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Jackson County’s old solid waste landfill is leaking contaminants in higher concentrations than allowed into the groundwater, and satisfying state demands to safely contain the situation will cost taxpayer dollars.

Altamont Inc. representative Joel Lenk told commissioners this week that drinking water in the area has not been contaminated and is safe to use. The old landfill is less than a mile from Dillsboro. Several families living near the it rely on individually drilled wells for water, according to a report based on the company’s findings.

Altamont, headquartered in Asheville, collects water-monitoring samples at the old landfill for Jackson County.

Commissioners this week set a public hearing — as mandated by the regulating agency, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources — on possible remedies. The hearing will be held Feb. 7 at 1:30 p.m. After that, the next step will be to develop a state-approved corrective action plan, Lenk said.

The most expensive remedy, which involves treating the groundwater at the site, could cost more than $1 million. Responding to questions by Chairman Jack Debnam, Lenk said, however, the county will probably be able to pay his company an additional $10,000 per year for sampling and to satisfy the state.

Debnam, newly elected in November, initially proposed setting the hearing time for 1:45 p.m., with a regularly scheduled meeting starting at 2 p.m. Mark Jones, a veteran commissioner on the board, suggested moving the time back because, he said to Debnam, “you might draw a bigger crowd” than realized given the possible environmental implications.

Jones’ concerns that holding a public hearing during working hours might not give people an adequate opportunity to attend, however, were brushed aside. Debnam pointed out the board would be providing people the state-required 30 days notice.


Landfill timeline

• Groundwater sampling starts in 1998, Altamont company hired.

• Jackson County starts testing residential water-supply wells on annual basis in the late 1990s from residents who consented to sampling.

• At the same time, Jackson County installed and began monitoring landfill gas probes along the perimeter of the property.

• The last shipment of waste was taken at the landfill in June 2001.

• A monitoring well was installed into bedrock in 2004 to determine whether impacted groundwater was migrating northward toward a residential water well.

• In 2005, a full-scale operation of extracting landfill gas started. It was thought that the removal of the gas could provide benefits to groundwater quality.

• In July 2010, an additional bedrock monitoring well was installed to evaluate groundwater quality in fractured bedrock southwest of the landfill.

While Haywood County’s bid for privatizing the White Oak Landfill is still being considered, the site has now drawn the eye and ire of residents on its borders who fear contamination of their wells by its contents.

The citizens, led by White Oak resident Sylvia Blakeslee, have approached the county to request that 32 of the wells in their community be tested for heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Blakeslee said she and her neighbors in the White Oak community are concerned because of the recent infractions the landfill faced, including waste being found outside the liner that was, at best guess, up to 10 years old, according to Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King. Blakeslee said they’re also worried by the relatively unstable geologic structure beneath the landfill, pointing to a 1990 hydrogeologic report that warned of “high potential for groundwater contamination.”

“My well is the most critical,” said Blakeslee, who produced a topographic map marking the locations of several wells along the edge of the landfill. “That’s why I’m concerned.”

Her request, however, wasn’t granted by the county, who passed it on to the Asheville regional office of the state Division of Water Quality. They, in turn, realizing that the matter was under the jurisdiction of the state’s solid waste group, tossed it up the chain once more. The request landed with Ervin Lane, a compliance hydrogeologist for the North Carolina Division of Waste Management.

He hasn’t come up with an answer yet, but said he’s looking at testing data from the last 10 years to as recently as April to see if the wells do need to be tested.

“We just look at the data to determine if we think that there is an immediate threat,” said Lane, adding that “the landfill is not really in close proximity of where the wells are located, so we have to just take it step by step.”

King, however, doesn’t see a need for the wells to be tested. He said test wells that actually border or sit within the bounds of the landfill have never turned up any abnormal or increased results for heavy metals or VOCs, and even the ground underneath the off-liner waste wasn’t contaminated, much less the groundwater.

“There was no evidence at all that it even contaminated the ground,” said King. “The clay acted like a natural barrier. We tested a foot underneath the waste and all the way around it and didn’t even find any contamination in the dirt itself.”

But, he said, if Lane returns with evidence that the wells need to be tested, then he will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of residents’ groundwater.

For her part, Blakeslee said her intention is not to stir trouble. However, when she heard of a possible plan to privatize the landfill, she shifted into gear, poring through papers and thoroughly researching the landfill’s history and possible future.

That’s when concerns about her groundwater and that of her neighbors began to surface. Fearing a rush decision on the site’s possible sale by county commissioners, she passed around a petition and forwarded the paper, with its 40 signatures, to County Manager David Cotton. Her fear, she said, is finding waste in her wells after privatization and being stuck to deal with the consequences on her own.

