Time at our disposal: Dubuque's landfill and its future

August 19, 2018

An average of about 400 tons of trash per day is taken to the Dubuque-area landfill.

Much of it comes from residents and businesses in the city, but the site serves the entire county and also receives waste from Delaware County, Iowa; Grant County, Wis.; and Jo Daviess County, Ill.

The landfill has been in use since the 1970s, and officials estimate that enough space is available for it to continue taking trash until about 2100.

But even with an estimated 80 years before the current site isn’t an option anymore, officials can’t help but consider what will be next.

“It’s going to get to a point where the community is going to need to sit down and decide what they want to happen with their solid waste,” said John Foster, administrator for Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, which operates the landfill. “That will be a very important decision.”

Landfills get their start

Before the 1970s, there wasn’t any prescribed method of waste disposal. Cities set up their own individual methods of throwing away their trash, which would often end up being at designated exposed dumping areas.

In Dubuque, that primary dump was on Chaplain Schmitt Island.

In 1965, the Solid Waste Disposal Act created a national office to oversee the disposal of solid waste. In the following years, states began to develop their own regulations for solid waste removal.

The subsequent years also saw the development of additional regulations on solid waste disposal, with the passing of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976.

Foster said many cities were faced with the choice of how they wanted to dispose of their trash — through incineration or in a landfill.

“A lot of the cities chose landfills in the end,” he said. “There were just a lot of issues with incineration, such as air pollution and issues and cost, that made it more appealing to invest in landfills.”

Unlike dumps, sections of land where residents could openly throw away their trash, landfills are a more sanitary and engineered means of storing and containing solid waste.

Foster described them as giant plastic bags, in which a bottom layer consisting of clay, a plastic membrane, piping, sand and other materials is placed before trash is dumped over the top and compressed. After the landfill is completely filled, additional layers are spread over the top. The layers are used to prevent contaminants from the trash from entering the groundwater or the surrounding environment.

In 1949, Dubuque City Council members approved the adopting of early landfill practices, including the banning of open dumping in the city and covering with dirt the dump on Chaplain Schmitt Island. The action was taken in response to a widespread rat infestation throughout the city, according to a December 1949 article in the Telegraph Herald.

In 1973, council members approved the development of the landfill. The city purchased the land for $280,800, which it would use to develop a new landfill to replace the one on Chaplain Schmitt Island.

In 1975, DMASWA was formed to operate the landfill, which opened in 1976.

Since its inception, the landfill has grown substantially, with the DMASWA originally starting with 100 acres of land to now owning a little more than 600.

Current challenges

Despite all that land, the Dubuque landfill still faces space challenges.

Bev Wagner, the education coordinator for DMASWA, said much of the land owned by the agency serves as a buffer around the landfill site. Other portions of the land are used for processing and services such as composting. And some of the acreage is considered state-protected wetland.

The current landfill footprint has enough space for about four more years’ worth of trash. The agency also already secured state approval for future landfill operations on enough land to last another 25 to 30 years.

Foster said there is other land owned by DMASWA that eventually could be used.

In all, there is enough room to accommodate an estimated 80 years more of waste.

Both Wagner and Foster noted that the estimation is based on the area’s current rate of solid waste disposal.

“Right now, I’d say we have enough land to last us until the end of the century,” Foster said. “Now, that could change depending on consumption habits, and I would say it’s a conservative estimation.”

While the landfill has decades’ worth of room, officials already are looking at future purchases — but there are not a lot of options, in terms of adjacent land.

To the east of the landfill lies U.S. 20. To its north is Catfish Creek and some residential areas.

This leaves the only available land for possible purchase in the west and southwest, which is also limited by residential development and areas with steep elevation. Foster said agency officials are looking into several prospects for purchasing additional land, but challenges loom.

“Part of the issue is that we don’t have any money for purchasing more property, and then you need to get landowners that are willing to even sell that land,” Foster said. “One of the biggest blessings of my predecessors was them buying all the land that we have now.”

DMASWA is an independent organization owned by both the City of Dubuque and Dubuque County. The agency is entirely funded through the fees it charges for the disposal of trash on a per-ton basis. It does not receive any tax funds.

Dubuque City Council Member Ric Jones, a member of the DMASWA board of directors, said he and other board members are always keeping an eye out for possible property that the landfill could acquire.

“Money is always an issue, but it’s something we’re looking out for,” Jones said.

If additional land were to be purchased, it ideally would need to be adjacent to the current site, Foster said. New landfill sections already require millions of dollars to construct, but a new landfill in a completely different location would be considerably more costly, with the requirement of constructing new facilities and infrastructure instead of using those that exist at the current landfill.

Additionally, there could be public opposition to a new site, if one were picked. Some nearby residents fiercely opposed the opening of the current landfill in the 1970s.

“When you’re installing a landfill that isn’t contiguous with the existing landfill, it is a very horrible siting process because you’re essentially building a new facility,” Foster said. “It’s something that would be nasty, so we want to avoid it as much as possible.”

The landfill also faces the ever-present challenge of environmental safety.

