayers fork over $1.3 million a year to run the landfill, plus another $1.1 million annually for five years to pay for building a new pit (see “Trash budget breakdown”).

Swanger is optimistic the landfill costs could not only be wiped from the county’s budget, but the county could actually make money.

Selling space in the landfill is part of a larger discussion about turning over landfill operations to a private firm. Companies interested in running the landfill have until the end of the week to submit their proposals.

Any agreement would take the form of a long-term contract, perhaps as long as the life of the landfill itself.

“They would almost be like the owner in a way,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said.

For-profit landfill ventures are nothing new. Several large trash companies operate chains of private landfills across a multi-state area, and that’s who will likely be interested in taking over Haywood’s landfill.  

A few months ago, the county outsourced to a private firm the operation of its 10 trash drop-off points known as convenience centers. The county saved $145,000 a year by turning convenience centers over to a private company rather than operate them in-house.

See also: Haywood’s quest for trash savings dumps costs on towns

Upton said there is no harm in seeing what the private trash companies offer.

“I would like to see if someone could operate a facility more efficiently than we do,” Upton said. But, “We need to move slowly and continue to look at both sides. I worry about what I don’t know might bite me.”

The county could be offered a sweet deal now to give up control of its landfill. But once the county is out of the trash business, it could be held hostage by changing terms and rising rates.

Swanger said a contract would be written meticulously to protect the county, which has already engaged a special attorney who’s an expert at landfills.

“To truly know the benefit we have to wait for the (proposals) and not just speculate,” Swanger said. “The (proposals) may lead us to say ‘This isn’t going to work.’”

 

Doing the math

Haywood is wading into a dilemma many others have faced: run your own landfill or ship your trash elsewhere. The choice pits big upfront costs against long-term savings.

Jackson and Swain counties and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians opt to ship their trash to mega landfills in South Carolina and Georgia.

“Short term it is cheaper because you don’t have the cost of building that landfill,” said Chad Parker, solid waste director in Jackson County. “It’s really hard to site a landfill in mountainous terrain. We don’t have any available land without spending quite a bit of money.”

Haywood and Macon counties — which already have landfills — find it cheaper to run their own since they already have the land.

Swanger thinks the days of building new landfills are over in the mountains. The county had a hard time 20 years ago finding somewhere to build the current landfill in White Oak — a tract that was large enough, removed from any neighbors and free of environmental constraints.

But the greater hurdle is a state moratorium on permitting new landfills. To some, the moratorium sounds like all the more reason for Haywood to guard what space it has left in its own landfill.

Swanger says it is just the opposite.

“The people with the state know there is trash being generated every day. You can’t continue to take it to neighboring states,” Swanger said. “What that tells you is there must be other plans in the works.”

That other plan is likely a trash incinerator — a giant one that would serve the whole region.

If the state halts the use of landfills and imposes a shift to regional trash incinerators, any space left in Haywood’s landfill could be left on the table. So one theory is that the county might as well make hay on its landfill while it can.

 

Can Haywood compete?

Private landfills in Georgia and South Carolina — where large tracts of flat land are plentiful — are dirt cheap compared to the per ton fee charged by landfills in mountain counties. Dump fees in the $30 a ton range are common, compared to twice that in the mountains.

Jackson County pays just $20 a ton to dump trash at a private landfill run by Waste Management in Homer, Ga.

The landfill takes in 2,000 tons a day — a volume that dwarfs the 150 tons a day seen at Haywood’s landfill.

The landfill is a total of 470 acres. It has 20 years of life left, but the company has already bought another 484 acres right next door, said Charlie Claws, district manager for Waste Management in northeast Georgia.

Claws’ landfills are cheaper for a couple of reasons: the economy of scale that goes with such a mega operation and slacker environmental regulations.

Claws said the cost of equipment would be hard for a small landfill to amortize. A compactor with big wheels and spikes to compress the trash costs $800,000 and only lasts five years. A basic dozer costs $650,000.

The same principle applies to labor. Claws has a staff of 10 at the landfill: five equipment operators, two mechanics, two in the scale house and one supervisor. Haywood has 9 workers — even though it does one-tenth the volume of trash.

“Can cities and counties do it? Yeah they can, but it is like anything else: you have more manpower and equipment than you need,” Claws said.

Claws also balked at how much Haywood is paying to construct a new section of the landfill. It costs him $250,000 an acre. Haywood is paying $500,000 an acre for a new pit under construction. King said it costs more to build landfills in North Carolina because of more stringent regulations.

