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Local View: Lack of landfill capacity only the start of waste woes

The May 26 News Tribune article about the lack of future landfill capacity in Northeastern Minnesota presented an interesting and troubling dilemma between those public and private entities which manage waste and those which regulate the process.

Kurt SoderbergI agreed with everything Jack Ezell of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District said about efforts to site a new landfill in the 1980s and how the process was ugly and ultimately ended with WLSSD processing garbage into fuel for several years and with St. Louis County spending a lot of money to investigate how it might process garbage rather than bury it in a landfill. But both entities ended up developing great recycling efforts, hazardous waste-management programs, and waste-reduction education. WLSSD has gone even further with its food-waste and yard-waste composting. But to add the additional step of resource recovery (usually mass-burn incinerators) would add a significant cost to the current methods of managing garbage and waste.

I have always had great respect for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, even though I have not always agreed with it on certain issues. In this case, I think that by urging the processing of waste, the agency is ignoring the reality of the difficulty of building and operating any kind of waste-processing system.

The waste hierarchy is an excellent strategy, and in the past the Legislature and the MPCA provided grant funding to build facilities such as incinerators. Virtually all of that money has now gone away.

While few landfills have been permitted recently, even fewer garbage-processing plants have been approved. Cost is a big factor, but just as important is to have a customer to use the steam or hot water from any waste-processing facility.

At WLSSD, we spent years looking for a customer for either the fuel produced from processing garbage or for the steam or hot water we would produce. None could be found at the price we needed to charge. Even the wastewater plant could not afford to pay that kind of price for the energy produced. Every existing plant in Minnesota has some kind of customer nearby to use the energy produced, and none has been found in Northeastern Minnesota.

In addition, existing resource-recovery facilities process far more waste than is available in Northeastern Minnesota, making the economy of scale far less attractive.

Does this mean landfilling is best? No. But landfilling that which does not get recycled, composted, or reused appears to be the most cost effective and publicly acceptable method available at the present time.

St. Louis County and WLSSD and their regional partners want to emphasize the upper end of the waste hierarchy and avoid trying to find a site for a garbage incinerator anywhere near Lake Superior or in Northeastern Minnesota.

The MPCA needs to consider potential landfill sites within the region — some sites that already have gone through the public-involvement process — and stop the pressure to add incineration or other processing. If not, more waste will travel down the roads to available landfills outside of the region and into Wisconsin.

Kurt Soderberg is former WLSSD executive director and past chairman of the MPCA's Solid Waste Management Advisory Council.

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