Klondike Landfill equipment operator Tony Martineau, left, and Grand County Solid Waste Special Services District Manager Debby Barton discuss operations at Moab's municipal landfill on Thursday, Oct. 8. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Don’t ever use the “D-word” in front of Debby Barton.

The Grand County Solid Waste Special Services District’s new manager is proud of the work that her team does at Moab’s municipal landfill, and she jokingly reprimands anyone who dares to utter the word “dump” in her presence.

Hidden from view by low-slung hills just north of Canyonlands Field Airport, the district’s Klondike Landfill is the permanent resting place for the non-construction waste that residents – and visitors speeding down nearby U.S. Highway 191 – generate every day of every year.

Although Barton says the 80-acre Class I facility has loads of room to grow in the future, she notes that in recent years, it has acutely felt the effects of the phenomenon that some have called “industrial tourism.”

During the height of the visitor season in May, for instance, nearly 1,000 tons of waste wound up at Klondike – almost twice as much as the monthly totals during the off-season February lull.

“Tourism really hits us hard, and it’s in the hot time of year when it’s really not fun to be around all that trash,” she told the Moab City Council during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

The waste stream includes not only household garbage, but wastewater treatment sludge and waste from restaurants and hotels.

To give the district’s board members a better sense of what they’re facing, Barton led them on an Oct. 8 tour of the landfill, which is closed to the public.

The facility, she said, is a testament to long-range plans that were well-thought out.

While Moab-area residents have shown a strong commitment to recycling, many other facilities recycle products out of necessity, in order to conserve landfill space. However, Barton said that is one concern that her district doesn’t have to worry about – at least, not for the foreseeable future.

“It’s not a problem here,” she said.

Right now, heavy equipment is still burying waste at an operating cell on the first 40 acres of the 80-acre site.

Standing on top of a 40- to-50-foot mound of garbage and fill material, Barton estimates that the first phase alone has a lifespan of at least another 40 to 50 years. When the second phase is taken into consideration, she projects that the facility has another 200 years of life left within it.

“Unless everybody moves from Salt Lake – then we are really in trouble,” she said.

Current population trends suggest that Moab will grow at a more sustainable pace of about 1 percent annually. But in contrast with that moderate pace of resident growth, annual visitation has increased dramatically since the late 1990s, and the district is seeking $260,000 in Transient Room Tax revenue to help offset those impacts.

“Biosolids,” or treated sewage sludge materials, are among the more pungent effects.

“A lot of it’s coming in because of the hotels,” Barton said.

Grand County Council member Mary McGann had a clear whiff of those impacts as the wind shifted, and covered her face to keep the “eau d’garbage” at bay. As she did so, District Facilities Supervisor Shan Knighton told visitors that worse things could happen.

“You don’t know how horrible it is until you get stuck in it,” Knighton said.

Fortunately for the district, the biosolids are treated before they arrive on site, and Barton said they are among the driest she’s ever seen.

There are other advantages to working in an arid environment where things tend to dry out in a hurry.

Methane gas, which forms at many other landfills as waste breaks down over time, has not been detected at the Klondike site, according to former district manager and current level-two equipment operator Tony Martineau.

“The state checks for methane quarterly, and as of yet, they haven’t found any,” Martineau said.

Nor is there any leachate – or “garbage juice” – which forms when water comes into contact with landfill debris.

Martineau said the underlying geology of Mancos shale and siltstone eliminates the need for a landfill liner, and with ample stockpiles of dirt all around, the district has never had to buy an ounce of topsoil to lay down as landfill cover.

Still, the facility is not perfect.

The landfill was built in the middle of a drainage, and Barton said the initial project design didn’t take that configuration into account.

“It is a flaw,” she said.

In the future, she said, landfill engineers will have to think about redesigning the periphery in a way that keeps run-on waters from entering the site.

Recycling center faces financial challenges

Landfill operations are ultimately vital to the success of the Canyonlands Community Recycling Center: Barton told the Moab City Council that the community’s recycling operations work primarily because landfill operations are subsidizing them.

The district’s board is in the midst of a discussion to improve the recycling center’s financial performance, while still providing the recycling services that people want.

“We’re trying to find creative ways – legal creative ways – to try and help people do what they want to do,” she said.

Among other things, Barton questioned the practicality of continuing to recycle glass, which is made from sand.

“Should we be sending sand 400 miles, or is it something that we can decide as a community to go ahead and use (crushed glass) on site as … cover on the landfills?” she asked. “There are people who absolutely hate that, but it’s a bigger carbon input to go ahead and send it off site.”

No matter what paths they choose to take, some factors are out of their hands.

Barton noted that the district’s recycling services have been impacted by global economic trends, including labor disputes and plunging commodity prices.

“We had a strike at the ports at the end of 2014 that wasn’t resolved until the beginning of 2015, and the mills were slammed, so we couldn’t get all of our stuff out,” she said.

“The second thing that’s going on is commodity prices are tanking,” she said. “They are sunk; they are flushing down. But we still have expenses; we still have to pay transportation; we still have to pay people. For some reason, none of our people want to work for free.”

At the same time, the district has experienced a decline in revenues from products it recycles.

For instance, cardboard prices dropped from $250 per ton to $150 per ton, and instead of paying $500 to ship it off, the district is paying $1,400 to $1,500.

Gazing into her crystal ball, Barton said she doubts the situation will improve within the next year or two.

To add to the recycling center’s financial challenges, the district typically doesn’t receive its payments for six weeks to almost three months after it sends the recycled materials off, yet it still has to pay its bills.

“There’s a little bit of a disconnect there,” Barton said. “In theory, it should even out. In actuality, it never does.”

Recycling center faces financial challenges

Tourism really hits us hard, and it’s in the hot time of year when it’s really not fun to be around all that trash.