“They are not regulated the way we are regulated,” he said of Georgia.

Haywood’s new lined pit will cost nearly $5 million and will last eight to nine years at the current rate of trash disposal.

The life of the cell might only be eight years, but it is laying a foundation for the future. Down the road, when the lateral footprint of the landfill can’t grow anymore, there will still be room to go up. But the base has to be built first, King explained.

But the questions remains whether Haywood can compete with the low per ton rates of landfills out of state.

Right now, Haywood would have to charge more than $44 a ton to break even. At $44 a ton, the county couldn’t compete. Besides, Haywood doesn’t want to merely break even on the trash. It defeats the purpose of selling space in the landfill in the first place. The whole point is to make enough profit to offset the cost of its own trash operations.

But the per ton cost of handling trash will get cheaper if the volume increases.

“Landfills are volume driven. The more volume they get, the cheaper it is to operate,” King said.

Plus, a private company may be able to run the landfill for less.

Claws estimated that Haywood will need to take in 600 tons a day to realize economies of scale. At that rate, however, the landfill’s life would be drastically shortened to as little as 10 more years.

Commissioners will soon have to weigh the pros and cons of cost savings versus the life of the landfill. The question is how much space is the county willing to give up in order to reap the financial returns.

“I think that threshold exists, but I don’t know exactly what it is,” Swanger said.

 

Haywood’s trash budget breakdown

Total budget    $4.7 million

Convenience centers    $680,000

Transfer station    $800,000

Material recovery center    $200,000

Landfill    $1.3 million

Recycling    $450,000

Loan payment on landfill expansion

$1.16 million

Trash controversy dominates Haywood budget discussion

When the hour finally arrived for Haywood County commissioners to vote on a budget for the upcoming year, Haywood County Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick expressed his wish for a unanimous vote. That’s exactly what he got.

But that 5-0 victory for the budget came in spite of Commissioner Skeeter Curtis stating outright that he would vote against the budget just a minute prior.

Curtis’s dissent stemmed from a controversial plan to overhaul the county’s trash and recycling operations in order to save money.

Both Curtis and Kirkpatrick opposed one aspect of that plan — a move to privatize the county’s 10 convenience centers, where county residents without curbside trash pick-up dump household waste and recyclables.

However, all five commissioners agreed on another part of the overhaul: shutting down the line of workers who manually sort recycling before it is sold. Instead, the county will sell recyclables in bulk without putting them through a pick line.

Other than the contentious trash overhaul, Haywood County’s budget — which does not include a tax hike — sailed by this year.

Not a single person spoke for or against the budget at the official public hearing, even though more than 40 people attended. Speakers saved all their remarks for a separate public comment period on the trash overhaul.

“I’d hate to be having a split vote on the budget, based on the (trash issue),” said Kirkpatrick. “I really want to see the budget passed with five votes.”

Commissioner Kevin Ensley moved to approve the budget, with a second from Commissioner Mark Swanger. After an uncomfortable pause, Curtis said he would not vote to contract out jobs at convenience centers.

Kirkpatrick tried his final appeal, reminding Curtis that the solid waste changes are a relatively small part of a $65 million budget. Kirkpatrick added that the board had until August to amend the solid waste fee that have been proposed.

“You’re right,” said Curtis. “It’s a good budget. Everyone worked hard on it.”

Split vote on convenience centers

While all five commissioners voted to pass the budget, Curtis and Kirkpatrick got a chance later in the meeting to formally oppose privatizing jobs at the convenience centers. Commissioners voted three to two to contract those jobs at the county’s ten convenience centers to Consolidated Waste Services, LLC.

Commissioner Bill Upton, along with Swanger and Ensley, voted for the measure, touting the cost savings of $145,000 it would bring to the county. Closing the recycling pick line would bring an additional savings of $286,000.

But Kirkpatrick and Curtis voted against awarding the contract, with Curtis hoping to further study the issue with all stakeholders and Kirkpatrick hoping to postpone the layoffs. A few of the employees were close to retirement, and many had been supportive of the county’s wildly successful recycling efforts.

“I would hope there’s a way to take care of these folks,” said Kirkpatrick.

The contract that was approved does say that CWS should make a “reasonable effort” to hire the current county employees who currently man the convenience centers.

Swanger added that phasing out the soon to be retired employees in a fair manner would likely take a long time.

“The more I think about it, I’m on both sides,” added Upton. “And I know you can’t be on both sides.”