“I don’t think I have any contamination. I don’t want to have it,” said Blakeslee. “I just want to find out before they sell it [the landfill] off, because then what recourse do I have?”

She concedes that neither she nor any of her neighbors have found or noticed contaminated water, and King and Lane were both unsure of the residents’ motivations for requesting tests now.

But, as Blakeslee said, many of them are concerned about what will happen if site operations are turned over to a private company. Even if their wells get turned down for testing, she said, she will continue to lobby commissioners to research thoroughly any proposal to bring outside trash into White Oak.

“The way to solve it is not to throw it off on somebody else,” said Blakeslee. “Because this has got far, far reaching consequences if the wrong decision is made.”

In a committee meeting on Monday, county commissioner Mark Swanger assured staff and residents that they were in no rush to pawn off the landfill and would wait for all the information before making any recommendations or decisions.

Blakeslee said that’s all she’s asking from the county commissioners: the best, most-informed decision.

I just want them to make the right decision,” she said. “We have a beauty spot and we don’t want it to turn into a boil then a cancer.”

Selling space in the Haywood County landfill might not be the windfall some county leaders were hoping for.

Controversy over closing down the Haywood County trash transfer station has resurfaced now that commissioners have put the idea back on the front burner.

County commissioners postponed a decision earlier this year on whether to shut down the transfer station but promised to take up the issue in coming months when they could devote more time to it. It’s now back on the table as commissioners weigh whether to contract out landfill and trash operations to a private firm.

Perry Samuels, the main driver for Jim’s Garbage Service, dreads making the trek all the way to White Oak landfill should the county close the transfer station. It could be the death knell for Samuels, one of a dozen or so trash haulers in the county who pick up garbage every week for a fee.

The extra distance for each haul would add hours to his day and cost more gas, neither of which he can afford.

Theoretically, trash haulers could pass along the extra costs to customers. But Samuels said it wouldn’t fly.

“I would say if we raised our rates, a lot of people would quit us,” Samuels said. He charges $20 a month for weekly trash pick-up — and that’s already too much for some people. Many customers dropped trash pick-up thanks to recession-inspired penny-pinching.

Another problem is that the landfill is not suitable for high volumes of traffic. There are no clear roads through the landfill. Instead, trucks must navigate giant piles of trash strewn across acres and acres of a mud flat in order to dump their loads. Even a mild rain renders it impassable, so trash trucks must be towed by bulldozers.

“You have to get drug in with a bulldozer and drug out with a bulldozer,” Samuels said. The frame on one of his older trucks broke during such an operation, and he can’t afford to buy a new one.

“If we had to buy a new truck, we would just have to quit,”

Samuels said. “We are operating on a shoestring. I got one truck held together with duct tape, baling wire and shoestring. Come out and take a look if you don’t believe me.”

Trash trucks for the town of Waynesville have also been damaged when being towed by dozers, incurring “expensive repairs,” according to Town Manager Lee Galloway.

But county commissioners are eyeing the savings to be gained from shutting the transfer station — roughly $800,000 a year. They argue that the transfer station only benefits a segment of the population: those who have town trash pick-up or pay a private hauler.

Stephen King, the county solid waste director, said all the taxpayers are subsidizing a service used by some.

“We are trying to do what is best for the entire county,” King said. “If the towns chose to go around and pick up, that is their choice. I can’t change what we do because the towns want that service.”

If the towns and private haulers want to keep the transfer station open, they can pay for it themselves, he said.

“From a taxpayer standpoint if you could save $20 off your household fee by having the towns pay for that service themselves, do you not think county taxpayers would want to do that?” King said.


Double standard

There is a catch, however. The county would continue to subsidize convenience centers where residents without door-to-door drop their trash.

If the county will continue to operate convenience centers free for those outside town limits, why not operate the transfer station for those who live in town, argued Galloway.

There are two legs to the trash journey for everyone. The first leg is getting your trash to a central collection point.

For people without trash pick-up, that means dropping it at a convenience center. For those who live in town or pay a private hauler, their trash is taken to the transfer station.

The second leg of the trash journey — the journey the rest of the way to the White Oak landfill — is picked up by the county, whether it’s from the convenience centers or the transfer station.

Towns argue that closing the transfer station creates a double standard for town residents versus county residents. They both pay the same landfill fee on their county tax bill of $92 a year. Yet one would continue to have their trash journey subsidized and the other would not.

The towns have protested the plan as inequitable, but Galloway said the towns have had a difficult time making their case to county officials.

“The question was asked, ‘Why should county residents subsidize hauling trash to White Oak for town residents,’” Galloway recounted of his meeting with county officials. “We said, ‘Wait a minute … we would still be subsidizing the cost of transporting trash for the people who use the convenience centers.’”

Galloway understands the county’s quest for savings.

