County waste deep in disposal plan

March 30, 2012
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The Kent County Departments of Public Works has a hefty legacy cost that will come due in the not-too-distant future. But it’s not because of the usual runaway employee pensions or retiree health insurance costs; it’s because of three closed landfills in the county.

The Kentwood landfill was the first to close in 1976. Seven years later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the landfill as a Superfund Site because it was contaminated. Since then, DPW has spent $12.6 million to remediate the site and has a 30-year cash flow liability of $20.8 million on it. But the site’s cash reserve is only $8.7 million.

The Sparta landfill closed a year after the one in Kentwood was shut down. On the same day the EPA named the Kentwood property a Superfund Site, the federal agency did the same to the Sparta landfill. Since 1983, DPW has invested $4.2 million into that property’s cleanup. Its 30-year liability is $6.6 million, but the site’s cash reserve is just $3.5 million.

The third landfill, in North Kent, closed in 1987. Unlike the other two, it wasn’t named a federal Superfund Site. Instead, the state of Michigan classified it as a Part 201 site, which meant it too was contaminated. DPW has spent nearly $8.2 million on its cleanup to date, has a 30-year liability cost of $11.1 million, and a cash reserve for the site of $5.9 million.

After spending $25 million on remediating the three former landfills, the county agency is facing a legacy cost of $38.6 million that its director said will come due in 2025.

“We have calculated we will not have enough money to clean up those sites. By 2025, we will have run out of money,” said DPW Director Doug Wood. “We do not have $38 million and we have to find money (to clean the sites.)”

Wood explained the department’s situation recently at a special county commission work session, where he told commissioners there are four options that could bring DPW the funds it needs to meet its legacy cost on time.

One is through the department’s recently proposed and newly amended solid-waste plan that could then become a county ordinance that would give the DPW the authority to expand trash-hauling rates. Two is through a surcharge on all waste bills, similar to a charge that Eaton County has. Three is to sell all the department’s assets, such as the waste-to-energy facility and the new recycling plant. Four is to raise property taxes.

Wood told commissioners he favors the first option. But getting DPW’s newly proposed solid-waste plan approved and then to the point where it could become an ordinance might be a challenge of its own. The private waste hauling sector doesn’t like it. Those business owners feel an ordinance could price some of them out of the market because the county would have a monopoly on the disposal side of the industry.

Commissioner Jim Saalfeld said some small-business owners are concerned that the DPW’s plan would raise their costs to dispose of their waste. Commissioner Stan Ponstein said private haulers in the county do a good job and at a lower price than their counterparts on the state’s east side.

But Wood said the area’s waste haulers said the same things about losing business more than 20 years ago, and it didn’t happen.

“This would not affect recycling,” Wood said of the amended plan.

Commissioner Ted Vonk pointed out that Waste Management — a privately owned hauler that was on the plan’s planning committee, offered suggestions for the solid-waste plan and voiced opposition to the current version — owned a leaky landfill on the East Beltline. Vonk, who chairs the DPW board, said the site polluted the groundwater in Plainfield Township, which is about three-quarters of a mile north of the landfill.

Commissioner Dick Vander Molen, also on the DPW board, said approving the plan could lead to the creation of a solid-waste ordinance. A county ordinance could allow the department to extend the current service agreement it has with six cities to all municipalities, which would lead to more disposal revenue that would go to covering the legacy costs.

Besides the private sector opposition to the plan, though, it needs a lot of public approval to become effective. The DPW board, the county commission, and the state Department of Environmental Quality all have to put their stamps of approval on it. Plus, 67 percent of the county’s 30 municipalities have to give the plan a green light.

The department has to revive its plan because a 2007 state policy requires that, by 2015, half of all solid waste has to be put into use in some fashion or be recycled. The amended plan has three components, but just one factor — a term called flow control — has seemingly drawn the most attention. In this instance, flow control would give the department the power to send all the solid waste generated in the county to county-owned facilities.

The DPW wants that authority because it operates a lot of solid-waste management services. It recycles electronics and residential trash. It takes care of household chemicals, prescription and illegal drugs, and hazardous waste. And it offers educational classes to the public on the control, collection and recycling of waste.

“We have a wonderful education program. We get thousands of school children,” said Wood.

The department’s current flow-control policy only extends to the county’s six cities that license private haulers: Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Walker, Grandville, East Grand Rapids and Kentwood. The DPW has service contracts with those cities, and the agreements direct waste from those cities to the county’s waste-to-energy facility. That means haulers that service the other 24 cities and townships in the county aren’t required to take their trash there.

But the flow-control policy in the amended solid-waste plan could extend that requirement to all the municipalities in the county, which is allowed under a decision the U.S. Supreme Court made in 2007. Wood said some think the new policy will give the county the power to license private haulers, but he emphasized that isn’t the case. He said a provision like that could be included in the county ordinance that could follow approval of the plan, but it isn’t in the plan.

“There are statements that have been made that we want to be involved in collections. We don’t want to be involved in collections,” said Wood. “I think it’s better to address this issue in 2012 than in 2025.”

County facing cleanup costs

Here are the numbers the Kent County Department of Public Works is looking at for the three closed and contaminated landfills.

North Kent


Total Spent
on Cleanup


30-Year Cash
Flow Liability*


Current Cash

*Due in 2025.
Source: Kent County Department of Public Works, March 2012

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