Landfills are designed to keep harmful materials from entering the environment. Liner systems prevent the trash from spilling into local watersheds, while underground drainage systems catch rainwater that leaches into the landfills and then carries with it harmful chemicals. Locally, that water is sent to the Dubuque Water & Resource Recovery Center for treatment.

Foster said DMASWA also is required to annually test groundwater for possible contamination and monitor the structural integrity of the liner system.

Landfill liners have a limited lifespan. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency states that it expects landfill liners eventually will fail, although it could take several hundred years. When that does occur, contaminates still remaining in the landfill could make their way to water sources.

Foster said he hopes the leached water that travels through the landfill filters any harmful contaminants before the liner fails. However, he noted that if any pollutants exist when the liner does fail, they will need to be addressed.

When space does run out

Foster believes the general trend for landfills is to increasingly expand the geographic area that they serve, with many landfills in the past decades going from city-based to regional.

“It’s so expensive to operate a landfill, so the more tonnage that you can bring in, the more you can offset that cost,” Foster said.

Dubuque’s landfill has followed a similar pattern. DMASWA serves all of Dubuque and Delaware Counties and parts of Jo Daviess and Grant counties.

Counties that don’t have their own landfill and don’t incinerate the waste locally then ship it somewhere else.

Jackson County, Iowa, originally had its own landfill, but in the early 1990s, it was running out of space and lacked the resources to expand.

“We knew we were running out of space with the landfill, and that we had to choose something,” said Mark Beck, the county’s waste authority director. “A lot of people didn’t want us to give up local control, but there just weren’t many options.”

Eventually, county officials agreed to construct a transfer station, where solid waste is collected and shipped to a larger private landfill in Illinois.

Beck said many county residents were initially hesitant about losing the local landfill, but, over time, many have come to prefer it.

“It can be a lot nicer in a lot of ways,” Beck said. “We don’t have that same smell issue that a lot of the landfills have, and it’s convenient.”

If Dubuque’s landfill were to run out of land to expand, Foster said, DMASWA would need to find some way to dispose of the trash, whether it be through incineration or shipping it to another landfill.

“Either you’re going to have a regional landfill, or you are not going to have a landfill at all,” he said. “If the time comes that we close down our landfill someday, we still need to have some sort of place to send our waste.”

However, truly shutting down Dubuque’s landfill wouldn’t be quick or inexpensive.

The DNR requires a landfill to be monitored for at least 30 years following its closure. This can include work such as testing water for possible contamination to repairing erosion. The main purpose of the monitoring period is to ensure that no harmful materials inside the landfill are leaching out into the environment.

“So, even if we were to close down the landfill today, it would still be an expense for the next 30 years,” Wagner said. “That’s the rule.”

Jackson County has maintained and monitored its former landfill since 1994, so the work must continue until 2024. Post-closure costs for maintaining the landfill for 30 years are estimated to be about $543,000.

Beck said he believes the Jackson County landfill has been less expensive to maintain since its closure largely because of the lack of industrial materials that are inside. However, he still anticipates that the landfill will need to have some minimum monitoring even past 2024.

“It’s always going to be watched,” Beck said. “We just need to make sure that nothing bad is coming out of it.”

When a landfill does close, the covering layer often allows for some form of development on top of the existing trash pile.

Adam Hoffman, associate professor of environmental chemistry at University of Dubuque, said closed landfill sites are often turned into recreational areas, such as parks.

The closed section of Dubuque’s landfill has been covered with grass, with a pavilion placed on top of one hill.

Beck said Jackson County’s former landfill now produces a hay crop annually, which the county sells.

Due to their proximity to Catfish Creek, Foster said he anticipates the closed sites at the Dubuque landfill eventually will be converted into recreational areas, such as bike and walking trails.

The future is uncertain

Foster and Wagner stressed that the current estimates regarding the tri-state area’s production of trash, and how many more years the landfill has left, are subject to change. Foster noted that annual waste tonnage actually decreased slightly in the past few years, despite increases in population.

Local trash disposal efficiency could continue to improve over time as residents become more attuned to proper waste disposal. The most recent study by the Iowa DNR on major landfills in the state estimated that about half of all trash thrown away could be recycled, reused or composted.

In 20 years, Wagner said, waste-disposal practices could change dramatically, which, in turn, could change how much trash is going into the landfill.

“It’s something that is always up in the air,” she said. “Hopefully, over time, people become smarter about what they are throwing away.”

New ways of utilizing landfills also are being developed. Hoffman said landfill mining, the process of harvesting precious materials now in landfills, is something that could take off in the future.

“There are a lot of things like precious metals in landfills that are just sitting there,” Hoffman said. “Companies are going to be looking at landfills as a treasure trove of sorts to harvest those resources.”

Jones said he is certain that other technologies will be developed over time that also will impact our trash. He believes that landfills eventually could become a thing of the past.

Foster said he is unsure of what the future holds for the Dubuque landfill. The one thing he is certain of: As long as there is trash, it will need to be dealt with.