Letter to the editor: Vernon County and Wisconsin are national leaders in landfill safety

Recently I became aware of information being circulated in the county through social media and emails that questions the safety of the Vernon County landfill. Since I was instrumental in helping site the original landfill and ran that facility for 18 years, I would like to explain why fears about groundwater protection are not well founded. 

When I came to Vernon County, 25 town and municipal Dumps were depositing trash into an open hole in the ground to be burned or buried at the end of the day. The historical problems created by this common practice have given all municipal solid-waste landfills a bad name.

The federal government passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in 1976 to standardize and minimize the risks associated with municipal solid-waste landfills. This act gave the states the authority to impose requirements for solid-waste landfills to ensure compliance with Federal 40 CFR part 257 or 40 part 258 federal revised criteria. 

Wisconsin decided to exceed the federal landfill requirements for safety, and in 1988 established our current NR 500 landfill code. This mandated that all non-conforming local dumps had to close, and any new landfills had to meet the new requirements. The federal compacted clay liner requirement is 24 inches, and Wisconsin requires 48 inches. Vernon County, being very environmentally conservative, decided to construct a 60-inch compacted clay liner under the landfill. Clay liners are placed in one-foot lifts and are tested for optimum compaction, moisture content, dry density, and grain size distribution. 

We also proved that 10 feet of natural soil existed between this compacted clay liner and bedrock. Natural soil at the Vernon County landfill site is clay based. Anyone with knowledge of compacted clay soil’s ability to restrict flow and natural soils to treat contaminates will understand Vernon County’s commitment to protecting the environment. 

The 60-mil geomembrane placed on top of the clay liner is tested for thickness, tensile properties, density and melt index and for stress cracking. All equipment used to install this membrane is constantly tested, and every weld is air pressure tested to ensure integrity. 

The final test is an electronic leak detection process that can locate all possible leaks. If any pinhole leak is detected, it is repaired by welding a large patch over that area. Again, all welds are tested to make sure no leaks are possible.

The Vernon County landfill design exceeds state and federal subtitle D Code in other aspects. We have an 18-inch, not the required 12-inch, drainage layer above the membrane liner for protection, and that allows the leachate water to drain into a pipe and pump system for removal, acting as a reverse sewer drain field, keeping the bottom relatively dry. The Vernon County design has double the perforated pipes required, and the bottom slope of the landfill is steeper than required to capture and remove the leachate water faster and more effectively, keeping levels very low in the landfill. The collection pipes must be jetted every year and video inspected every five years to ensure no obstructions. We are required to measure the depth of leachate on the landfill liner at six different locations monthly and report this to DNR. 

We installed a double-walled, 30,000-gallon, above-ground leachate storage tank to add to the existing storage capacity to help us remove the leachate when we have snow melt or a rain event when trucking cannot keep up. The best policy to prevent landfill problems is to keep the water off the bottom, and not allowing any excess that would put pressure on the liner systems. The Vernon County clay liner exceeds the federal requirement by a factor of 2.5 times. With this and all of the other protections, I have no reason to think the Vernon County landfill will ever create any environmental problems.

With about 35 years of operating history, there is no indication from existing subtitle D landfills in Wisconsin that any of these liners are starting to fail. These landfills have redundant systems and protections in place to protect the environment. The Vernon County landfill has 25 monitoring wells that surround the land fill that are sampled for all public health and welfare parameters. This testing is done twice a year with all results reported to WI DNR.

Having the safest possible landfill is not the only benefit of having a small, local landfill. Everyone is responsible for the waste they create forever. Vernon County funds a landfill Long Term Care and Closure account with cash reserves. Private landfills have the ability to cover these costs with an in-house insurance policy and not tie up any cash reserves. A private company can change its name and disappear; Vernon County cannot. This is very important to economic development when companies are looking for a location to site their business. A local landfill keeps the monies received for services provided in the local economy. All decisions are made by the local county board members that you elected and are part of the Vernon County community.

It makes a lot more sense to me to use the landfill that we own over sending it to a mega private landfill out of our control that must satisfy their investors need for profits. We have the liability for our waste, which in turn gives us the legal ability to direct our waste to any landfill we select. The Vernon County Landfill has operated without the need for tax dollars for over 30 years. If any financial support was needed, it was a loan from the general fund that was paid back, and currently, we are charging ourselves interest.

Waste disposal is a necessary service that Vernon County provides because local governments cannot afford to do it under present landfill standards and costs. It is no different from other services that are being subsidized with tax dollars. If all the municipalities, businesses and citizens would direct their waste to the Vernon County landfill, the operation would not only remain self-funded, but would have the ability to expand services to further protect our precious environment. Long-term savings will far exceed the short-term difficulties.

When you see your county board member, don’t forget to thank them for voting to support the long-term operation of the Vernon County Landfill. It was not an easy decision, but they did it with the same dedication to our citizens and environment as did the county board that first agreed to enter the landfill business at the request of the municipalities that were losing their ability to provide this service.

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