Atop a 45-acre hillside along Black Bridge Road, a tall, earthen plateau is capped by layers of clay and topsoil that cover a former city of Janesville landfill cell.
The expanse is a quiet section of the city of Janesville’s landfill that has been retired since 2006 and has been growing tall grass and wildflowers ever since.
The old landfill section basically sleeps; it’s idle except for regular burps of landfill methane that the city of Janesville traps using underground collector pipes that convert the gas to generate energy that is then pushed to a private electric utility’s power grid.
But the swath of slumbering landfill could see more active use in sustainable energy production in the coming years. It is one of several sites at the city landfill that the city is considering for possible development of a solar energy farm.
The city this summer plans to hire a consultant to launch a feasibility study to learn whether some parts of the city’s landfill property off Black Bridge Road would be well-suited for solar power generation.
The Janesville City Council last year approved spending for a solar study at the landfill, and the newly seated city council this week authorized spending up to $30,000 on a consultant.
The city is now shopping for a consultant that City Operations Director Maggie Darr said will investigate a range of unknowns as the city eyes solar energy prospects at its landfill.
Just one factor, Darr and city environmental technician Matt Robinson said, is whether there is enough flexibility to develop and operate arrays of solar collecting panels on some of the crests of the capped, retired landfill cells given that some of the sites have years of regulatory obligations and environmental monitoring requirements that remain.
Other questions are whether the city, or a private partner, might develop or operate the solar farm—and whether the city might lease the solar farm property or hatch a revenue and energy-sharing agreement with another entity, such as an electric utility or another owner.
It’s also not clear how much former landfill space would be immediately usable for such a project or whether the amount of land that is suited for solar infrastructure could support a solar project at a scale that might draw private development interest.
Darr said the city for the past few years has wanted to launch a solar energy suitability study at the landfill.
This year, the city council set a 30-year goal to become “carbon neutral.” While Darr said the concept of a landfill solar farm predates the city’s energy goals, solar at the landfill could be an active step by the city toward cleaner energy.
Meanwhile, private utilities such as Alliant Energy over the past two years have launched development plans to expand solar energy production at half a dozen proposed locations around Rock and Walworth counties.
Those projects would be medium- or large-scale solar farms developed and run on leased farmland.
Janesville’s landfill property is distinct in that it is municipally owned and that it faces certain environmental monitoring and regulatory burdens, including routine checks of gas emissions, linings and water testing.
The size and prospective costs of a project aren’t determined, but a feasibility study would shed light on those elements.
Darr points out that capped sections of the landfill have limited short-term reuse prospects, and as such, have been underused pieces of real estate.
Locally, Alliant Energy a few years ago developed a small-scale solar farm at a similar site—on top of a former coal ash landfill in the town of Beloit.
“I think it’s not ‘Can it be done?’ It’s ‘How can it be done? And is it in our interest to proceed with it?’” Darr said.
The city in the past has communicated with Alliant on the concept of solar panels at capped-off sections of the city’s landfill. The concept would not be unlike private utilities using landfill gas collection to generate power.
What would be different would be how the land might be leveraged. Arrays of solar panels tend to have larger above-ground infrastructure than gas collector systems, and they would be placed on parts of the landfill for probably 25 to 30 years of use, complete with infrastructure that would wire solar energy out of the panels, possibly underground.
That means sections of the city’s landfill that need ongoing, routine monitoring work would need to be reviewed to help the city decide whether the physical footprint and operations of solar infrastructure would be workable.
As Robinson, the city’s environmental technician, eyed the long hilltop along Black Bridge Road, he noted it is one of four sites the city would review in the solar study, which the city hopes to have completed later this year.
Another landfill area the study would review is the city’s clean fill landfill, a 10-acre site that is unlined with clay and is scheduled to be closed out in 2024. The clean fill site is smaller than the other sites but likely will have fewer monitoring requirements. However, it wouldn’t become capped and available for use for a few years.
Robinson said a study might show it’s easier to develop solar on the clean fill site than on other capped sites at the landfill that must operate under a more intensive, prolonged regulatory checklist.
