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Column: Goodhue County reaches a solid waste crossroads

By Greg Isakson, Goodhue County Public Works Director

As you may know, Goodhue County is considering the adoption of a Solid Waste Designation Ordinance that would require all Mixed municipal solid waste (trash) generated in the county to Red Wing's Solid Waste Campus.

A major reason for considering this ordinance is a 2014 legislative change that would allow the county's landfill into the state's Closed Landfill Program if the county designates all mixed municipal solid waste generated in the county to a resource recovery facility located in the county.

Greg IsaksonThe only such facility in Goodhue County is Red Wing's Solid Waste Campus.

The county owns an unlined landfill (on Bench Street in Red Wing) and leachate has left the site. This landfill will need to be cleaned up when the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency feels that it is a threat to the environment. Only landfills in the state's Closed Landfill Program can access funds from the Minnesota Solid Waste Tax for cleanup projects.

If the county does not pass this ordinance, then the county's landfill will not be allowed in the Closed Landfill Program and the costs to clean up of this landfill will be totally paid with Goodhue County property tax revenues.

The state collects a Solid Waste Tax charged on every trash bill paid in Minnesota. Goodhue County residents have paid millions into this fund, and will continue to pay this tax without being able to access those funds for this landfill cleanup project if the landfill is not in the state's Closed Landfill Program.

Unknown cleanup cost

Unfortunately, the cost to clean up and maintain this landfill are unknown. The state has paid $14 million plus $500,000 per year to clean up a similar landfill in Winona. Goodhue County's future financial liability is unknown since no one knows the cost to clean up the landfill, or how long or how expensive those annual charges will be in the future.

If the county adopts this ordinance, the state would allow the county's landfill into the Closed Landfill Program. Once in the state's program, funds generated through the Solid Waste Tax will be used to clean it up. Under this scenario all trash generated in the county would need to be processed in Red Wing to allow the Bench Street landfill into the program.

Trash brought to Red Wing's facility will be processed to remove hazardous materials, remove recyclable materials, and shred the remainder into a fuel used to generate electricity, which is then added to the grid where most of us get electricity for our homes and businesses.

Everything we throw in the trash is made up of natural resources. Even plastic bottles are made from petroleum products, which are a natural resource that can be reused. Red Wing's facility is recovering many of the natural resources in the trash that can be reused.

The final step of this processing is burning what is not recovered. Burning may not be the best way to use the natural resources in the remaining trash, but is a feasible use of those resources to generate another resource for society, electrical power.

The waste hierarchy

Minnesota has set up a hierarchy of how the state wants residents to handle their trash: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost, waste-to-energy, and lastly landfill. The state also requires counties to support that hierarchy in their solid waste plans. Designating trash to be processed at Red Wing's facility supports the state's hierarchy since waste-to-energy is higher than landfilling.

Processing trash requires a building, equipment, fuel, man power, and of course money to operate. Processing trash is inherently more expensive than landfilling where the trash is simply placed in a landfill (and none of the natural resources are recovered or ever used for a beneficial purpose).

City of Red Wing is upgrading the Solid Waste Campus to improve capabilities to process trash. They have issued bonds to cover the cost and these bonds will need to be repaid through the fees to bring trash to their facility, therefore, those who currently use their facility will see higher disposal fees.

A majority of the trash generated in the county is processed by Red Wing. Most of the trash not currently processed by Red Wing is landfilled. Since processing costs more that landfilling, those county residents whose trash is currently landfilled would see a higher increase in trash disposal than residents who currently pay to have their trash processed.

It is hard to figure out how much more that will be since the private haulers will be determining what they will be charging to bring trash to Red Wing's facility for processing. The only increase reported to county staff is from Wanamingo. That city's hauler said taking the trash to Red Wing would cost an additional $1.95 per household per month, which is about a 14% increase.

How much would your trash disposal go up? Only your hauler knows for sure and you may want to start that conversation. If that quote seems too high, you may want to get another quote.

To designate or not

Goodhue County is at a fork in the road. The county will either designate solid waste or not. This designation issue is a major focus of the county commissioners. They are weighing several factors from who will pay to clean up the county's landfill, limiting the disposal options for existing trash haulers, the current and long-term financial impacts to the county as a whole and to individual residents in the different parts of the county, the environmental impacts, future liabilities, to following state rules.

Your county commissioners are working together and striving to find the best solution for the county as a whole.