Landfills storing municipal solid waste are high-tech operations, compared to old "dumps." It's no longer acceptable to find an isolated tract of land not too far from an urban area, dig a pit, then build a mountain of garbage. Modern landfills are engineered and built as a series of cells. The cells include liners of plastic membranes and watertight clay on the bottom. At the end of each day, earth covers the trash deposited in the cell, to keep animals away.
When a cell is full, a thick cap of watertight clay is added at the top of each cell. This impervious clay blocks rainwater from seeping into the garbage and then into adjacent groundwater. Intricate plumbing systems are installed at different levels, to capture and release gases from decomposing waste before pressure builds up and cracks the clay covering.
The plumbing threaded through the landfill also collects the juices ("leachate") that are squeezed out of the garbage, plus groundwater/rainwater that manages to seep into the landfill and become contaminated. The pipes carry the leachate to wastewater treatment facilities, where the contaminants are separated from the water.
Sometimes the contaminants from the leachate are incinerated, and ash is buried in a specialized landfill for that product. In other cases, concentrated sludge from the water treatment plant is carried back to the landfill and buried there. Once a landfill is oficially closed and sealed with clay at the top, the waste is isolated from the surrounding environment - at least in theory.
Garbage gradually compacts and chemically changes. Decomposition of organic material is slowed in the anaerobic (oxygen-deprived) environment, but is not stopped completely. Anecdotal stories tell of landfills being opened after decades, and newspapers had hardly turned yellow. Hot dogs with mustard looked just as good as the day they were tossed in the trash. Decomposition takes time, but all that material will gradually degrade.
After several decades of decay, bacterial decomposition of waste should become minimal. Until then, surface inspections can ensure if the clay cap has settled or cracked, while monitoring wells can measure if the membranes, clay, and leachate collection processes actually prevent plumes of pollution from contaminating groundwater.
Virginia has roughly 60 solid waste landfills still in operation. There are 134 separate counties and cities, so obviously solid waste management is now a regional operation. In 1993, the General Assembly mandated in a law known as "HB 1205" that existing landfills that did not need new requirements must be closed. Old landfills would be permitted to continue accepting waste until their existing facilities were filled, but no horizontal expansion of old landfills would be permitted. All new cells, at old or new landfills, would have to meet stricter requirements for liners, clay caps, gas release systems, and monitoring.
The original proposal in the General Assembly would have created new fees to compensate those affected by the more-stringent environmental mandates. The cost to close a landfill is relatively clear, compared to the social cost (especially in human health) if an unsafe site is permitted to continue operating, but the one-time expenses to close a landfill can be steep. Asking a small rural county to absorb those costs directly was not the original plan of the General Assembly, but Governor Gilmore effectively blocked imposition of new fees that he perceived as new taxes.
If the recommendations in the Prioritization and Closure Schedule for HB 1205 Landfills report (issued July, 2000) are implemented, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) could force the two Virginia counties on the Eastern Shore out of the landfill business by the year 2020. Northampton County closed its landfill near the community of Oyster by the end of 2012, and began to convert the site into Seasise ark for recreational use.
Accomack County also closed one of its two landfills in 2012. According to DEQ's initial plans, the unlined cells at the South Landfill should have closed in 2005. The South Landfill finally closed at the end of 2012, and was replaced by a transfer station to transport waste to the North Landfill 40 miles away until it closes (or is expanded) in 2017. Accomack County budgeted over $4 million to cover the one-time closure costs of the South Landfill, and additional funds for monitoring will be required for 30 years.1
Landfills create methane and other types of gas that bubble up to the surface and can crack the cap, if the pressure is not released. In addition to lechate pipes, modern landfills have plumbing for gas collection. If you drive Interstate 66 near Fair Oaks Parkway after dark, you can see the flare used to burn the methane coming from the now-closed landfill adjacent to the interstate.
The two Eastern Shore counties could have built new landfill facilities to replace the ones being forced to close. However, there are great economies of scale in landfill construction and operations. It's inefficient to build small facilities, and two rural counties could not afford to borrow the necessary funds for a large high-tech facility that would always require taxes for an operating subsidy. The experience in Page County offers a lesson. The county leased its Battle Creek landfill, and then permitted the operator to grossly exceed the 250 ton/day limit in ordder to generate greater volume and thus more fees. DEQ ultimately revoked the permit for that landfill, and Page County will struggle to repay the costs for decades to come.
On the Eastern Shore, as at Page County, there's just not enough population or industry to make a large landfill facility an attractive investment. The Eastern Shore counties have not found regional partners to share the cost of a regional facility. The Hampton Roads communities already have a regional disposal authority; they were unwilling to ship garbage across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. The greatest waste disposal challenge across the Maryland line is processing chicken manure (and dead chickens), not municipal solid waste.
Northampton County chose to build a $2 million transfer facility, where local garbage collection trucks could deposit waste. Transfer stations are temporary collection points. Since 2009, it has been moved at the transfer station into large tractor trailers that transport the county's garbage to a sanitary landfill in King and Queen County. (Brush is burned at the transfer station, and valuable scap metal is recycled there rather than shipped to the lndfill.)2
Virginia Beach used a creative process to close its landfill. It compacted and piled solid waste into Mount Trashmore, building the cells vertically over 60 feet high until creating the highest point in the city. After closing the landfill and capping it with clay, Virginia Beach made it into a public park.
The garbage is decaying underneath the clay, burping gases out the vent pipes regularly, but the city converted a waste site into a recreational asset. After closing the landfill, the city shipped its solid waste to the Southeastern Public Service Authority (SPSA) waste-to-energy plant in Portsmouth and the SPSA's landfill in Suffolk.
The City of Portsmouth struggled to keep the grass cut at its landfill on the southern edge of Craney Island. It bought goats, figuring they would graze on the grass. After discovering their goats were finicky eaters, city officials bought sheep as well - and a book on how to raise sheep. After a year, Portsmouth realized that using farm animals to cut grass was not the easy solution originally imagined, and acquired two lawn mowers to cut most of the grass on the landfill.3
In the 1980's, Arlington and Alexandria realized they were running out of landfill space for disposal of solid waste. They joined together to build a joint waste-to-energy facility, implementing a new technology to solve an old problem.
Fairfax has also built a waste-to-energy facility at Lorton. In Fairfax County, trucks haul solid waste between waste transfer stations (including one at the old I-66 landfill) and the waste-to-energy facility (incinerator) at Lorton or the Prince William County landfill. The trailers of those trucks are a distinctive tan color.
The county has closed all of its municipal solid waste landfills except one (the I-95 Landfill), and directed municipal solid waste to the incinerator. Construction and Demolition Debris (CDD) landfills remain open, including one at Lorton next to the I-95 Landfill. That facility was scheduled to close in 2018, under a deal negotiated with nearby residents in 2006 to allow a short-term expansion followed by conversion of the landfill into a public park.
In 2014 the landfill owner (EnviroSolutions) proposed keeping the landfill open until 2040. The 2008 recession had slowed construction projects dramatically, and the company was not receiving construction and demolition debris fast enough to reach the maximum authorized height of 412 feet (roughly 50 higher than its height in 2014) in 2018. In exchange for the 22-year extension of time to reach maximum utilization of the site, EnviroSolutions proposed to add solar cells, geothermal energy, and wind turbines to create a green energy park.4
County staff supported changing the commitments made in 2006. Local opposition was strong, in part because the company had already changed its commitment to build the public park in order to minimize long-term liability insurance costs.