My turn: Thoughts on Juneau's garbage

Posted: Monday, November 19, 2007

At an Aug. 29 public hearing, city consultants presented a draft strategy to deal with Juneau's solid waste. At this meeting, citizens expressed, among other things, a regret that the incinerators were shut down and concern for the growth of the Lemon Creek landfill.

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Many attendees were surprised to learn how little voice the city has in how waste is collected by Arrow Refuse and disposed of by Waste Management. I cannot do justice to the consultant's report in the space available so I encourage everyone to go to to read the draft strategy. The consultants did a good job in summarizing facts and discussing the main options. There are important ramifications for the environment and for the cost of disposal.

For at least 20 of my 23 years working for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, I had direct or supervisory responsibility for the regulation of waste in Southeast Alaska. Below are my opinions:

Landfilling of waste that generates leachate isn't practical in Southeast. Leachate is the smelly soup formed when water percolates through decomposing waste such as food scraps, yard waste, even paper. It pollutes water by using oxygen. It also causes a lot of that smell you get from landfills. Landfilling works fine in remote dry areas but we have too much rain, not enough soil, salmon streams everywhere, and high recreational land values.

Food waste - some 12 percent of municipal waste - causes a disproportionate percent of the overall problem. It generates leachate and attracts birds, bears and rats.

Incineration reduces volume and leachate and renders waste less attractive to animals. Incineration was more expensive, and one could never claim absolute safety of emissions, but I favor incineration as the method of choice in Southeast.

Waste Management is doing a good job under the circumstances. Unfortunately, the better job they do in covering waste with soil, the faster the landfill grows. Waste Management is not the problem with the growing mound at Lemon Creek. Its expertise should be a major part of any solution the city of Juneau pursues.

The physical growth of the landfill has solicited complaints, but leachate and subsequent odors, gas and water pollution are the main worries.

Any approach that slows growth of the landfill and curtails leachate should have advantages for the companies; more years of operation and a higher ultimate value of the real estate.

Solutions will likely cost citizens more, not less.

Juneau will need some type of landfill for years to come, regardless of how we proceed.

While a regionalized solution to waste may appear logical, there are too many political obstacles for it to be our salvation.

Below are the recommendations I passed along to the city and their consultants:

The city should gain a stronger voice in waste management, but not take over the job.

We need to increase our recycling rates, which the consultants identified as being about 4 percent. I am always encouraged to visit the recycling center and see how many people recycle, but we obviously need more. Recycling alone, however, isn't enough.

After aggressive recycling, we should consider three options: First, ship out toxics and nonrecyclable waste that generates leachate and landfill the remainder. Second, incinerate as much as possible and landfill the ash and the remainder. Third, compost the nonrecyclable putrescible waste and use compost to cover the remainder.

Of the three options, I have no experience with the latter. I hear from the Department of Environmental Conservation, however, that it is successful in Haines and Edmonton, Alberta. The crux of all three recommendations is to stop landfilling waste that generates leachate - particularly food waste that attracts animals.

Don't hold out hope for a new landfill unless it is restricted to fairly inert waste.

Use rate structures to encourage the necessary separations prior to acceptance at the landfill. If some choose to let Waste Management separate and sort their waste, let them pay for the effort required.

Everyone has a stake in these decisions. Go to the Web site and read about the strategy. Plan to attend public hearings scheduled for Nov. 28 and 29.

• Richard Stokes is a former Department of Environmental Conservation employee with responsibilities in solid waste. He lives in Juneau.

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