Both Swanger and Upton had served in a solid waste task force that carefully researched the issue. The county appointed a solid waste task force to come up with cost savings in light of the $4.5 million landfill expansion that taxpayers must now pay off.

Due to the landfill expansion, residents will see a $22 increase in the $70 household solid waste fee — but that’s compared to a $40 dollar increase residents would see if not for the cost-saving measures.

Curtis and Kirkpatrick had wanted to hike up the household solid waste fee by $40, which — along with supporting the landfill — would also include $4.50 per household to save the convenience center employees’ jobs, while $13.50 would be dedicated to saving up for eventually closing the White Oak landfill decades from now.

The bill for complying with regulations with the closure of White Oak would come out to a whopping $16.6 million in “2009 dollars.”

“We need to start putting money aside for closure,” said Curtis. “We’re talking about big dollars for future generations out there.”

Kirkpatrick said $110 really isn’t a lot of money, coming out to $10 a month to get rid of all household trash and recycling.

A third part of the trash overhaul, which would be a year away, is to close the transfer station, where town trash trucks and private haulers unload trash. From there, the county hauls it the rest of the way to the White Oak landfill.

At the meeting, commissioners agreed to solicit bids for privatizing the landfill, transfer station and convenience centers — solely for educational purposes.

Towns demand parity in Haywood trash plan

There was one thing Haywood County commissioners, town officials, private haulers and county employees could all agree upon at last week’s public hearing on the budget: Someone, somewhere has to pay for the skyrocketing costs of trash operations in the county.

The argument, of course, centers around who should be left footing the bill.

Officials are still waiting to see if commissioners will shut down the transfer station in Clyde, where private and town haulers drop off trash that is then delivered by the county to the remote White Oak landfill. Closing the transfer station would save the county $940,000.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said the savings from closing the transfer station are too great to be ignored. Closing the station would prevent trash from being handled twice and would drastically cut down on equipment costs.

“These costs are so great and the potential savings are so great that they must be seriously considered,” said Swanger.

But the shutdown would also mean greater expenses for towns and private haulers who would have to drive much farther to the White Oak landfill. Those higher costs would be passed on to town residents in Canton, Clyde and Waynesville, along with county residents who arrange for private pick-up of trash. Maggie Valley, located close to the landfill, would see no change in their costs.

If the station is closed, Waynesville residents would see their household fee shoot up by $18, while commercial customers in town would see a 35 percent increase. Meanwhile, residents in Clyde would shell out 66 percent more annually.

“All of the savings that the county supposedly is making has got to be made up somewhere,” said Paul White, a private hauler.

At last week’s hearing, town officials joined in on the outcry against closing the station.

“This is not a Town of Waynesville problem. This is not a Town of Clyde Problem,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway. “This is a problem for the whole county ... It needs to be fair.”

Galloway said all county residents should share the burden of higher expenses in the solid waste department.

Residents without town pick-up drop their trash at one of 10 convenience centers stationed around the county. The county then foots the bill to haul it the rest of the way to White Oak.

Town residents, however, would be expected to ship their trash all the way to White Oak on their own dime, while the county would continue to fully cover the final leg of the trash journey for residents using convenience centers.

On the other hand, having a transfer station requires significant investment in expensive equipment to compact trash before it heads to the landfill. No such equipment is used at convenience centers.

Galloway said hypothetically, town haulers could begin dumping their trash at a nearby convenience center, or the town could even do away with trash pick-up altogether, sending residents directly to convenience centers instead. Either move would create an even bigger headache for county leaders.

Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick asked Galloway if he’d be in favor of a fee for towns to keep the transfer station open instead. Galloway countered by asking if the county would also charge those who use the convenience centers an extra fee.

“It’s the same difference,” Galloway said.

At the very least, Galloway said he hopes the county will give towns enough time to prepare for the changes. Earlier, the county said it might close the transfer station this fall. Now, the county estimates it will take at least until summer 2011 to prepare for the shutdown.

Commissioner Bill Upton said he’s thought about the issue as much as any issue he’s ever thought about, yet he was still struggling to find a solution.

“We’re in a no-win situation,” said Upton, adding that it was obvious the speakers wanted to keep everything the same. “I’ve heard that over and over again, but that’s still not helping the county solve our situation.”

Trash down, recycling up

The recession has been good news for landfills.

Due to the economic downturn, less trash was thrown in landfills in North Carolina last year than any year in the past two decades. The biggest reduction in trash came from the construction industry, which is a significant contributor to landfills.

Trash in landfills amounted to 1.07 tons per capita in 2008-09 — a sharp decline from the previous year and the lowest disposal rate since 1995, according to the “North Carolina Solid Waste Management Annual Report.”

