BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – One man’s trash is not another man’s treasure.
That’s one thing former Great River Regional Waste Authority general manager Wade Hamm has taken away from 26 years of service to the landfill.
Hamm retired from the position on April 16th after handing the keys of the operation over to Austin Banks, a former employee of the landfill’s engineering firm.
“You just can’t have the attitude that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. First of all there’s rules and laws against that,” Hamm said with a laugh.
But in all his years working at the landfill since his days as a corrections officer, Hamm said his goal had little to do with handling waste, but more creating a lasting career for the employees of the landfill, should they choose to have one.
“My first day back in 1995, I had to lay off seven people. I never wanted to have to do that again. So my goal was to create a landfill that would last so these employees would always have a place to build a career if they wanted it,” Hamm said.
This year’s honoree of the Outstanding Professional Achievement Award from the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations, is leaving a legacy of expanding the life of the landfill across from Rodeo Park in Fort Madison for another 140 years.
The board of directors has recently purchased another tract of land across the northern border of the landfill that will provide enough airspace until about 2160. That purchase, along with the purchase of a waste grinder, and an agreement with the Fort Madison Airport regarding the use of the eastern grass runway, has positioned GRRWA to remain viable for more than a century.
The grinder which sits atop the open work area of the landfill takes most neighborhood solid waste and grinds it up before it’s deposited into the active working cell. Hamm said that increased the compaction rate from 1,200 feet/per cubic yard to 1,640 feet.
He said without the additional land purchase and the grinder, the county would have run out of landfill space in about 12 years.
“That was a big decision. We either moved forward or we became a transfer station which would have cost the tax payers more, because in addition to the tipping fees for the other landfill we would have had to pay to transport it as well,” Hamm said.
“But through a lot of work with the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport, and the state, we were able to obtain more land to the north of us from the state and now we have 144 more years of airspace.”
Hamm said his biggest concern going forward is the cost to dispose of the waste. He said GRRWA is one of the more solid landfills in the state financially, but eventually, like everything right now, costs are eventually going to outpace revenue.
“That’ll be the biggest hurdle going forward for the board. To make the necessary changes so that doesn’t happen,” he said.
He said one way would be to find a way to convert some of the waste to energy. The landfill could already be looking at possibly capturing methane from the waste – whether they want to or not.
He said the state continues to monitor the overall footprint of the landfill and once it gets to a certain size, they require the recapture of the methane that’s put out by the decay of the waste. He said some landfills capture the gas and flare it off, but many choose to use it to power equipment and heat buildings.
A large landfill near St. Louis, called the CHAMP Landfill captures methane gas and provides it for heating for a nearby school and some residents.
He said another big change over the past 25 years has been becoming a state environmental management system in a partnership with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
That program allows the landfill to keep about $80,000 per year in solid waste taxes paid to the state, if the landfill is fully engaged in recycling, composting, education, ground water mitigation, greenhouse gas mitigation and household hazardous waste mitigation.
As part of those efforts GRRWA adopted Rocky the Recycler from the children’s television series PAW Patrol. Hamm said that effort is ongoing and landfill staff wants to expand that program to reach more children.
The landfill also launched a Swap Shop about 12 years ago that he said is still under utilized.
“People bring in hazardous waste like paint and fertilizer, but if the containers are more than half full we put them on a shelf here and people can come in and just grab them. There’s no cost, all they have to do is log it so we know how many pounds went out to report to the state,” he said.
“It’s a really good program, but no matter how much we advertise it and talk about it, it still surprises me that people say they didn’t know we did this.”
Hamm has been a member of the state ISOSWO for the past eight years and will be receiving the professional award in June at the group’s annual meeting, which will be held for the first time ever in Fort Madison.
“We give that out to a person every year and truthfully – I was retiring and I think that’s probably why I got it. I’m pretty humble about that actually.”
Hamm said Banks is the right guy to take over the work, and the landfill is in pretty good shape. But the board will have to keep up with the times regarding tipping fees and future expansions.
The landfill board also just spent $1.5 million renovating the Keokuk transfer station behind Wal-Mart in Keokuk. Hamm said there are now two additional recycling bays as well as two additional trash bays and a 24-hour drop off for recyclables.
“I had some updates I wanted to do there, but it wasn’t $1.5 million worth. The board came down and toured the facility and decided if the landfill was going to last this long then they needed to upgrade that facility as well.”
The retirement still feels more like a vacation than a separation to Hamm.
“Not yet. It’s just in the back of your head that you’re on vacation and need to get back to work,” he said.