Government and Sustainability

County to tackle landfill legacy cost

Commissioners will look at plan that may raise pickup rates and license haulers.

October 27, 2012
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The Kent County Department of Public Works may have found a solution to the hefty legacy cost it is facing for three closed county landfills.

DPW Director Doug Wood has said that, by 2025, the department will need about $38.6 million to clean up the closed landfills in Kentwood, Sparta and North Kent. The department already has spent roughly $25 million on cleaning the sites but only has a cash reserve of slightly more than $18 million for the three.

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

Wood recently revealed that the Department of Public Works, its board and the private trash haulers in the county have agreed on a proposal that would amend the county’s solid-waste management plan and provide the department with enough cash flow to meet its legacy cost.

That proposal is set to go to the county commission next week. If approved, it would then go before the municipal boards in the county, and two-thirds of the cities and townships would have to approve it before it could go to Lansing for ratification. But chances are it will come back to the county commission as an ordinance commissioners must approve before it becomes effective.

Wood recently told the county’s Executive Committee that the proposal would license private haulers and also charge them a fee — or a surcharge, as he called it — that would provide the necessary revenue to meet the legacy costs.

“They agreed to do that,” he said of the haulers. “The surcharge would also apply to residents and businesses.”

As the proposal now stands, the fee would be attached to a waste haulers bill, which would be passed on to customers. Wood said the surcharge would cost county residents an estimated 40 cents per month, while most businesses would be billed by the size of their trash containers, measured in cubic yards, and manufacturers would pay roughly $7 a month on average.

The licensing fee is expected to cost haulers $50 to $100 per year.

“All of the waste haulers voted in favor of that rule. All agreed it would be a line item on their waste-hauling bills,” said Wood.

Commissioner Dan Koorndyk indicated that it was the county’s intention to involve the private haulers in the process all along. Eaton County has a similar surcharge.

“There are waste haulers on the committee, and all the waste haulers agreed. We had no complaints from waste haulers about this,” said Koorndyk last week when the county’s Legislative Committee recommended the commission approve the plan. “They didn’t want flow control, and this was a compromise.”

But Commissioners Stan Ponstein and Bill Hirsch had issues with the plan. Ponstein said the surcharge amounts to having the private sector collect taxes for the county.

“In the broad sense, yes, someone is going to have to pay for this,” he said of the legacy cost. “I just don’t like the private sector collecting taxes.”

Hirsch felt licensing haulers would punish the “mom-and-pop” businesses that clean up vacant land and apartment buildings. He also felt the agreement that DPW has to send some of its solid waste to Allegan County was a misuse of farming property. “I have problems with this,” said Hirsch.

Wood said Kent has had the agreement in place with Allegan County for about 25 years, and Allegan officials approved it.

“I think we should have this argument,” said Commissioner Harold Mast. “But somehow we’re going to have to raise that money.”

The proposal was one of four options Wood presented to county commissioners in March to cover DPW’s legacy cost. The others were to raise rates to haulers that use a county facility — which the haulers opposed, increase property taxes and sell the department’s assets, including the recycling plant and the waste-to-energy facility.

The Kentwood landfill was the first to close in 1976. In 1983, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed it 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 the property. The site’s cash reserve is only $8.7 million.

The Sparta landfill closed in 1977, and the EPA named it a Superfund Site the same day it labeled the Kentwood property as one. Since 1983, DPW has invested $4.2 million into that property’s cleanup. Its 30-year liability cost is $6.6 million, but the site’s cash reserve is just $3.5 million.

The North Kent landfill closed in 1987. Although it wasn’t named a Superfund Site, the state classified it as a contaminated Part 201 site. DPW has spent about $8.2 million on its remediation. The North Kent site, though, has a 30-year liability cost of $11.1 million and a cash reserve of $5.9 million.

Wood said the department has to revive its solid-waste plan management because a 2007 state law requires that half of all solid waste has to be reused in some fashion or be recycled by 2015.

Currently, only the cities of Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Walker, Grandville, East Grand Rapids and Kentwood license trash haulers. 

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