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Garbage time: City explores landfill expansion

Just to the southeast of Dickinson, a few miles down Lehigh road, lies Dickinson's landfill where all of the trash generated by residents of Dickinson and many surrounding areas one day ends up. The landfill, an old converted coal mine, is a vast...

Dickinson's current landfill site may be poised for expansion. (Grady McGregor / The Dickinson Press)
Dickinson's current landfill site may be poised for expansion. (Grady McGregor / The Dickinson Press)

Just to the southeast of Dickinson, a few miles down Lehigh road, lies Dickinson's landfill where all of the trash generated by residents of Dickinson and many surrounding areas one day ends up. The landfill, an old converted coal mine, is a vast, open and sloping pit in the ground that feels like the size of a small lake.

The landfill's lifespan, however, is nearing its end but it's not necessarily because the landfill is quickly running out of space for the trash.

"We probably have 20-25 years left at our current site but we are probably going to run out of dirt before we run out of landfill space," Solid Waste Manager Aaron Praus.

A challenge the landfill faces is that it was constructed out of an open coal mining pit, meaning that the city has less soil to work when they cover waste with topsoil at the end of each day.

This is, in part, why Dickinson has recently been exploring options for a new landfill site. The city explored options for permitting a new landfill site elsewhere but now the focus has shifted to expanding onto neighboring land.

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The land would need to be acquired from a private owner but expanding the landfill would be the most cost-effective and convenient option for the city, as well as the easiest to get past the cumbersome state permitting process, according to Praus.

At the Dickinson City Commission meeting on Monday, commissioners unanimously approved a roughly $100,000 contract with engineering firm Wenck Associates to conduct environmental testing of neighboring land to the construction site.

Senior engineer at Wenck Associates Howard Trussell attended the meeting to present plans for the tests and explain why they need to happen.

Trussell explained that much of what they need to learn about the land in order to proceed with a landfill expansion is the environmental impact that mining has had on it. He said that mining in the landfill area, with varying degrees of environmental regulation, dates back about a century and those impacts could still be embedded in the site.

"The entire parcel was mined with strip mining but how did they put the dirt back? This was done with scrapers but we don't know until you look into it," Trussell said. "We have a lot of unknowns so we recommend that you need to look into it. That's what this proposal is all about."

Trussell's field investigation proposal consists of soil borings, groundwater tests and air monitoring. He estimated that the investigation would cost around $100,000, which is relatively expensive due to needing to contract a drilling company to extract samples from old coal sites deep beneath the ground. In total he said the drilling company, Terracon Consulting, will cost about $40,000 and the testing facility, Pace Labs, about $10,000 with Wenck receiving about $42,000 for their work.

Trussell said he expects to find some levels of contamination in soil and water tests. He referenced tests done in the area by North Dakota's Public Service Commission finding high levels of phenols (a carcinogen) and other metals in groundwater. But these tests will help ensure that the city is aware of potential hazards before building the landfill and be protected in case the city uncovers problem sites in a potential landfill expansion later on.

"It's a perfect place for a landfill, that's why we need to have the lawyer involved to protect your interests," Trussell said. "It's just a matter of making sure you are aware of what you are getting into."

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The North Dakota Department of Health recently approved the tests and a report on them is expected to be completed in January, according to Trussell.

Praus said a recycling program could extend the life of the landfill for a few extra years, but when it does reach its limit he hopes the landfill can expand on the current site.

"This is our best option rather than permitting a brand new facility in another site," Praus said. "All of our equipment and staff is at the site and we are looking at putting a facility there. We are trying to get everything located on one site."

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