Chestnut Ridge, a Giant of Its Kind

Knoxville's sanitary landfill has a projected 40-year future, and recycling isn't lengthening its much, yet

The clay's been scooped up from the valley at the foot of a ridge and layered a little at a time over piles of household trash and garbage that are dumped daily at the site, truckload after truckload. Already crushed in the packer trucks, the refuse is compacted once more by a huge, 100-ton tractor on immense, spiked rollers. The artificial mini-mountain is 200 feet above ground level at its peak, and it's spreading out to cover its first 60 acres.

It's the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, and it's 29 years old, going on 70 if projections are anywhere near correct. It takes in the accumulated debris of

Knoxville

and

Knox

County

households, and its expansions and planned expansions and the diversion of specific kinds of trash have lengthened its life by an estimated 40 years from those "crisis" days 15 years ago, when it was expected to exceed its limitations and need replacement before now. It has become an oddity of sorts, as it's one of the nation's, and the world's, largest landfills of its kind, Knox County Solid Waste Director John Evans says.

 

Evans, the county's solid waste guru, says the collection and disposal of the county's wastestream is "an enormously complicated matter," involving thousands of workers in the public and private sectors and costing the county about $4 million a year, more than $1 million of which is the cost of the diversion efforts.

Evans says mandating recycling would require an education process that would include convincing citizens that it's essential. Even with such an education program, he says, if would be next to impossible to convince people around here that they should comply with a new law that puts them to that much trouble.

The massive mound of grassy clay that looms up along Interstate 75 north of Knoxville at the Anderson County Line would look even larger if it weren't arising among the area's foothills.

The clay's been scooped up from the valley at the foot of a ridge and layered a little at a time over piles of household trash and garbage that are dumped daily at the site, truckload after truckload. Already crushed in the packer trucks, the refuse is compacted once more by a huge, 100-ton tractor on immense, spiked rollers. The artificial mini-mountain is 200 feet above ground level at its peak, and it's spreading out to cover its first 60 acres.

It's the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, and it's 29 years old, going on 70 if projections are anywhere near correct. It takes in the accumulated debris of Knoxville and Knox County households, and its expansions and planned expansions and the diversion of specific kinds of trash have lengthened its life by an estimated 40 years from those "crisis" days 15 years ago, when it was expected to exceed its limitations and need replacement before now. It has become an oddity of sorts, as it's one of the nation's, and the world's, largest landfills of its kind, Knox County Solid Waste Director John Evans says.

Siting landfills has been a difficult, wildly controversial proposition for more than 30 years. It got to be practically impossible for a time, when environmental concerns over contamination of earth and groundwater led the Environmental Protection Agency to get tough on the processes. Tennessee was slow to respond, but in 1991 the state Legislature passed a Solid Waste Act that called for better monitoring of waste disposal and landfills, and it called for an across-the-board reduction in landfilling by 25 percent.

That ordered reduction represented a huge number in total tonnage of wastes. At the time, the Knox County populace was burying more than a ton per capita, or just under 400,000 tons per year. It's gotten worse, while it's gotten better. While the total tonnage has grown with the population to 436,000 tons last year, the wastes deposited at Chestnut Ridge are down to a little over 300,000 tons.

Chestnut Ridge is a Class I or sanitary landfill, required by law since 1994 to line its base with four feet of clay, a theoretically impervious plastic liner, about the thickness of an adult's little finger, a textile fabric sheet and two feet of sand. The lining traps the water that filters down through the waste heaps and their clay toppings. The leachate, as that resultant fluid is called, is then pumped into holding and settling ponds and trucked back to Knoxville, a million gallons a month, to the Knoxville Utilities Board's Third Creek Treatment Plant, where it is treated with the city's sewage.

That entrapment and disposal of the fluids from the landfill greatly reduces the risk of contamination of the underground water in the landfill's area.

Meanwhile, the effects of diversion of other trash products, such as yard wastes—clippings, prunings, leaves, brush and the like—to a mulching and composting facility off Ailor Avenue in the city, and the separate dumping of construction and demolition wastes to landfills that receive such products has brought the total waste tonnage deposited at Chestnut Ridge down by more than 200,000 tons.

Another 350,000 tons of recyclable wastes have been collected, countywide, through voluntary recycling of such products as paper, aluminum and steel cans, plastic containers, glass, scrap metals,  and automotive tires, batteries, oil and antifreeze. Absent requirements or inducements, though, voluntary recycling among the householders in the city and county has leveled off in recent years.

