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An aerial view of the landfill for the tiny southeast Colorado town of Walsh. It is one of four landfills serving small, rural towns in Baca County that are closing because of

Over the past few years, as the state health department told small landfill operators in southeast Colorado that it would be more closely enforcing environmental regulations — probably pushing some of them toward closure — locals pushed back with a familiar refrain: Urban rulemakers didn’t understand rural communities and burdened them with unfair expectations.

“I guess, overall, in the big picture, part of the ongoing struggle is against the constant adding of regulations that we don’t feel like we have much input in making,” said Baca County Commissioner Peter Dawson. “We feel like we get kind of trampled on by the state, and they don’t care how much it costs us when they do more and more regulation all the time.”

Lately, trash disposal — and the increasingly technical and expensive rules that govern it — has been the hot-button issue for many in this sparsely populated corner of Colorado.

But even Dawson allows that a compromise — one that salves festering technological, financial and cultural sore points — just might work.

With the state shouldering the cost of either a landfill shutdown or groundwater testing, municipalities can decide for themselves whether their operation makes sense. The catch: If groundwater testing shows that the landfill adversely impacts water quality, it’s up to the operator either to pay costs in compliance with regulations or to close.

Currently, 19 small landfills remain, and six of them — including four in Baca County — have decided to close, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

An aerial view of the landfill for the tiny southeast Colorado town of Walsh. It is one of four landfills serving small, rural towns in Baca County that have chosen to close after a deal offered by state health officials. (Screenshot from Google Earth)

But the state can’t discern what environmental impact, if any, many of these landfills have had on their communities without further groundwater testing. A Wyoming study, though, found reason to believe small landfills can have a greater impact than previously believed.

Origins of a contentious relationship

The clash over the continued operation of these rural trash sites has deep roots, mingled with deeply held feelings about small-town independence, an aversion to costly regulation and skepticism about change.

For much of rural Colorado, the idea of small, local landfills — defined as those that take in an average of fewer than 20 tons of waste per day — lost traction when new federal regulations were handed down in the early 1990s. About 130 landfills dotted the landscape at that time, and more than half of them, mostly rural, closed.

But southeast Colorado was different.

There wasn’t any technical reason that landfills in the region might remain open, such as more favorable geology. But the overarching influences of independence and self-reliance carried the day, said Curt Stovall, a work leader in the solid-waste-permitting unit of the health department who visited the region in the wake of the regulatory changes.

“They were just married to not giving up control and not changing,” he said. “Other jurisdictions were more amenable to considering other alternatives.”

The health department didn’t press the matter, Stovall said. From then into the early 2000s, it focused its compliance efforts on the larger landfills along the Front Range. All of them needed to upgrade designs and obtain approval from the state, which at that point had only five employees addressing solid-waste issues.

Eventually, the department added some workers and turned its attention once again to the smaller sites. But it took a lenient approach through what it called “compliance assistance,” Stovall said. In retrospect, it was an approach that was more carrot than stick.

“In fact, we did understand a lot of both the technical constraints and financial constraints smaller rural landfills had,” Stovall said, “notwithstanding that the small landfills believed we didn’t understand their plight.”

What makes smaller landfills different?

In terms of physical construction, smaller landfills tend to be characterized by two primary differences from medium and larger sites. Most lack a liner system to keep moisture from seeping into the landscape and, potentially, into groundwater supplies. And most lack groundwater monitoring.

While Stovall said there are some places in the state where geology makes the absence of a liner less of a liability, “most of the Eastern Plains doesn’t fit into that category. Chances are you’re going to need a liner. And liners are expensive.”

Some are made with 3 feet of compacted clay, and others are composites constructed with 2 feet of compacted clay topped by a synthetic geomembrane that, when properly constructed, is impermeable to liquid. On top of the geomembrane, a drainage layer leads to a low point in the liner where any liquids that do collect can be removed.

Attitudes about the environmental characteristics of rural landfills also began to shift on the heels of a 2006 Wyoming study, completed in 2010, that challenged the assumption that small operations posed little threat to groundwater in the arid West. By installing 100 wells at landfills big and small to measure water quality, Wyoming officials were able to measure all sides of a facility for possible leaking in a way that single-well monitoring could not.

