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Only a decade remains until Fargo landfill is full; future of trash may be very different

Garbage is spread out and covered daily at the city of Fargo landfill.

FARGO -- From atop one of the massive six-story garbage piles at Fargo's landfill, dozens of scavenging birds can be seen circling the scraps and the distinct smell of natural gas fills the nostrils.

Paul Hanson, the landfill's supervisor, stops his pickup on the highest peak and says that on a clear day you can see for miles.

"I think this is the highest point in eastern North Dakota," he says with a laugh.

The reason it's so high? Fargo's landfill is nearly full. City officials estimate it has only 11 years of life left.

Of the 13 municipal waste landfills in North Dakota, Fargo's brings in the most trash on a daily basis, said Scott Radig, director of the waste management division for the North Dakota Department of Health.

The 115 acres used for garbage are separated into 17 cells of various sizes. Ten of those cells are 93 percent full or more. Of those 10, five are 100 percent full, city documents show.

Clay County's landfill, meanwhile, has an estimated 56 years remaining. As Fargo looks at its future options for trash, officials on both sides of the Red River say that in a couple of decades, today's landfills will be as obsolete as the trash we're putting into them.

Life cycle of trash

When trash leaves the berm in Fargo, a city garbage truck brings it into a large warehouse-style room near the landfill. It's dumped onto conveyor belts leading to a compactor machine, which crunches trash into 3-by-5-foot, 2,500-pound bales.

The bales are then stacked "like Legos" in lined pits dug 35 feet into the earth, Hanson said. The stacks are allowed to reach about 60 feet high in Fargo.

When the current Fargo landfill opened in 1990, it received an estimated 110,000 tons of trash a year. It has steadily increased over the years. The landfill took in more than 201,000 tons of trash last year, or about 550 tons a day.

"Fargo has had a lot of population growth, so that has shortened up (the landfill's) lifespan," Radig said.

City policy allows 33 percent of the trash intake to come from outside Fargo, and it's pretty close to that cap, said Terry Ludlum, the city's solid waste utility director.

Fargo accepts trash from West Fargo, rural Cass County, Casselton, Valley City, and Becker County, Minn.

Having so many other cities contributing to the region's largest landfill certainly shortens its life, Radig said.

Other unexpected events can fill up a landfill faster than projected, such as dealing with extra trash from post-flood cleanup, said Kathy Maher, solid waste coordinator for Clay County, Minn.

The 107-acre Clay County landfill just south of Hawley, Minn., has about 56 years of life left. It only accepts garbage from within the county. Moorhead makes up about 75 percent of that, Maher said.

Unlike Fargo, Clay County's landfill takes in significantly less garbage per day -- about 70 tons -- and can stack its garbage higher. It's permitted to go up to 100 feet in some portions of the site, although it hasn't done that yet, Maher said.

Landfill cells in Clay County are only dug down about 5 feet because of a higher water table, she said.

Clay County's annual garbage intake has stayed relatively stable across its lifetime. It took in 25,798 tons in 1981, the earliest year for which records were available. In 2012, the county took in 27,866 tons. The largest yearly intake was in 1986 with 34,561 tons.

Clay County's landfill opened in 1974, but data for those first seven years was not available.

"We're really seeing the effect of recycling," Maher said. "Without recycling and waste reduction and all those efforts, our volumes going into the landfill would be much greater."

Future of garbage

Maher and Hanson agreed that in a few decades the future of trash in the region won't be landfills.

"Waste energy seems to be the wave of the future," Maher said, referring to garbage incinerators.

While incinerators burn space-filling trash down to ash, they are more expensive to maintain and are required to follow strict air pollution regulation, Radig said.

Because open land is easy to come by in the spacious Midwest, landfills remain the trend here, he said.

There is not one municipal waste incinerator in North Dakota, Radig said.

"It's not necessarily a cheaper method by any means," he said. "When the garbage is burned, there's still ash left over, and that still has to go somewhere. It just doesn't all disappear."

A few years ago, officials from several counties on both sides of the Red River met to discuss building a shared incinerator, but the conversation fizzled out after North Dakota entities backed away from the idea, Maher said.

Landfilling is less expensive than incineration, but burning trash takes up less space and could be economically feasible if enough counties are involved.

"We had hoped that all the entities would come together," Maher said.

While Clay County won't build its own incinerator anytime soon, it is working on a new partnership with the four-county group that runs the nearest regional incinerator in Perham, Minn., which is about 50 miles east of the Clay landfill.

That incinerator is managed by Becker, Todd, Wadena and Otter Tail counties as the Prairie Lakes Municipal Solid Waste Authority. After an expansion, plans are for the facility to take in 200 tons of trash a day.

Clay County won't be sending garbage to the incinerator en masse, but the landfill could accept ash from Perham's burner in exchange for sending some of its trash to Perham.

"They're looking for a place to haul that (ash), and our landfill is the closest option that they have," Maher said, adding that there are no official agreements yet.

An incinerator is also not likely in Fargo's future, but with only a decade left on the current landfill, a study is being conducted by the engineering firm Wenck Associates Inc. to look at the city's options for future trash disposal.

The No. 1 option is to reclaim the old 160-acre landfill that sits across the street from the current landfill. It was used from about 1950 until 1980 and was not filled to capacity.

Hanson, who has worked at the landfill for 40 years, said he remembers crews at the old landfill only digging down a few feet, and the stacks aren't nearly as compacted as they could be.

To use the old site, the city would need to install thick plastic liners and other protective measures that weren't required decades ago. Ludlum said once that's done, it could last another 30 or 35 years.

"It's really easy to reclaim. There's just not much garbage in there," Hanson said. "And when it's done, it'll be a safer landfill."

Ludlum said he and his staff will present the Wenck study findings to the City Commission sometime this year.

Reclaiming the old landfill is probably the best option for Fargo, Radig said, because the city already owns the land and it's already holding trash.

If the city decides to reclaim the site, there will be a public comment period before it's finalized, Radig said.