The report also found that:

More glass, plastic and aluminum were recycled than ever before. One reason for the uptick in recycling could be the new state law that went into effect in 2008 requiring any restaurant with an ABC permit to serve beer or alcohol must recycle.

Curbside recycling programs had better numbers than recycling at drop-off centers. The report recommends increasing state oversight to prevent banned materials from making it into landfills, including aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

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.

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.

New landfill proves money pit for Haywood

Haywood County commissioners grappling with the $4.4 million price tag of a landfill expansion briefly eyed the steep engineering costs as a place to trim this week.

During a county meeting, commissioners questioned the hiring of two separate engineering firms for a total of $345,000 to design and oversee landfill construction. Commissioner Kevin Ensley was the first to broach the subject, asking why the county couldn’t just hire a single engineer rather than contracting with two entire firms.

Stephen King, the director of solid waste, cited the litany of state and federal regulations involved in building a landfill, from geotechnical permits to myriad testing of soil samples by various labs.

“It is very specialized,” King said. “It will take a whole team to get done what needs to be done.”

A engineer can be the county’s best friend in a project of this caliber, serving as both as a liability shield and a taskmaster to keep the contractors on time and on budget.

“I think having a good engineer is critical,” advised Chip Killian, the county attorney.

Ensley questioned a clause in one of the contracts, however, that would bill the county $900 a day for engineering services should the project extend beyond the estimated nine-month time frame.

“If we run into a problem like with the historic courthouse and it goes on and on, that could get expensive,” Ensley said. Ensley said the bid for the job should cover the work, period.

Commissioner Mark Swanger asked whether the county attempted to negotiate the terms. It appeared not. County Attorney Chip Killian said he had not read the contracts yet and couldn’t comment on whether the language was standard or troubling.

“We really need some of these questions answered,” Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said. “I would also like to know if this is the best price they can come up with. Everybody is having to give a little now. Let’s see if they can, too.”

The contracts were with Asheville-based McGill and Associates for $175,000 and a second contract with Joyce Engineering, landfill specialists based in Maryland, for an additional $170,000.

Killian worked over the two contracts following the meeting. The county was unable to lower the price but altered some of the language.

“Mostly to protect the county against anything, essentially to make sure if they don’t perform their task we aren’t liable for it,” King said of the changes.

As for the heafty $900 a day Joyce was seeking should the project run over schedule, the language was clarified so the contractor, not the county, would be responsible for paying up. Both were approved by commissioners following the rewording.

Haywood gets serious about tapping landfill methane

Haywood County officials want to tap the pent up methane in the county’s landfill to help the environment and hopefully make a little extra cash.

The county has been eyeing the possibility of a methane recovery system at two of its landfills for several months, and is now preparing a bid to send out to companies that would set up and run such an operation.

Methane is a greenhouse gas generated by decaying food scraps, paper and other organic trash. Recovering methane could benefit the county financially in several ways.

“It’s the environmentally correct thing to do, and it’s a revenue source for the county,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger, who helped drum up support for the effort.

The county could flare off the gas, earning carbon credits in the process that it could sell on the market. Methane is most harmful to the environment when it seeps out of the landfill in raw form, but when burned off, it’s not as bad. That positive contribution to air quality would create the carbon credits, a commodity bought and sold on the market by polluters.

Or, the county could convert the methane gas to electricity to be sold over the power grid. Another option is the methane recovery system in place in neighboring Jackson County, where landfill methane is used to heat greenhouses and power craft operations like blacksmith forges and glass blowing furnaces.

Whatever the county chooses to do with the methane gas, it will make a profit — as much as $2 million over a ten-year period, according to Swanger.

And by partnering with a private company rather than go it alone, the county is maximizing profit by avoiding the high up-front costs associated with green technologies.

“There would be no up-front to the county at all, no risk, and no liability,” said Swanger. “It’s a win-win situation.”

County Solid Waste Director Stephen King said it’s important that whoever operates the methane recovery system not interfere with the landfill’s day-to-day operations.

“First and foremost, we are operating a landfill, and they should understand they can’t interfere with any of our operations to do this,” King said.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley emphasized that the county make an effort to recruit one of several local businesses to operate the methane recovery system.

“I would like for us not to overlook what we have in the county,” Ensley said.

— By Julia Merchant

Trash statistics skewed by second-home residents

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Macon County’s trash is a growing problem, says Chris Stahl, director of the Macon County Solid Waste Department.

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