“And, lo and behold, it wasn’t just the big ones that were leaking,” said Craig McOmie, a manager in the solid- and hazardous-waste division of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. “Essentially, what we found was small landfills affect groundwater, too. We were shocked by that. We didn’t expect to see as much as we saw.”

The 2,364-acre Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site Landfill in Aurora, pictured on July 18, 2018. Smaller, rural landfills generally don’t have protective lining or monitoring wells to check for groundwater contamination. Into the early 2000s, the health department focused compliance efforts on larger Front Range sites, which needed to upgrade designs and gain state approval. Now the smaller rural sites face a difficult choice as they consider whether to close. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

At least 75 percent of the landfill sites revealed altered groundwater with statistically significant increases in pollutants. Even then, there was pushback from Wyoming’s rural communities, McOmie said, noting that he heard all the usual arguments: “We do a great job of screening.” “We’re a small community and can’t afford to comply with modern regulations.” “The EPA keeps moving the goalposts on us.”

A citizens advisory group, after learning the results of the study, made recommendations that led to two programs in which Wyoming provides grants and/or loans to small communities to help with building transfer stations, landfill remediation or closure.

The CDPHE’s Stovall credits the Wyoming study as one of the primary drivers for seeking $1.6 million in funding from the Colorado legislature to implement the current program of paying for closure or monitoring wells.

Not long after the results of the study became public, Colorado’s health department began notifying rural facilities that one tool to keep the small landfills open would be going away. Since around 2000, the state had issued waivers on groundwater monitoring and liner systems without any real technical basis — in part because the health department didn’t have the staff to do the requisite technical analysis.

So the status quo reigned at the rural sites, while the health department concentrated on what it considered bigger issues. More recently, with a beefed-up staff, the CDPHE broadened its focus.

And that triggered backlash.

“There were mistakes on both sides”

Dawson says that in Walsh, a town near the Kansas border, “their operator was told for years he was doing everything just right and, all of a sudden, he gets 19 different hits on his report, all these things they’d have to comply with and address.”

Gary Fuselier, a Florence-based environmental consultant who has worked on landfill issues with several rural communities, including Springfield in Baca County, recalls attending meetings between the health department and local operators that were “very contentious.”

And while landfill operators should take the blame for not adhering to — or, in some cases, not even knowing — regulations, the state didn’t follow up frequently enough to put them on the right track, he said.

“Little towns can’t afford to hire a guy who knows landfills and regulations involved with operating one,” he said. “They didn’t have the expertise on staff to know what the state wanted done. You can understand that. There were mistakes on both sides.”

A screenshot of a post from the Town of Walsh’s Facebook page about the closure of its landfill. (Screenshot from Facebook)

The health department had taken a lenient approach for years, and suddenly shifted its focus, eventually seeking out funding to help municipalities navigate the issue.

“Through that process,” Stovall said, “it forced these local jurisdictions to make a decision. We fully understand why they don’t like it. I’ve been down there, talked with mayors and county commissioners, and their preference would be status quo, full control of their disposal options, not to rely on neighboring facilities for disposal.”

In particular, he notes, Baca County’s five landfills were an anomaly in a county with a declining population of around 4,000. Most rural counties in the early ’90s, when closures were happening en masse, made an effort to find the best location for a landfill — if there was one at all — and move forward with the regionalization of waste pickup.

Regional model adopted by other states years ago

Other states already were outpacing Colorado on this front. In part, their more rapid transition to a regional model owed its success to a firmer approach by state authorities from the very beginning — while, in contrast, Colorado issued those waivers that cut slack for many of the small rural operations. “But the regional concept of solid-waste management and recycling has been in practice through most of the country for decades,” Stovall said.

“I think it was a misperception with lot of rural communities that our goal is or was to force them to close,” he added. “Our overarching goal has been to get these into compliance and try to provide them tools to understand what that means.”

Now, operators of small sites, usually municipalities, weigh the decision to close or roll the dice that their groundwater remains untainted. In Baca County, all but one of the landfills have chosen to close — moves that will create a new model for trash collection in the region.

But Dawson, still harboring a little uneasiness, figures it might be a good deal — so long as the state health department follows through on its promises.

“There’s been a lot of regulations that haven’t necessarily been enforced over the years, and everyone understands that, because small landfills and operators are on limited budgets,” he said. “So (CDPHE officials) have a right to say they haven’t enforced them well in the past but they’re going to now — everyone recognizes they have the authority to do that. We are, if not fortunate, at least it softens the blow for them to agree to pay for the closings. So long as they keep their word about that.”

