A landfill just south of Wilmington is stirring controversy with a request to expand.
Residents, a local utility, and members of the General Assembly have come out against the proposed expansion.
But landfill operators say it makes sense economically and environmentally to maximize the existing site.
Delaware Public Media’s Sophia Schmidt examines the expansion plan and the issues raised by its opponents.
Bulldozers spread wood chips over mattresses, asphalt and construction debris at the top of a landfill in New Castle County.
I drove to the top of the Delaware Recyclable Products, Inc. (DRPI) landfill with Rick Klonowski, district manager at Houston-based Waste Management.
The landfill is located near the Christina River between Rt. 13 and I-495. Just over a thin line of trees to the south is a row of houses. The community of West Minquadale starts just hundreds of feet west of the operation.
The landfill accepts dry construction and demolition waste. It looms close to 130 feet above sea level— the maximum height allowed under its current permit from state environmental regulators. Operators say the landfill could hit that limit in about a year and have to shut down. So the company wants to expand.
Waste Management has applied for a permit modification to expand the landfill to a maximum height of 190 feet above sea level. There would be no change to the landfill’s footprint, the daily flow of waste— which officials say is an average of 160 truck-fulls — or its groundwater monitoring plan.
Klonowski says the landfill wouldn’t look too different after such an expansion. “It comes up like a pyramid— so it comes up on what’s called a 3 to 1 slope,” he said. “And then that’s even benched every 30 feet. So it doesn’t come straight up.” According to officials, a nearby intersection of Marsh Lane and Rt. 13 sits at about 70 feet above sea level.
Waste Management’s John Hambrose says a sixty-foot expansion could extend the life of the landfill between 10 and 20 years. He argues this would benefit the region.
“There’s no other construction and demolition debris landfills in Delaware that we know of,” he said. “The next new landfill — we don’t know where that would be … It makes great sense environmentally and in business terms to maximize what we can do here."
Hambrose also paints the landfill as a good neighbor to the nearby residents.
Waste Management recently finalized an agreement with the Minquadale Civic Association that is contingent on the approval of the permit modification.
Hambrose says under it, the neighborhood would continue to receive the free waste disposal services the DRPI landfill has provided for years. The company would also put 55 cents per ton of waste added to the landfill into a trust fund managed by the neighborhood — to be used for projects benefiting the whole community. Hambrose says this could amount to between $100,000 and $300,000 annually.
Waste Management included in its permit modification application a letter of support from Minquadale Civic Association President David Trincia — which cited the agreement.
But at a DNREC hearing last month on the landfill’s permit application, Trincia said he had been fighting to get the landfill shut down for almost 22 years.
“I have lost every hearing that I went against this happening,” he said. “When Waste Management came to me asking me again about a height extension, I thought to myself, what’s in it for the community? We are already contaminated. That landfill is going nowhere … and I thought to myself, I ain’t gonna fight this again and lose it again and get nothing for my community.”
Shirley LeMon has lived directly adjacent to the DRPI landfill for fifteen years, since she and her husband built their home on East Fern Drive. She says trucks drive past starting early in the morning. But her biggest complaint is the air— and the effect she says it has on her health.
"We have smelled the egg smell,” she said. “It has burned our eyes, throat. Now I'm at the point that my asthma, I've been in the hospital like four or five times. ... I didn't have asthma 'til I started living here."
Landfill officials say the “rotten egg smell” comes from sulfides — which they try to burn off along with methane, carbon dioxide and other compounds that come from the decomposing waste. The landfill added one of its two flares early this year.
But LeMon is not satisfied with the results. She says she and her husband have even asked if the company would buy their house. She says they don’t want to leave — but the problems she attributes to the landfill have made her consider moving.
“This is our first, first, first house,” she said. “Our kids grew up here. And yes I have considered it, but I’m like, I’m being forced.”
Some communities farther away from the landfill are also against the proposed expansion.
“We are adjacent to Minquadale which is where the landfill is— it’s in West Minquadale,” said Lee Jarmon, president of the Overview Gardens Garfield Park Civic Association. “In Overview Gardens and Garfield Park there’s over 800 homes. And we are totally against increasing the height of that landfill.”
Jarmon says his primary concerns about the landfill are environmental.