The total waste managed by Knoxville and Knox County solid waste control efforts last year was a staggering 918,000 tons, or more than two tons per citizen, although the city's waste stream showed a decrease in 2004 for the first time in two years, attributed to large businesses' handling of their own waste materials and decreased yard wastes collected

Evans, the county's solid waste guru, says the collection and disposal of the county's wastestream is "an enormously complicated matter," involving thousands of workers in the public and private sectors and costing the county about $4 million a year, more than $1 million of which is the cost of the diversion efforts.

The city of Knoxville spends much more than the county, nearly $8 million a year, on waste disposal, but the difference is largely in its tax-supported residential curbside and backyard trash pickup operations, where the county leaves trash collection to the discretion of householders, who either haul their own to collection sites or contract with a private pickup service provider. The city's annual cost for diversion of materials from Chestnut Ridge last year was almost $1.8 million.

Rob Owen, the district manager for Waste Management, Inc., the Houston-based company that owns the Chestnut Ridge Landfill, says the fill there is tightly managed. One component there is the siphoning off of methane gas, which is produced as organic materials decompose within the fill. The gas is pumped to four generators at the site, which burn the fuel in modified diesel engines to turn out enough electricity to serve more than 4,000 homes. TVA buys the electricity, but Waste Management turns no profit on it, Owen says. He says the cost of the equipment and procedures eats up the TVA payments. The benefit to the company is in tax incentives and achieving compliance with the restrictions on gas emissions into the atmosphere.

Excess methane is "flared off," or burned in a standing pipe, because there is not an economically feasible market for its power-generating capacity, and it would be prohibitively expensive to pipe it away to a second-party user. Waste Management, however, sees a future market for the landfill gas it generates. A bioreactor process tested successfully in Europe adds water to the fill to speed up the decomposition of garbage to enhance a landfill's methane production and allow it to become a viable energy source, Owen says. That process hasn't been applied to large landfills in the United States, but its use to augment energy supplies here is widely anticipated, according to the company. Chestnut Ridge is deemed too far along in its life cycle to be readily converted to a large-scale methane source at this time.

The Chestnut Ridge facility now covers about a fifth of the 412 acres Waste Management owns at the site. Not nearly all of that acreage is suitable for filling, but a new phase, about the size of the existing fill, is being prepared for landfilling, and there will be another such phase in the future, as needed. The property straddles the Knox-Anderson County line, but Owen says none of the current or proposed fill is actually in the Knox County section. He says the company also owns property near Oliver Springs. It is a piece of land situated around a sandpit that is permitted for another landfill down the road that Owen and Evans say could dwarf the Chestnut Ridge facility. It's not yet in the preparation stage, as it is much farther from the population center than the currently employed site.

Chestnut Ridge absorbs all of the residential garbage and trash that is produced in Knoxville and Knox County. Waste Management, Waste Connections, and some smaller private contractors haul the county's Class I wastes to the landfill, and the city's is all hauled there by Waste Connections, a Folsom, Cal.-based firm that took over the city's contract with Browning-Ferris Industries about three years ago in an assets swap that left BFI working this part of the Southeast south of Chattanooga, and Waste Connections working the more northern sector.

Benson Henry, the Waste Connections Knoxville area general manager, says his company maintains no Class I landfill in this area, so its city contracts include an arrangement with Waste Management to dump household wastes at Chestnut Ridge. It collects and hauls the household trash for the city and about 30,000 county households. Waste Connections does have a Class III landfill in Scott County and hauls construction debris and large items, such as junked furniture and appliances, to a landfill in Loudon County. It maintains a transfer station in East Knoxville for sorting wastes, and its presence in the local waste disposal market is an element of both competition and efficiency that helps keep the tipping fees for dumping at Chestnut Ridge at a minimum, Evans says.

The tip fees the county pays are about $24 a ton, based on a 10-year contract that is up for renegotiation next year, Evans says. He says the rate is among the lowest in the Southeast and much lower than in the Northeast, where population density limits the availability of landfills, and the Far West or Florida, where topography has the same effect.

"Competition is a good thing for government when the government doesn't own its own landfill," Evans says, and Bob Whetsel, Knoxville's public service director, who manages solid waste disposal for the city, agrees. The city's contracted tip fees, in the middle of a 10-year contract, are a shade lower than the county's, in the $23.50 range. "Contract tipping fees change with market conditions," Evans says, declining to speculate on the future of those conditions here.