State money will pay for the design and construction of the site’s final cover and drainage. And while Stovall noted that there are post-closure costs, such as maintaining and monitoring the cap, they’re “minimal” compared with the cost of closure.

“I do think we’ve got a pretty good compromise solution, and hopefully things will work out,” Stovall said. “It’ll be nice if we get some follow-up funding to help pay for what inevitably our next phase is.”

And then there was one, in Baca County

In the county seat of Springfield, the town’s board of trustees made the decision about a year ago to remain open, come into compliance with state regulations and position itself as a regional landfill, says town manager Rebecca Clark.

While other small operations in towns such as Campo, Walsh, Two Buttes and Pritchett shut down, Springfield looks to take on the refuse of communities even beyond Colorado’s borders. Some in New Mexico and Kansas already have expressed interest.

The four towns in southeast Colorado whose landfills are closing. (Jesse Paul, Google Maps)

She figures that with the considerable costs associated with landfills, and small towns’ struggle to meet them, it makes little sense for communities to each oversee their own operation.

“Pooling resources is the way to go,” she said. “A regional landfill is probably better than a single, small landfill serving a small community.”

Baca County’s entire population hovers below 4,000, with about 1,300 in Springfield. Both of the commercial trash haulers in the county are based in town and already are serving smaller communities, Clark said.

And now, Springfield is filing for a U.S. Department of Agriculture loan that would enable it to expand its landfill by 2 acres.

The town of Springfield’s landfill. (Photo by Rustin Robins, provided by the Town of Springfield.)

The town ran numbers on the impact of that additional capacity and found that, depending on how much the landfill compacts its trash, it could handle roughly 11 years of garbage. And there are still more than 100 acres of potential local landfill, enough to accommodate the region far into the future.

In the meantime, the town has worked with the health department to meet state standards.

“We’re now in compliance,” Clark said. “And we’re one of the few in southeast Colorado.”

Baca County, she figures, should have seen this reckoning coming.

“Before, communities just basically ignored what the regulations were,” Clark said. “They’re now being enforced rather than overlooked. I’ve found correspondence as far back as 1997, where the state has said, ‘You have to comply,’ and we said, ‘Well, we’ll see what we can do.’ And we were still in violation.”

In Prowers County, directly north of Baca County, the town of Holly faced the conundrum of whether to close or roll the dice and hope its landfill checked out with regard to groundwater contamination. It called in Fuselier, the consultant, to help them through the decisionmaking process.

He says the town initially indicated that it wanted the landfill to remain open but asked him to evaluate the operation. With groundwater relatively close to the surface and a landfill that had been in operation for many years, Fuselier recommended that Holly shut it down and replace it with a transfer station.

“You’re gambling that you’re not contaminating the groundwater,” he said, boiling down the town’s desire to keep the operation open. “Any consultant can give you a good idea of that. If the groundwater is shallow, and the landfill has been operating for a lot of years, chances are very likely that you are.”

Holly took his advice and will seek a grant to help fund a transfer station. Fuselier said if the town is awarded the grant money, it could construct a building with a trash compactor, enabling the station to accrue more waste.

“You need to fight from a base of science and not emotion,” Fuselier said. “That’s what it boils down to in landfills: science vs. emotion.”

Rural Colorado landfills that have decided to install groundwater monitoring:

  • Custer County Landfill
  • Eads Landfill, Kiowa County
  • Firstview Landfill, Cheyenne County
  • Granada Landfill, Prowers County
  • Lake County Landfill
  • Lincoln County Landfill
  • Manzanola Landfill, Otero County
  • Mineral County Landfill
  • Phillips County Landfill
  • Saguache County Landfill
  • Sedgwick  County Landfill
  • Springfield Landfill, Baca County
  • Washington County Landfill

Landfills that have decided to close:

  • Town of Campo Landfill, Baca County
  • Town of Haswell Landfill, Kiowa County
  • Town of Holly Landfill, Prowers County
  • Town of Pritchett Landfill, Baca County
  • Town of Two Buttes Landfill, Baca County
  • Town of Walsh Landfill, Baca County

Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Gary Fuselier’s last name.

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...