Billings lawyer Joel Guthals isn’t sure how much effect his words will have, but he plans to testify Tuesday night on the proposed expansion of the Billings Regional Landfill, and to submit written comments as well.
The state Department of Environmental Quality will be conducting the public hearing from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in the gym of Blue Creek School, 3652 Blue Creek Rd.
The DEQ released a draft environmental assessment on the proposed expansion on Dec. 16 and will accept written comments, electronically or by mail, until Jan. 30. In the draft EA, the state agency preliminarily determined that “there are no significant impacts from this project that would require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement.”
The final EA could change that finding, but it seems unlikely based on the conclusions of the 68-page assessment.
Guthals’ pessimistic outlook is conditioned by what he says is the city’s history of making false representations about its plans for the landfill, as well as by its long-term “gross mismanagement” of the landfill. Guthals, and many other people who live near the landfill, say the city has never begun to get a handle on controlling all the debris, plastic grocery bags in particular, that blows out of the landfill and litters huge swaths of surrounding land.
How to submit comments
Comments must be submitted by Jan. 30 to DEQ Solid Waste Section, PO Box 200901, Helena, MT or emailed to DEQSWprogram@mt.gov. For more information about the applications or the permit process, call the DEQ at 406-444-5300.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contacted the city about the mess, and about how little they’ve done,” he said.
Dave Mumford, director of the Public Works Department, which operates the 420-acre landfill, said complaints about blowing debris are “completely legitimate.” But the city is taking steps to deal with that problem and is continually improving operations at the landfill, he said, extending its life through increased efficiency and better technology.
DEQ approval is the final step needed for expansion, Mumford said, though technically a future City Council will have to approve spending city funds on the expansion. Mumford said the DEQ is expected to make a decision sometime this spring.
If the expansion is approved, the new acreage won’t even be needed for 40 or 50 years, Mumford said. But a lot of planning needs to be done and tree-planting should start as soon as possible, both to shield the landfill from view and to provide a wind break.
“If we can’t get a permit for this,” he said, “we’d have to re-site a new landfill, and 50 years wouldn’t be much time at all.”
The city is proposing to expand the landfill—located off Blue Creek Road between Hillcrest and Jellison roads—by a total of 293 acres, onto land it has already bought. Of that, 232 acres would be used for trash storage and the other 61 acres would be used for ponds, roads, buildings and ditches.
Marc Vischer, who lives an eighth of a mile from the landfill on Hillcrest, said the DEQ appeared to have brushed off a lot of nearby residents’ concerns in the environmental assessment.
“It looks to us like the DEQ is basically compiling and printing information that the city sends them,” he said.
“Some of the neighbors I’ve talked to out here want to push for a full EIS, which would be much more thorough and comprehensive,” Vischer said. “If they’ve got 40 to 60 years, what’s the hurry?”
Vischer also objects to the city’s accepting trash from numerous outlying communities while asking local residents to bear the burden of living next to the landfill. Not only that, he said, the city encourages others to use the landfill by charging some of the cheapest rates in the region.
Mumford said the city takes trash from Yellowstone, Stillwater, Big Horn, Musselshell and Carbon counties, as well as from the communities of Laurel, Big Timber and Park City, and the Wyoming cities of Cody and Powell.
He also acknowledged that the city of Billings charges comparatively little for the service—$17.14 a ton for city residents, $20.57 for residents of Yellowstone County and $24.87 for out-of-county trash. That money goes back to the Solid Waste Division of Public Works. A 4 percent franchise fee is also charged, with that money going into the city’s general fund.
Meanwhile, a landfill in Helena charges $62 a ton, Great Falls charges $29, Bozeman $27, Sheridan, Wyo., $45 and Casper, Wyo., $47.
When the City Council was considering taking in more outside trash in 2011, Mumford told council members it could be a real money-maker for the city. But the council, he said, adopted a policy that prohibits Solid Waste from making a profit. It is supposed to charge just enough in “tipping fees,” as they are called, to break even.
Mumford said it would seem wrong to raise rates just “because we can. … There should be some nexus between what you’re charging and what the customer is receiving.”
Mary Louise Hendrickson, a DEQ employee who helped prepare the environmental assessment, said the first hour of the meeting Tuesday will be an open house, with maps, photographs and other materials on display, and with representatives of the city and the DEQ available to answer questions.
Public comment will then be taken from 7:30 to 8:30. Those wishing to speak will have to sign in, and how long each person is allowed to speak will depend on how many people sign up.
Guthals said giving people just an hour to speak seems inadequate. At a Board of Adjustment hearing on the proposal last spring, he said, scores of people were unable to speak before the hearing ended.
One of the subjects Guthals plans to address is the lack of transparency over the years. Guthals, who moved to a house a mile southwest of the landfill in 1979, said he was told at the time by a city engineer that the landfill would be closed by the year 2000 and turned into a park or a golf course. Other residents were told similar things, he said.
And when residents were working to establish the Hillcrest Natural Area 20-some years ago, he said, the city assured them that land it was buying on the north side of the landfill would always be a buffer, and that no refuse dumping would be visible from the natural area. But the existing landfill has already moved into that “buffer zone,” he said.
“So there’s another whopper,” Guthals said.
Mumford, who has led Public Works since 2001, said he doesn’t know what representations were made in the past. But he said he looked at landfill master plans going back many years, and they always talked about how the landfill would be operating well into the 21st century.
As for concerns that Hillcrest Road will be used to access the expanded landfill area, Mumford said that while Hillcrest is identified as the access road in the environmental assessment, that could change.
“Those are all decisions that would be made many, many years from now,” he said.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the pace of technology and regulations could completely alter the picture long before the proposed expansion is scheduled to begin, he said.
The city now grinds yard waste, mattresses and care tires—removing and recycling the steel in the process—and in the future it may use giant grinders to process everything entering the landfill. That would greatly aid compaction, he said.
Mandatory recycling of more materials might also be in force in the future, he said, as might a ban on grocery bags, which would cut down on litter. The litter problem would also be reduced if the City Council were to require the bagging of all waste that goes into garbage cans and dumpsters.
“Hopefully,” Mumford said, “with technology, landfills are eventually obsolete.” By the time of the scheduled expansion, he said, “hopefully, by that point, we could be mining it.”