“There’s less regulatory issues (at the clean fill site), like no gas system. A lot of solar installations that you see pop up (on landfills), it’s on former landfill areas like that, where there are less (regulatory) considerations, no (landfill) gas pipes and things like that,” Robinson said.
Pumpers & Mitchell’s faces an uncertain future after the Whitewater Police Department asked city elected officials to reject the bar’s request for a renewed liquor license, citing repeated trouble.
Bar officials strongly denied the level of wrongdoing they are accused of and will get their chance to more formally make their case at a city trial scheduled for Monday, May 24.
Members of Whitewater’s Alcohol Licensing Review Committee on Wednesday made a preliminary finding that they would recommend against renewing the bar’s license, but they said it was so they could hear more arguments and see more evidence at a trial.
The Whitewater Police Department on May 1 filed a complaint with the city that lists 70 incidents over the past year that were in one way or another tied to the bar, which a lieutenant wrote “keeps or maintains a disorderly or riotous, indecent and improper house.”
The language quoted matches part of the state statute on licenses.
But representatives from the bar emphatically pushed back, saying several of the incidents cited don’t allege wrongdoing at the bar itself. They filed a response to all 70 incidents and said it felt like the police department was setting them up for failure.
After the trial, the three-member committee is expected to make its formal recommendation on whether to renew the bar’s liquor license to the full city council. The council would likely then decide at its June 15 meeting—or sooner—whether it will renew the bar’s Class B liquor license, which would take effect July 1.
The committee first discussed the police department’s complaint at a May 6 meeting, but they had to meet again Wednesday to vote on their preliminary findings.
“I don’t want your business closed down. I want it to run smoothly,” Police Chief Aaron Raap said May 6. “I feel we’ve tried often enough, hard enough and enough strategies that it just doesn’t work with this business.
“We need something to change,” he also said.
The nature of the 70 incidents listed in the complaint vary widely, including underage people in the bar, sexual assaults, fights and disorderly conduct. Police also took issue with the bar not being able to share surveillance footage at times, but bar officials blamed the company whose system had crashed.
Raap said it “boggles my mind” that all of these reported incidents took place during a year when much of the city was shut down because of COVID-19.
One incident that generated much of the discussion at the May 6 meeting was from Oct. 8, when someone told police that the crowd in the bar surpassed the capacity limit established because of the pandemic.
Police asked Curt Patrick, the bar’s manager, to make an announcement to have the crowd spread out or move elsewhere. He ended the announcement by saying “Snitches get stitches.”
The complaint also says the crowd started chanting “F--- 12,” a general numerical reference to police.
Patrick said he apologized directly to the officer who responded that night, and he filed with the city the letter he wrote to the department after that incident.
“These words were in extreme poor taste on my behalf,” he wrote. “They were in no means directed towards the police officers responding to the call or towards any law enforcement for that matter, rather the anonymous complainant. This verbiage was spur of the moment and meant to lighten the mood. It was very immature and unprofessional of me and I sincerely apologize for my actions.”
But Patrick took issue with many of the incidents described by police and questioned how the bar or its staff could be responsible for what took place.
One example listed in the complaint from March 6 is a woman who reported her cellphone fell out of her pocket on the dance floor and was later deemed stolen.
In another instance, a man who had been drinking at the bar in September tried to get into a home on the 100 block of South Prairie Street, thinking his friends were there. The address is about a half mile away from the bar.
Another example is an Oct. 16 report of a man urinating in front of Ma’iingan Hall at UW-Whitewater. Police said he had been drinking at the bar beforehand.
“That’s unfortunate, but was he just drinking at our bar?” Patrick asked. “Am I responsible for somebody’s bladder on their walk home?”
Raap said all their calls related to Pumpers & Mitchell’s had put too much of a strain on his department for years. He said no other bar in the city compares, and all the time spent dealing with this bar takes away from preventive policing.
Patrick stood by his bar’s practices, saying they go above and beyond to make sure everyone is safe and complies with the law.
