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Janesville landfill continues to expand, remain competitive

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Jake Magee
Monday, September 18, 2017

JANESVILLE—Since the early 1970s, Janesville's landfill has been in the business of turning trash into cash.

Few small cities own and operate their own landfills. Janesville's facility at 525 Black Bridge Road has allowed it to keep its waste collection fees low and even profit from other municipalities that contract with the city to dispose of their garbage, city officials said.

But space isn't infinite. One day the landfill will be full, and the city will need private haulers to get rid of its garbage.

Fortunately, that day is still decades off, said John Whitcomb, city operations director.

Until then, the city will keep doing what it's always done: collect thousands of tons of trash each year while trying to remain competitive in the marketplace.

A LONG-TERM VISION

In 1972, the city bought about 650 acres from the Janesville Sand & Gravel Co. The city also contracted with the company to allow it to continue mining sand and gravel with the intention that the city would use the mined-out areas for landfilling, Whitcomb said.

Forty-five years later, the city is still reaping the benefits of that decision.

"Those council members back then clearly had some long-term vision," he said.

The landfill started in the south and worked its way north as different parts of the property were filled with trash.

The northeast portion that's currently being filled opened in March 2005. It contains several cells. The city last year opened cell four and will open cell five next year, Whitcomb said.

When all the cells fill up, the city hopes to open a new site within the landfill but farther west. Officials have started the permitting process and hope to have that finalized by late 2019, Whitcomb said.

"Construction timing there will depend upon estimates of when cells four and five will reach capacity—always a moving target," he wrote in an email to The Gazette.

A LIMITED FUTURE

Operating a landfill allows Janesville to keep trash collection and disposal costs the lowest in the state, Whitcomb said. Collection costs for 2018 will be $110 a year per household, while other communities pay private haulers upwards of $150 a year, he said.

Whitcomb estimated there's enough space for another 50 years' worth of trash.

After that, "we'll be trucking it somewhere else," Whitcomb said. "That's the only option, right?"

Parts of the landfill eventually could be used for solar panel projects, which would turn dead ground into a producer of solar energy, he said.

"Landfill solar projects are becoming a big thing," Whitcomb said.

The landfill also makes money in other ways. 

For instance, the closed southern landfills have wells installed that allow the release of certain gases. The city contracts with a company that uses methane gas released by the landfills to make electricity, Whitcomb said.

HURDLES

Operating a landfill entails challenges.

When Janesville bought the property, General Motors used ash beds at the site to dump paint sludge. Heavy metals in the sludge attached to the ash, which made them more disposable.

However, organic compounds in the sludge seeped through the ash and eventually contaminated the groundwater.

The Environmental Protection Agency got involved, and those areas closed and became Superfund sites. The agency requires a 30-year care period for such hazardous sites, and Janesville is 21 years into its care period, Whitcomb said.

Compacted clay on site was used to cap off closed areas, which eventually are covered with natural vegetation.

"You want to establish vegetation to maintain the integrity of the cap. It's all about managing surface water drainage," Whitcomb said.

Around 2009, the city ran out of clay and had to start buying it elsewhere. That added to the landfill's expenses, but it's still competitive, Whitcomb said.

At one point, city officials almost stopped the landfill from being competitive.

From around 2009 to 2013, a group of people didn't want the landfill entering into agreements with municipalities outside Janesville, which almost led to the landfill's demise, Whitcomb said.

The landfill eventually went up for sale. The tons of garbage it had been accepting plummeted because the city council at the time wanted to reduce the waste the landfill took in, Whitcomb said.

"You can preserve yourself out of business, which is almost what happened," Whitcomb said.

The city proposed several changes to a new council in late 2014. One change was to allow the city manager to enter into disposal agreements up to a certain amount for a certain length of time. By the end of 2015, the landfill had six contracts in place, Whitcomb said.

"We've turned this around. We're doing really well," he said.



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