25 for 25: The End of the Unlined Landfill
By Thomas S. Burack, DES Commissioner
For many of us, taking out the trash is not significantly different today than it was 25 years ago, other than we are a little better about recycling. But, the way that our cities and towns manage our garbage is nothing like it once was. For decades prior to the creation of the Department of Environmental Services in 1987, New Hampshire’s municipal solid waste was largely managed using crude methods that put our land, air, water and health at risk. In most towns, residents brought their trash to the “town dump,” where it was burned in the open or in low-tech incinerators, or dumped on the land directly. “Burning day” at the dump filled the air with noxious odors and smoke containing hazardous chemicals and particulates that traveled far and wide, and were a significant contributor to air pollution in our state. Partially burned and unburned waste was often left uncovered, inviting vermin and posing a risk of disease transmission.
By the mid-1980s, the practice of open burning had ceased, and waste at town dumps was generally covered with soil at the end of each day. This represented a significant improvement over previous practices. Also, commercial waste-to-energy incinerators and double-lined secure solid waste landfills were being sited and constructed in the state. However, the town dumps located in many New Hampshire towns remained in wide use. These so-called “sanitary landfills” were not lined, so there was no way to prevent rain water that came in contact with the waste, which sometimes included hazardous waste, from leaching into the ground and contaminating groundwater. Out of over 120 unlined municipal landfills, there were 108 still operating in 1987, each with varying degrees of groundwater contamination. In some cases, this contamination threatened or impacted public and private drinking water supplies, and it became clear that prompt action was needed.
State and federal regulations imposed stringent landfill operating requirements, and state groundwater protection laws encouraged many New Hampshire towns to cease operating their unlined landfills by 1991. However, the requirement to properly close these facilities posed a significant financial burden on our municipalities. Proper closure usually required design and construction of an engineered soil or synthetic cap, proper drainage, and long-term groundwater monitoring. To address this problem, the NH Legislature enacted the Unlined Municipal Landfill Closure Grant Program in 1994. Under this program administered by DES, towns that agreed to properly close their unlined landfills became eligible for a 20 percent state matching grant. The program was tremendously popular and successful. Since its inception, the program has provided over $30 million to help 116 towns to properly close 107 landfills. The program, in concert with responsible decisions and actions by our local governments, resulted in the investment of $165 million statewide to address this critical environmental challenge.
DES is pleased to announce that the Farmington landfill, the last unlined, municipal solid waste landfill in New Hampshire, has ceased operations this year and completed closure. The closure included proper grading, drainage improvements, and a low-permeability engineered soil cap that is already growing green grass! So as we celebrate our 25th anniversary year, we also celebrate the news that all unlined municipal solid waste landfills have been successfully closed and capped. Where necessary, groundwater quality is being monitored over the long term at these facilities to ensure that, as expected, proper closure results in steady improvements in groundwater quality.
Even as we celebrate this important milestone, we know that we face many more challenges ahead in the arena of solid waste management. With each of us generating more than four pounds of solid waste every day, we will need to find new and better waste management solutions. In 1991, the NH Legislature expressed its support for integrated solid waste solutions and established a hierarchy of waste management methods, in order of preference: 1) source reduction; 2) recycling and reuse; 3) composting; 4) waste-to-energy technologies; 5) incineration without resource recovery; and 6) land-filling. In total, New Hampshire generates about 1.3 million tons of solid waste each year. Management of this waste is currently divided roughly equally among waste-to-energy incineration, secure land-filling and recycling. The first two of these are effective but costly management options, with tipping fees ranging from $60 to $100 per ton. Source reduction, recycling and composting, where feasible, are generally much more cost-effective. As we embark on the next 25 years, DES and its partners look forward to crafting more economical and environmentally sustainable solutions and shifting that balance increasingly towards source reduction, reuse, recycling and composting.
Author’s Note: In recognition of the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ 25th Anniversary, over the course of the year, I am highlighting 25 agency activities, programs, projects and accomplishments of the past 25 years. This article, the 19th in the series, discusses solid waste management in New Hampshire. All of the editorials in the series are available at des.nh.gov/organization/commissioner/25th-anniversary.htm.
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