“There’s restrictions,” he said. “When you can’t sit out in your yard and enjoy the weather. And when you live next to a mound that you can’t even see over. We know these are the common problems that we face on a day. And it appears that the agencies designed to protect us ... are willing to overlook our concerns and grant permits to polluting agencies.”
Because of the DRPI landfill’s pending application, DNREC has declined to comment specifically about the facility. But DNREC Secretary Shawn Garvin recently addressed general concerns that the agency permits industry too close to residents when he was preparing to meet with members of environmental justice communities.
“We're not always going to agree,” said Garvin. “There are decisions that we’ll have to make as department are based on law and based on science that may be different from what others deem we should have done. But what I don’t want is there to be is a lack of understanding or a lack of communication on why a decision was made.”
Artesian Water Company raised concerns about the science of the proposed landfill expansion at last month’s permit hearing.
Artesian representatives said they oppose the expansion. They said the company finds — and is treating — unnamed increased contaminants in its wells near the landfill, and doesn’t know where some are coming from.
They noted that adding more weight to the top of the landfill would further compact the existing waste — including older trash below the current operation that has no impervious liner beneath it.
“The Potomac aquifer [below the landfill] is like a super highway to our 24 public supply wells,” said Karl Randall, general counsel of Artesian Water Company, at last month’s hearing.
Waste Management officials confirm there are more than 50 acres of unlined historic waste at the DRPI site. Hambrose says roughly 33 acres of this are or will be overlaid with trash deposited by Waste Management. He says the proposed vertical expansion is expected to compress this overlaid historic waste an additional 2.5 feet. More than 17 acres of the historic waste are outside the DRPI landfill’s disposal footprint— and are or will be capped.
Jerry Kauffman is director of the University of Delaware Water Resources Center. He agrees the landfill sits in a “sensitive area” — because of its placement in what he calls the “very permeable atlantic coastal plain” — and because of its proximity to Artesian Water Company’s wells.
“The water travels relatively quickly through the sand and gravel from the site to the public drinking wells to the south there in New Castle,” he said. “That’s the hydrogeologic setting for this landfill.”
But Kauffman says Waste Management’s current landfill operation looks properly engineered against groundwater contamination.
“Well the big thing is to make sure you have geomembranes as they build up so that any leachate it’s called, or leakage, cannot get into the aquifer as you’re increasing the amount of mass of the trash that's being deposited there,” he said. “They have engineered groundwater monitoring wells and leakage detection systems, all of it looks like it can be based — state of the practice.”
The fate of the landfill’s bid for expansion currently lies with DNREC, which must approve or deny the permit modification application. But county and state lawmakers are pushing legislation that would effectively ban its expansion.
New Castle County Councilman Jea Street introduced an ordinance this spring that would stop landfills capped at 140 feet or less from expanding above that limit.
County executive Matt Meyer supports it. He says he sees the proposed expansion as an environmental justice issue, noting the DRPI landfill accepts waste from around the region — including parts of New Jersey, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania
“I’m absolutely opposed to enabling dumpers to increase the height of their dumping ground, particularly when that waste is coming from neighboring states from outside our county, and particularly when the dumping ground is right basically smack in the middle of a residential area,” he said.
State Rep. Frank Cooke has introduced a bill that would limit the height of industrial landfills state-wide to 130 feet above sea level— the DRPI landfill’s current permitted maximum. The bill has been released from a House committee, and Cooke says it is scheduled to go for a House vote next week.
In the event that Waste Management is not allowed to expand the landfill, the company has a plan.
After the landfill fills up and waste disposal operations cease, the landfill will be capped. Officials say the landfill’s environmental systems would be maintained for several decades, as is required by regulation.
“For every ton that we bring in, we actually put money aside for post-closure care,” said Rick Klonoswki. “That’s all completely factored in. We know that we’re responsible for this place a minimum of thirty years afterwards.”
After thirty years, officials say new uses for the site could be considered.
Shirley LeMon of East Fern Drive thinks the landfill should be shut down now.
“They don’t live here,” she said. “They don’t care. They’re just looking at the more garbage that they can bring over there and put in the ground. That’s all. And it’s not good. It’s just not good for us. It isn’t.”
The public comment period on the landfill’s application to expand is open until June 28.