The Powell sanitation department began hauling half its loads to the North Big Horn County Landfill in Cowley late last month, while hauling the other half to the Park County Regional Landfill in Cody to compare costs between the two.
“We’re going to look at the mileage, we’re going to look at the time and we’re going to look at the fuel. Those are three things that, you know, are going to start costing us, no matter what we do in the future,” said City Administrator Zane Logan during the Oct. 1 Powell City Council meeting.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) currently is reviewing a request from Big Horn County’s Solid Waste Board that would officially allow Powell to take all of its trash to Cowley.
If the request is approved and the city of Powell were to choose Cowley over Cody, it likely would mean higher garbage rates for everyone else in Park County — from the Willwood to the city of Cody to the South Fork — while potentially spelling lower rates for Big Horn County residents.
For the city of Powell, it could mean some savings, though not that much at current pricing.
“It’s our understanding that, for the city of Powell ... given the transport distances and the current disposal rates, there’s not a lot of cost savings one way or the other,” said Wyoming DEQ Solid Waste Program Manager Bob Doctor in a recent interview.
Both landfills currently charge $90 per ton in tipping fees, while the round trip to Cowley is about 15 miles shorter than the roughly 56 miles to the Cody landfill and back.
“The real difference is, who gets the revenue from the city of Powell: Park County or the Big Horn (County) Solid Waste District?” Doctor said.
However, he noted the savings picture would change if one of the landfills gave Powell a discount on tipping fees.
If the DEQ approves Big Horn County’s request to expand its service area, it would give Powell the option of taking its trash to Cowley, but would in no way prohibit the city from going to Cody. When the city completes its transfer station to streamline its trash hauling, it will be able to shop for the best rates even further away, Doctor noted.
Trash typically isn’t thought of as a hot commodity, but the roughly 4,950 tons of household waste produced by Powell residents each year translates to hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue for the receiving landfill.
Powell leaders have indicated they want to negotiate for the best rate.
“We don’t want to be committed to anybody until we can get a firm price per ton,” said Powell City Councilman and presumed mayor-to-be Don Hillman in a recent interview.
Big Horn County Solid Waste Disposal District Manager Gary Grant said in a Wednesday interview that it’s a bit too soon to come up with any firm figures of what rates Cowley could offer Powell. However, Grant said preliminary discussions have included talk of possibly dropping rates to $80 a ton across Big Horn County if Powell came on board.
Powell’s trash would more than double the trash currently received at Cowley, cutting the life of the cell from roughly 57 to 27 years. Powell’s money, meanwhile, would help the district buy equipment and set aside money for DEQ-mandated closure costs down the road, Grant said.
“It’s going to shorten our life of our landfill, but by the same token, we are just barely making it with current revenues. So this will obviously increase our cash and make it so we can do other things and look towards regionalization (of area landfills),” Grant said.
Big Horn County’s Solid Waste Board would handle any negotiations with Powell officials, though the Big Horn County Commission ultimately has jurisdiction over the board.
Park County commissioners, in general, have said for years that they support the idea of giving Powell a discount to haul to Cody. A primary reason is that, due to the way landfill improvements and closures are financed, losing Powell’s trash would likely require a 10 percent hike in tipping fees for everyone else in Park County. Commission Chairman Tim French reiterated his belief in an August interview that giving Powell a break “is a matter of fairness.”
But despite the commission’s willingness, no agreement has ever been reached. That’s in part because the 2010 commission declined to directly offer Powell a break on its rates and told them to instead negotiate a subsidy from the city of Cody, the biggest Cody landfill user.
City of Cody staff met with their Powell counterparts last week to learn about the city’s hauling plans and had a good conversation, said Cody City Administrator Jenni Rosencranse.
As for whether the city of Cody would be willing to offer Powell a subsidy, “I think there’d have to be a lot of discussions and a lot of questions and a lot of analysis of the difference number before we were able to answer that question intelligently,” Rosencranse said. She said it had been a very long time since landfill issues had been discussed. A decision would rest with the Cody City Council.
