Landfill officials pull cover back on rate increases

Officials with the Great River Regional Waste Authority are requesting across the board rate increases to help offset upcoming expansion and potential regulatory projects. Image courtesy of Google Earth

GRRWA facing $8M to $9M in improvements in next seven years

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

FORT MADISON – You need a lesson in geometry to understand the next 10 years of activity at the Great River Regional Waste Authority landfill.

There’s way more to maintaining and expanding a landfill than dumping trash and covering it up. GRRWA director Austin Banks and landfill consultant Tim Buelow, a principal engineer with Evora Consulting out of Des Moines, sat with Pen City Current Wednesday to talk about the future of the landfill.

GRRWA board members recently made a move to increase fees charged at the landfill to start planning for expansion projects over the next seven to 10 years.

Banks told Lee County Supervisors two weeks ago that an increase of 250% or $1.50 per household in unincorporated homes in the county was needed starting in July as part of the entities’ Integrated Waste Services contracts. That fee is currently $1 per home.

Those contracts are also in place within incorporated communities in the county. Most communities charge that fee as a pass through on utility bills. Fort Madison and West Point leaders indicated that increased fee will be added to water and utility bills.

The increase in the IWS contracts will generate about $90,000 more annually from Lee County, and about $84,000 each from Keokuk and Fort Madison annually. Figuring in the other smaller communities in the landfill area should generate close to $325,000 per year in Lee County alone.

The landfill also services Van Buren County and rural Henry County, both of whom will also see similar increases. The board is also increasing tipping fees from $44 to $45.50 and will be reducing discounts to contract haulers. Minimum load rates increased in January from $3.50 for up to 100 lbs. to $5 for up to 200 lbs. in an attempt to reduce traffic load at the landfill scales, according to Buelow.

The tipping fees at the Great River Regional Waste Authority landfill and transfer stations in Fort Madison and Keokuk will be increasing by $1.50 and minimum load prices at the scale will also be going up, to go along with a 250% increase in contracted rates with municipal governments. Officials say the increases are due to projected expansion costs and the costs of potential EPA mitigation efforts. Image courtesy of GRRWA.

Banks said the landfill is an attractive option for haulers in Missouri and Illinois because GRRWA rates are better than those states’ so there is revenue being derived from that as well. But he said that dynamic can change as the economics of landfill operations change in those states.

“Right now it’s a good revenue source,” he said.

Buelow said the landfill needs to keep attracting trash because that is revenue. He said when tonnage decreases, that eats into revenue, because operational costs remain the same even when tonnage goes down.

Currently, according to figures from the landfill, GRRWA has assets and liabilities totaling about $9 million.

Buelow said the landfill also sets aside $15,000 each month for equipment and $15,000 each month for future cell construction. They also, under state mandate, have to deposit funds annually to pay for landfill closure and post-closure, which includes monitoring landfill cells that have been capped for an additional 30 years.

“Ordinarily those set asides would be enough, but the costs of building these cells is increasing. They’ve been setting aside money, but our projection is that at this point, for this period of time, it’s not enough,” he said.

“While they have money in the bank now it is expected to go down substantially due to the cell construction.”

One of the major costs of building new cells is dirt removal. Banks said that costs about $4.25 a cubic yard. Buelow said the next cell has about 800,000 cubic yards of dirt that will need to be removed by 2025. That alone would carry a price tag of about $3.4 million. Other costs would include liners and compacted clay, and gas and leachate infrastructure.

The landfill can offset some of the dirt costs by offering it to private and public partnerships and entities to haul away. The landfill recently donated a large quantity of dirt to the City of Fort Madison for the new marina project. That dirt was hauled away in an agreement that kept costs down not only on the project, but also for the landfill.

Banks said the landfill is planning on adding another cell in 2025 and a third new cell in addition to one opened in 2022, in 2030. Those three cells will ultimately cost the landfill about $6.1 million to construct and provide close to two decades of additional space. However, the landfill has additional expansion capabilities to the north of the current cells and that gives GRRWA about 140 more years of landfill space.

The other factor involved in the increase is the projected cost that could come into play with the installation of infrastructure to capture methane. The EPA has recently reduced the levels of methane gas that can be emitted from landfills and Banks said if GRRWA doesn’t hit that mark with the 2025 cell addition, they will almost assuredly exceed it in 2030.

Banks said that would require wells to be spaced out all over the landfill cells, not just the new cells.

According to data from Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990–2019, 15% of U.S. emissions of methane gas from municipal solid waste landfills.

“These would be wells with air powered pumps in them. They remove the leachate so the gas can be extracted. Keep in mind we can’t emit any gas from our cap, essentially,” he said.

Leachate is water that has percolated through a solid and leached out some of the sediment or particles.

The wells have to be piped together and then the blowers would vacuum the gas out and typically the gas is flared off, but Banks said depending on commodities at that time, there could be opportunities to capitalize on the gas if it made sense.

Buelow said the cost of additional infrastructure to generate power with the methane could be an additional million and then it boils down to what’s more cost-effective – consuming it for use, or flaring it off.

Banks said even if the landfill did find a way to use the methane, they would still have to have a flare system in place as a backup, according to EPA regs.

Buelow, who consults with more than 30 landfills, said there is way more to garbage and landfills than most people realize.

“They put their trash out by the curb and basically forget about it. Landfilling isn’t just putting garbage in a hole,” he said.

But he said GRRWA takes a 10-year approach to operations and budgets, when many landfills work year-to-year and adjust according to needs.

“Great River looks at a 10-year window and has a financial model that projects out to when cells have to be built, when equipment needs to be purchased, wage increases, and general cost increases,” he said.

“Then, financially, they look at what revenue they have and typically the model starts with no changes in revenue,” Buelow said.

“You talk about a 250% increase, maybe there could have been smaller increases over the years, but Great River has been able to hold it steady. Really that is a result of forward planning. But looking at the next 10 years, there’s quite a few large costs to be covered.”

He said every year GRRWA slides that 10-year model out another year. He said the inflation rate projection in GRRWA’s current budget model is 2%, which he said may not be sufficient given the current climate.

“In the next few years, it looks pretty good, but if we weren’t looking out 10 years we’d have a big surprise coming. We’d have another expensive cell to build and we could hit that new gas regulation and we need a new compactor. But that forward-looking window allows us to do some planning now that’s smaller than having to react all at once,” Buelow said.

“I commend Great River for looking that far out, because it requires strong planning.”

Banks said he will also be explaining the rate increase to county officials who are meeting with him later this week.

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