“When we’re all said and done, it’s going be several millions of dollars,” said Commission Chairman Mark Swanger. “There are various estimates and none lower than $5 million. It is what it is. We have a responsibility to correct it.”
The landfill was built in the 1970s, prior to many of the regulations in place today. Now, the county must address lingering environmental issues, from the escape of volatile gases to groundwater contamination. It’s a problem shared by landfills nationwide that hail from the same period.
The old landfill has no bottom lining to keep contaminants from filtering through to the groundwater.
The resulting groundwater contamination and methane gas migration issues — methane results when waste decomposes — have kept the county in regular correspondence with the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources ever since the landfill closed in 1995. Some violations can carry fines as high as $15,000 per day, but so far Haywood County has not had to pay anything.
“We were not fined anything because we were constantly trying to work on ways to address it,” said Stephen King, the county’s director of recycling and solid waste management.
Since 2000, those measures have included 31 groundwater-monitoring stations on and around the property, methane capturing with a gas-to-energy facility and multiple reports and assessments.
One problem exacerbating groundwater contamination is rain percolating through the sandy soil that covers it.
A more solid covering is needed to stop rain from reaching through the old trash deposits and the leaching through to the groundwater below.
The new cap would likely include a layer of dirt, followed by a synthetic liner, and another layer of soil about two feet deep. That might sound simple enough, but the landfill is 20 acres — and a thick layer of soil over such a large area is a lot of dirt.
While the exact specs are still being developed, county commissioners approved spending $590,000 this week to get the ball rolling, claiming fast action is necessary because of a limited-time offer for a precious commodity: dirt.
“I don’t think there will be any wasted money here because it’s what DENR will ultimately want us to do,” said Mark Cathey, an engineer with McGill Associates, an Asheville-based company that has been consulting with Haywood County on landfill remediation.
The 100,000 cubic feet of soil needed to create the cap was expected to cost about $1.35 million.
But luckily, a major highway construction project nearby is going to turn up a lot of unneeded earth. Two hundred fifty thousand cubic feet, to be exact. The county will get the dirt for free and only has to haul it a couple of miles. The highway project in question is the reconfigured interchange on U.S. 23/74 at Exit 104 near Lowe’s.
Commissioners approved a contract for $390,000 to Asheville-based NHM Constructors to haul the dirt, build a road and construct erosion controls, a price tag far less than the $1.35 million it could have cost.
“It’s really a great opportunity for the county to save a lot of money,” Cathey said.
But 100,000 cubic feet of dirt takes up a lot of space. If compacted and spread over three flat acres, it would rise as high or higher than a third-story window. So, in order to have the dirt hauled, the county had to find a place to haul it to.
Enter the Shelton Living Trust, a 5.7-acre property adjacent to the landfill.
Commissioners voted unanimously to purchase the land for $200,000, the same price the owners paid for it in 2007. The dirt will be stored there until it’s needed, and the property will also serve as a staging area for construction once the recapping project commences. The land purchase brings the total price tag for using dirt from the DOT construction project to $590,000, well below the $1.35 million it would have cost to purchase soil outright.
Looking toward an endgame
The property purchase was more than a convenience. It was also a necessity, and it’s the kind of transaction the county will likely be doing more of in the coming years.
The waste deposits at the old landfill are very close to the property line, meaning that spread of water contamination and methane gas to adjacent properties was nearly unavoidable.
“You’ll never get rid of the issues with the landfill, so what you have to do is create a larger buffer in the areas you predict there will be issues, and this is one of them,” said Ira Dove, Haywood County manger.
In 2000, methane gas concentration at the property boundary tested high enough to cause risk of explosion, and the gas concentration still meets that lower explosive limit today. A gas-to-energy conversion facility was finished in 2012 to convert methane into power, but the weak sand cap covering the landfill meant the system couldn’t exert a strong enough pull to suck up all the gas. Constructing a new cap is expected to help alleviate the methane migration problem.
Commissioners acted quickly on the Shelton property because they had an immediate need for a place to put some dirt, but they anticipate there will be more buyouts in the future — the landfill needs a bigger buffer of land.
“We know we’ll have to buy more,” Swanger said. “We’re just not sure how much more.”
Part of that depends on the data coming from the 31 monitoring wells in the area. The wells gauge how far and how deep the plume of contaminants is, King said, giving managers a better idea of where to focus their efforts.
But even with the best data, it’s bound to be a long haul for the county.
“There’s never really an endgame when you own a landfill,” Cathey said, but he added, “I would say the county’s in a much better situation three to five years down the road as we look at these groundwater and gas issues.”
Effects on the schools
Haywood County isn’t the only government entity entwined in the landfill debacle. Haywood County Schools also owns part of the property — it’s where they store their school buses and headquarter transportation and maintenance operations. However, the county has committed to planning and footing the bill for remediation. County and school officials met recently to discuss the situation, and County Manager Ira Dove said the outcome was positive.
“We had a good discussion, and we’ll have to have more discussions with their board,” Dove said.
Though construction of a new landfill cap will likely interfere with school transportation operations in some capacity, the project isn’t expected to shut things down, Dove said. The area has two entrances, so crews will work on one side at a time so as to still allow access while construction commences.
Of course, it’s always hard to make guarantees.
“We’re dealing with a landfill, and it has a lot of components, some of which are moving under the earth,” Dove said. “We have to have a caveat until we get out there and they start the construction.”
A 40-year history of the landfill quagmire
• 1970s Francis Farm Landfill accepts its first load.
• 1993 The landfill stops accepting waste, receiving its official closure letter two years later.
• 1996 The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources tells the Haywood County they must sample groundwater for compliance with a new set of standards.
• 1997 DENR informs the county that the landfill violates groundwater standards and notes that there is very little buffer between waste boundaries and adjacent property.
• 2000 DENR notifies the county that the landfill property line contains dangerous levels of methane gas that meet the lower explosive level meaning it’s capable of exploding. Later that year, wells at or near the property line test as having high concentrations of various chemicals, exceeding state and federal drinking water standards.
• 2004 The county submits a groundwater assessment plan to DENR, but DENR requests additional information.
• 2007 The county contracts with McGill Associates and Bunnell-Lammons Engineering for professional services. BLE begins running statistical analysis on the county’s semi-annual groundwater testing.
• 2009 DENR sent a letter stating they hadn’t yet received any follow-up to the 2004 plan, and the county begins working with McGill Associates and BLE to develop one. Later that year the county starts working with adjacent property owners to install groundwater monitoring wells.
• 2010 DENR approves the combustion system but writes a violation for failure to comply with the conditions of a permit. The landfill’s methane levels still exceed the lower explosive level.
• 2011 The county conducts well water supply sampling and finds that released volatile organic compounds from the landfill hadn’t impacted the tested wells. The landfill is cited as violating North Carolina’s solid waste storage law.
• 2012 A methane capture and recovery system is up and running. It serves to extract water that has percolated through the waste and absorbed contaminants.
• 2014 High methane levels are still present at the property boundary. Haywood County makes its first adjacent land purchase and starts planning to recap the landfill.