 

With its diversion efforts, the county claims a reduction of almost 30 percent from the sanitary landfill wastestream, and the city's reduction is pegged by Public Service Director Whetsel at about 56 percent.

Evans says there are some differences in waste accounting practices at the city and county, but that the 25 percent reduction target was clearly exceeded, countywide, last year.

Recycling at the household level has not grown as fast as the other diversion methods because it is voluntary in both the city and county, and it depends on individuals to sort their own trash and deliver recyclables to drop-off points or pay extra to have it picked up. Curbside recycling pickup is available city- and countywide from Waste Connections for an extra fee, was attempted by the city at its expense in a pilot project in the early '90s, but it was not very successful at the time, again because the sorting was voluntary. Waste Connections has attracted about 7,000 of its 30,000 households in the county outside the city to pay an additional $3.50 per month for recycling, but the in-city project Waste Connections began in October with the city's blessing has only about 1,500 paid participants out of 57,000 households so far. "We're hoping it'll catch on more," Henry says.

Evans says mandating recycling would require an education process that would include convincing citizens that it's essential. Even with such an education program, he says, if would be next to impossible to convince people around here that they should comply with a new law that puts them to that much trouble.

Whetsel says the city's populace seems to like the way things are in terms of trash collection. "In the last mayor's poll on city services, trash collection got the highest rating," he says. Whetsel says the last time the curbside option was considered in the city, a few years ago now, the cost estimate was $1.5 million, but the lack of participation in the pilot project dimmed its possible employment. He doesn't see it to be plausible without better public education or a higher demand for recyclable materials.

Curbside recycling, like curbside trash pickup, would be difficult and expensive in the county because of the dispersal of homes across a wide area, and it hasn't been seriously considered.

A more likely successful stimulus to recycling could come in a pay-as-you-throw program that charges households for the weight of garbage and trash hauled to a sanitary landfill. Weighing the trash cans would be a cumbersome trash collection factor, but the cost of that procedure would be a part of the charge to the householder, whether by tax or by fee assessment. Such a program has been tried in other cities, such as Minneapolis and Seattle, with considerable success in improving recycling, which would be free of the weight charges, but there has been little in the way of impetus to establish a pay-as-you-throw procedure here.

Some of the current recycling costs to city and county governments have been offset by their sale of recyclables, especially paper, which makes up more than half of the total weight of recyclable material collected. Whetsel says that the sale of recyclable newsprint at its $31-a-ton price has brought the city about $250,000 in the last year, significantly offsetting its $400,000 recycling costs. He says that was the only significant cost offset in the recycling program to date.

The markets for recyclable paper have been generally good, Evans and his recycling coordinator, Sara Hart, say. They say the aluminum market is also strong and the market for recyclable scrap metals, especially steel, has been improving with the upswing in the world price of steel. Plastic has a lesser market, as does glass.

Contrary to suspicions, Hart and Evans say, there are very few truckloads of any kind of recyclables that do not go to market somewhere from Knox County. "Only the most contaminated loads have to be sent to a landfill," says Evans, and those aren't many."

 

At Chestnut Ridge, the bane of the landfill operators is the weather. When it rains much, the site is muddied up and the process takes longer and is more complex. This season has been especially rainy, Owen points out, and it's meant more and harder work.

The opposite, drought, is also a problem, as the fill needs water to decompose properly, Evans says. That hasn't been a problem lately, but it has in the past. "Too often, it's feast or famine," Evans says of the weather and its vagaries.

The annual arrival of seagulls, who number in the thousands in their month-long stay at the landfill in winter, picking for food, is another problem, Owen says. They foul everything that's uncovered with their droppings and are a general nuisance, Owen says. But the work goes on. "It is what it is," Owen says of waste disposal. "It's the stuff people don't want, and we deal with it."

Household trash collection and disposal is a little like mail service, in reverse, Evans says. As the postal slogan can be paraphrased, "Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor dark—of early morning—stays these couriers..." and all that. He says the trucks start rolling in at 5 a.m. and there's no stopping them. The first place a county snow removal crew heads when snow or ice accumulates or is even threatened in the county, Evans says, is to Raccoon Valley Road and the Fleenor Mill Road spur to Chestnut Ridge, because there is no room for garbage trucks to line up to wait for tipping their loads, and the trash must go through, as it were.

Until more and better methods of recycling are developed and made economically necessary or enforced, those trucks will keep heading up to Chestnut Ridge every day of every year.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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