Public works director ponders future of trash disposal in Dillingham
Death and taxes, as the old saying goes, are all but certain. But one could easily add trash. The challenge is what to do with that trash, especially when you are running out of places to put it.
Dillingham Public Works director Ken Morton's job is to manage the 3 million pounds of trash that arrive at the Dillingham landfill annually. Earlier this year, Morton submitted a report to the city on the future of the landfill's operations, including a proposal for a new landfill area, known as a "cell."
Morton says the operational life of the "active cell" (the area of the landfill currently being filled with trash) is nearly complete and he expects the cell to be full by the end of this year. The active cell contains ash from the landfill's incinerator operation, as well as trash that is not able to be run through the incinerator.
Once the trash is dumped in the cell, it is compacted down by a heavy piece of equipment known as a "compactor," before being covered with fill to prevent the contents from being dispersed. The active cell is surrounded by berms, or raised banks, that extend the operational life of the cell.
This is where Morton's plan for a new cell comes in. Morton and his staff are preparing to do the work needed over the summer. "The new cell is to have three phases and should last 45 years," Morton says.
This projection is dependent on the continued optimal operation of the landfill's Penram incinerator, and the incinerator is not without its problems.
Trash that is not properly sorted before being fed into the incinerator can make an already costly operation even more expensive and frustrating. If a blockage in the incinerator cannot be easily reached, the incinerator must be stopped and allowed to cool before the offending item can be removed. "A small piece of pipe can shut down the incinerator for up to three days," explains Morton, noting that this has happened in the past.
However it is the everyday glass and cans in unsorted trash that create the biggest challenge.
"Glass and metal creates problems operationally with the incinerator," he said. "It reduces its efficiency and it requires us to embank more when it's down and increases operation costs."
For the most part, Morton says, the incinerator operates well, although he acknowledges that people around the community might have differing views on how the landfill spends its money. The incinerator is currently eating almost three times as much oil as originally planned.
Despite this, Morton still thinks the incinerator is indispensable.
"It costs about the same per year if we buried everything instead of burning in the incinerator and burying the other third," he said. "The challenge, though, is the available space that we have goes away much quicker."
The problem of trash is not new, and rural communities have had to evolve their solutions to meet changing regulations. In 1996, the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, banned the practice of open burning of general trash. It was this regulation that eventually led to the purchase of the incinerator in 2015.
Explaining the span of years between the change in regulations and the purchase of the incinerator, Morton says "the DEC worked on the larger landfills first, and as they brought those landfills into compliance they stretched their gaze further out."
That meant that Dillingham came within the DEC's gaze and had to fall in line. Dillingham's city manager, Rose Loeria, acknowledges the benefits of the changes. Loeria remembers great plumes of blue smoke rising from the open burning operation, "which isn't good for the neighbors."
But the new regulations also include monthly testing requirements, at the city's expense.
"We're monthly doing our testing and it's very expensive, about $80,000 a year and that is just one of the tests," she said. "That's monitoring the wells [in the incinerator] and we have to do methane testing and we have to test the ash coming out of the incinerator."
So far the incinerator is passing all of its required tests, but the costs keep mounting and the budget keeps shrinking.
The projected operating budget for 2017 is $764,000, and according to a report issued by the city, the landfill operations are heavily subsidized by the city general fund.
With the annual cost of running the incinerator reaching up to six figures, problems arising from poor sorting of trash, as well as the need for constant growth and development of the landfill, what to do with the city's trash is an issue that is not going away anytime soon.