At the commission’s Oct. 2 meeting, French said the failure to reach a deal in 2010 was “the missed opportunity.”
“Well, we still have an opportunity before Powell signs onto a long-term contract. There’s still an opportunity to go back and re-adjust all those,” offered Commissioner Loren Grosskopf.
“But do you think that’s what’s going to happen if they’ve already got Big Horn County to apply for a Type I?” asked French, referring to a larger landfill permit.
Grant, in Big Horn County, said no decisions have been made with regard to taking Powell’s trash, though he added that the Big Horn County waste board “is very amenable to try working something out” with Powell.
Powell officials say they’re only exploring their options. They have, however, been upset with the Park County’s inaction on the rate issue and refusal to help the city with its transfer station (the commission cited figures that the station wouldn’t be worth the cost).
Communication between the commission and city of Powell officials has apparently been sparse: commissioners learned of Powell’s Cowley runs and Big Horn County’s request to take Powell’s trash from the Tribune reporter asking them about it.
“I thought we were going to talk to Powell before it ever got to that,” said Grosskopf.
The modifications to the Cowley landfill’s permit must go through the regulatory process, but appear to be headed towards a smooth approval from the DEQ, Doctor said. The process does include a public comment process where people can raise concerns, such as perhaps residents who would have more traffic on their roads, Doctor said.
He called the issue of who gets the city of Powell’s trash and revenue one for local politics and not the DEQ.
“That’s not our issue,” Doctor said. “That’s up to local governments and local competition and which facilities can operate the most effectively and all those kind of things.”
Department administrators recently cleared the Cowley landfill to accept Powell’s trash for five months while the application to make that permission permanent is pending.
Park County commissioners expressed displeasure with the potential loss of Powell’s trash. French questioned the fairness of the city of Powell taking its trash to Big Horn County while Park County spends some $3.4 million (half of that a federal grant) to close and monitor the Powell landfill’s cell for household waste.
“So everybody else, whether you’re rural and have a private carrier, or Cody or whoever, is paying more to reclaim Powell’s landfill. So, it’s like... OK,” said French.
Most of the commissioners’ frustration, however, is aimed at the DEQ. The department’s regulations aimed at protecting groundwater are what required lined cells in Cody and ones the county found unaffordable for Powell and Clark. Without liners, the Powell and Clark sites had to close to household trash on Sept. 18, requiring Powell to start hauling. The Cody site required millions of dollars in upgrades.
“I mean, that’s what it goes to: (the DEQ said) you will regionalize or else, and that’s what we did, and all of a sudden we’re going to have a white elephant sitting out there (in Cody),” said Commissioner Bucky Hall.
Grosskopf questioned why the DEQ would allow more hauling to an un-lined pit.
“If they’re not going to force Cowley to line, why force us?” he said.
Doctor said the landfill in Cowley can remain unlined because the site has demonstrated — through annual preciptation data, depth of groundwater, soil types and other factors — that a liner isn’t necessary to protect groundwater.
“Obviously, a lined landfill reduces dramatically, to a minuscule number, the risk of groundwater contamination, and I think everybody would agree that a lined landfill is the best way to go,” he said. “However, it is possible that in certain climates with certain environmental conditions that a landfill won’t alter groundwater quality.”
While Cowley is one of those landfills, Cody did not make the cut to be unlined. Neither did Powell’s or Clark’s.
“I think the point being made by Park County is, ‘Well, we’re not on equal footing: they (Cowley) don’t have to line their landfill, (and) because it becomes much cheaper to operate that facility, how are we going to compete?’ Which is a fair question, but under the legislation we have, the statutes allow that,” Doctor said.
A public comment period will be opening soon on the proposed changes to Big Horn County’s landfill permit.
(Tribune Managing Editor Tessa Schweigert contributed reporting.)