“If having a dance floor is riotous, then guilty as charged,” he said. “But other than that, I am no different than any other tavern in this town.”
He spoke highly of the bar’s newest ID scanner, saying it will better help them catch fakes and store information that will be helpful to police in further investigations.
Patrick wanted a chance to sit down with Raap to discuss matters more. Raap said the department has already had its meetings to try to work this out.
“This is not personal,” Raap said. “It’s against management style and apparent absenteeism on part of the licensee.
“This is a pattern and practice at this establishment,” he continued. “This is not a one-off. This is not, ‘Let’s regroup, we’re going to do things better.’ We’ve been down that road with them.”
A Rock County Board committee wants the county to eliminate a COVID-19 vaccine mandate at its Rock Haven nursing home and reinstate several nursing home employees the county has laid off for months after the workers declined the vaccine earlier this year.
The board’s Health Services Committee on Wednesday voted 4-1 to recommend the county discontinue a policy that since early this year has forced staff at the county nursing home to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during scheduled immunization clinics or face layoff until they took the vaccine.
The recommendation, which county Administrator Josh Smith said could go in front of the full county board as early as May 27, would bar the county from requiring workers at the nursing home to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as a condition of employment.
In addition, the committee recommends the board approve reinstatement for workers who have continued to be laid off after they declined vaccines offered during two clinics at the nursing home earlier this year.
The decision comes about a week after the county received a notice of legal claim from a Fitchburg attorney over $550,000 in lost wages for 11 Rock Haven workers laid off this year after they declined the COVID-19 vaccine.
The claim argues that federal law doesn’t allow public or private entities to force workers to receive a vaccine that lacks full approval for use by the Food and Drug Administration.
Earlier this year, the county had mandated Rock Haven workers receive the Moderna vaccine, which remains authorized for emergency use only.
Smith wouldn’t comment on the legal filing and its claim for back pay for the laid-off employees. But he said, as of Wednesday, 14 Rock Haven employees continued to be laid off after they declined the vaccine earlier this year.
He said the policy change would mean the COVID-19 vaccine “is no longer a condition of employment” at Rock Haven.
A lawyer is citing a state bill that bars government officials from mandating COVID-19 vaccines in a push to reinstate several Rock Haven employees who were laid off at the county nursing home after declining the vaccine earlier this year.
Smith said if the board approves the policy change, all 14 employees still laid off would be offered reinstatement. But he said it is possible some could be offered different jobs at the nursing home.
Smith said Rock Haven has since filled a few positions that came open during a wave of layoffs and resignations tied to the vaccine mandate. Those open slots included a nursing home social worker and a food service worker, Smith indicated.
County officials and Rock Haven in a December notice to workers announced the vaccine mandate and told the workers that they would be laid off and not allowed to return to work unless they took the vaccine.
The nursing home is the only county employer so far that has mandated vaccines for workers.
County officials earlier had said the county mandated the vaccines because it sought to protect Rock Haven’s vulnerable, elderly residential population from COVID-19 infection.
After the county laid off a few dozen workers at Rock Haven for declining vaccines, a move which shortly afterward drew threats of legal action from employees, the county board reviewed a proposal to repeal the vaccine mandate.
The Rock County Board on Thursday approved pay hikes and other measures designed to address staff turnover at the Rock Haven nursing home.
The board ultimately voted to amend a resolution that would have repealed the mandate in a way that allowed some employees to decline the vaccine for religious and health exemptions. Other workers who didn’t meet the exemptions faced layoff for failing to get vaccines when Rock Haven made them available through clinics.
Earlier letters of demand the attorney filed with Rock County for at least one of 11 laid-off employees had asked for the county to reinstate the employee even if they hadn’t received the vaccine.
The notice the attorney filed last week lists claims in a potential lawsuit of $50,000 in back pay and reimbursement of legal costs for each worker, but it doesn’t mention reinstatement of any of the workers. The letter refers to each of the individuals as a “former employee” of Rock Haven.
Bruce J. Pollock
Judith Patricia “Judy” Scott