In the arid West, solid waste officials believed early on that the climate would prevent landfills from leaking heavily and contaminating groundwater. So states such as Wyoming operated their landfills without liners.
They learned much later that just a little water can make landfills leak.
About 20 years ago, in response to the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the state of Wyoming began to monitor for groundwater contamination at landfills — and found it.
In recent years the state Legislature has allocated millions of dollars to cap the leaking landfills and treat contaminated groundwater.
This year, two legislative interim committees — the Joint Interim Committee on Minerals, Business and Economic Development and the Joint Appropriations Committee — were assigned landfill remediation as their top study priority.
State Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, is chairman of the minerals committee and is co-chairman of the appropriations committee. Bebout believes the Legislature has developed reasonable approaches to the landfill problem. Lawmakers established a $45 million fund this year to address leaking landfills.
One goal of the interim study will be to find a long-term revenue stream.
One proposal is to divert some of the $10 million to $11 million per year that currently goes to leaking underground storage tanks, or LUST. The LUST program has been operating for about 20 years — funded by a one penny stream from the total state sales tax on gasoline and diesel.
The program has made significant inroads into the list of necessary projects.
“We’ve just about got the low-hanging fruit, the high-hanging fruit and now we can consider taking some of the money for landfills,” Bebout said.
An earlier Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality estimate pegged the cost of cleaning and treating all of the state’s leaking landfills at approximately $200 million.
That was a conservative estimate, said Carl Anderson, administrator of the DEQ’s solid and hazardous waste division.
“The number’s still out there but as we move through the process of refining our costs, our numbers will change,” he added.
The agency is required to submit reports annually to the Legislature.
The last report, issued in December, listed 11 priority landfill projects at an estimated cost of $30.79 million in the next 20 years.
Campbell County has two projects on the list. One project, costing $4.3 million, would improve the gas collection system and possibly cap more of a landfill that was closed 10 years ago. The second project, costing $4.5 million, entails capping and monitoring the unlined area of Campbell County’s current operational landfill.
Cheyenne is on the priority list for $9.5 million to cap 76 acres of the city landfill currently used only for construction and demolition waste. Other municipal waste is transported from Cheyenne to a facility in Ault, Colo.
Another closed landfill that has contaminated groundwater is the Casper Balefill along the North Platte River. Estimated cost for additional monitoring and an improved landfill gas collection system is $1.38 million.
Other landfills on the list are in Sheridan, two projects totaling $1.8 million; Evanston, $509,195; Guernsey, $2.6 million; Newcastle, $1.6 million; Buffalo, $2.8 million; and Riverton, $1.5 million.
An additional piece of the contamination issue is closing local landfills and transferring the trash to a regional landfill system.
“That’s a much more immediate need, particularly when there are small, unlined landfills that need to be closed and transfer trash to a larger, regional, lined landfill,” said George Parks, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Municipalities.
The establishment of a trash transfer operation, he said, can cost $750,000. The towns don’t have that kind of money and can’t raise enough to even set up a small transfer station, he said.
Some communities have already started the trash transfer operation with grants from the State Loan and Investment Board, a group that includes the governor and the other four elected state officials.
“In our mind that’s much more urgent and lot easier to get a handle on,” Parks said.
The normal procedure when a city or town closes a landfill is to cap it with three-foot layers of clay soil, followed by grading so that any precipitation runs off to the side rather than down through the landfill material.
“That can get pretty expensive if you have 10 acres,” Parks said.