“The bottom line is garbage is a terribly expensive proposition,” Galloway said. “I am in total sympathy with the county in that regard. But whatever they do needs to be fair to everybody and fair to the entire county. It is not a Waynesville problem. It is a problem for all 60,000 people.”

But commissioners can’t shake the prospect of saving $800,000 a year.

“The savings are real,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. “The general public is looking for us to run an efficient government.”

Ensley said the feedback from constituents is overwhelmingly in favor of closing the transfer station. In fact, they don’t understand why there’s even a debate over it.

“They see it as a no brainer,” Ensley said.

From a strictly economic viewpoint, Commissioner Bill Upton agreed. But there are two sides, Upton said.

“I guess I am in the middle again,” Upton said.


Not sustainable

The cost of operating the transfer station is $800,000 and the cost of convenience centers is $680,000.

King said a costly overhaul would be needed to keep the transfer station going, however. Right now, the transfer station is a jerry-rigged operation.

“Our transfer station is in dire straits,” King said.

Trash dumped off by town trucks and private haulers must be repacked in a tractor-trailer and hauled to White Oak. Ideally, trash would be compacted and baled to fit as much as possible in each load bound for White Oak. But the baler at the transfer station rusted and broke from age. A new one would cost $1.8 million, King said.

Another option is to pack trash into tractor-trailers from above. That’s the way it’s done at the transfer stations in Macon and Jackson counties, and as a result, the tractor-trailers can hold 15 to 20 tons.

But at Haywood’s transfer station, the setup doesn’t allow tractor-trailer trucks to be filled from above. Instead, trash is merely shoveled up into piles by front-end loaders and pushed into the back of tractor trailer.

Workers can only fill the tractor-trailer about halfway before trash starts slipping back out. So trucks head to White Oak with only 7 or 8 tons, requiring twice as many trips.

“Every time our trucks leave out they are less than half full,” King said.

It also takes more manpower to shovel and push trash in the back door of the tractor-trailer rather than dumping in from above.

“We have to upgrade the transfer station. We cannot continue to operate the way we are operating,” King said.

But closing the transfer station would mean making upgrades to the landfill so town and commercial trucks can get in and out.

“We would request that appropriate facilities be constructed so that dumping can be done without encountering the mud and damage to these expensive vehicles,” Galloway wrote to the county in a letter expressing concerns over the plan.

There’s another problem: snow days. The road in and out of the landfill is steep, and last winter there were several days it wasn’t passable. Garbage was stockpiled at the transfer station until the landfill entry road thawed.


Macon also charges towns

Like Haywood, Macon County also has a transfer station. It saves private haulers and town trash trucks in Highlands from making the long trip down the mountain to the county landfill. But it costs them a transfer fee of $8.75 a ton.

Chris Stahl, solid waste director for Macon County, doesn’t feel bad passing along the cost of transporting trash from the transfer station to the landfill to the town residents.

“If you are saving someone an extra 30 minutes round trip by making that trip for them, I think it is proper for them to pay,” Stahl said. “The trash isn’t disposed of until it gets all the way to the landfill. If you are stopping somewhere short of that and the county is picking up the tab to go the rest of the way, the county is subsidizing that.”

The county apparently has no qualms about subsidizing the trash dropped off at Macon County’s eight convenience centers, however, which is hauled the rest of the way to the landfill on the county’s dime.

But Stahl doesn’t see the convenience centers in the same light as the transfer station.

“That hauling is an extra step that some people use and some people don’t. I don’t think it is fair to spread that cost out to everybody else,” Stahl said.

In addition to paying an extra transfer fee, the town of Highlands also chipped in to build the transfer station.

Haywood Commissioner Mark Swanger said the county and towns can work through the debate reasonably.

“This is not insurmountable,” Swanger said “Everybody needs to wait and see what kind of plan can evolve.”

But the towns aren’t content to simply wait. They can’t afford to, Galloway said. Instead, Waynesville is already putting together contingency plans.

“This fall will look at what our costs are to go elsewhere and possibly do our own thing,” Galloway said.

The town is already calculating its options — among them hauling trash to a private landfill in Buncombe instead.

“We have to look at those alternatives,” Galloway said.

Another option is for Waynesville to build its own transfer station, and allow the towns of Canton and Clyde, as well as private haulers, to share it.

The county may also be willing to keep the transfer station open if the town picks up the cost. But Galloway doesn’t like the double-standard.

“It would only be fair if we paid at the transfer station if people who use the convenience centers also paid,” Galloway said.


What is the transfer station?

The transfer station is a trash drop-off site in Clyde where town garbage trucks and commercial haulers can dump their loads instead of making the long trek to the White Oak landfill. The trash is shoveled with front-end loaders into the back of tractor-trailers and transported the rest of the way to the landfill by the county.

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

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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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