Wright County landfill expansion gets underway with board tour

By John Holler

Contributing Writer

The Wright County Board of Commissioners opted to take its show on the road, as the board scheduled a tour that will be the first step in a planned expansion the Rolling Hills landfill in Monticello Township.

The board heard a proposal from Rolling Hills two years ago to expand its current facility, but, as Assistant County Attorney Greg Kryzer pointed out, the last attempt to get zoning approval died in committee.

“Rolling Hills has expressed to our office that they’re looking to embark on the next process of rezoning,” Kryzer said. “About two years ago, they came in with a rezoning request and the county board at that time directed staff to address findings consistent with denial. The company ended up withdrawing its request before those findings were adopted.”

The issue in 2014 was that the facility was looking to include mixed municipal solid waste (MSW) in its proposed expansion, which caused concerned residents to object, citing the smell and potential for groundwater contamination as their primary concerns.

Commissioner Charlie Borrell, who represents the board on the planning commission, which oversees zoning change proposals, said the objections were both numerous and vocal.

“They were getting pushback over that,” Borrell said. “I think having MSW included was the big driver to the opposition.”

Rolling Hills General Manager Mike Niewind said the last attempt resulted in the zoning request being pulled because there wasn’t much reason to believe a negative recommendation from the committee of the whole, which included all five commissioners, would change when the matter was scheduled to before the board at one of its regularly scheduled meetings.

“There was no sense in continuing on when we already had the answer,” Niewind said.

While the proposal has yet to be formally submitted to the planning commission, the expectation is that the expansion request will be for industrial waste and demolition debris. County records show approximately 20,000 cubic yards of area on the current footprint of landfill still available for expansion.

Niewind hopes that the proposal will be officially submitted within the next month, but wanted the board to tour the facility – a tour that was scheduled for Monday, March 20 – to get a bird’s eye view of what Rolling Hills is proposing, as opposed to looking at photos and maps of the facility.

“We want the commissioners to see first-hand what we’re proposing and the ideas we have,” Niewind said.

While Niewind plans to lay out the ideas that Rolling Hills is looking to implement, he wants to wait until the commissioners can see the plan for themselves before divulging specific details. He pointed out that, if approved, the landfill will be constructed to the standards required for MSW – two feet of clay, a synthetic liner and a drainage layer.

Technology has made the field of waste management much more accountable in recent years, as multiple forms of testing and monitoring make the likelihood of an environmental disaster much less likely than in decades past, when there wasn’t nearly the level of regulation that took place.

“A lot of people are very surprised at the amount of engineering and redundancy that goes into the landfill,” Niewind said. “That’s to ensure that there are no problems.”

The county board is likely to be much more receptive to the planned expansion if the proposal is limited to industrial waste and demolition debris. Niewind estimated that, at the current rate that Rolling Hills is taking in waste, its current footprint will reach capacity within about a year.

Borrell pointed out that Rolling Hills has been responsive to the concerns of neighbors and that the facility will get a fair hearing once the proposal officially comes forward.

“We have procedures that we need to follow,” Borrell said. “Mike has done a nice job of trying to make sure that the concerns of the residents nearby are addressed and that there is a dialogue between his company and those who live around the facility. There was a time when things were pretty contentious out there, but that has improved a lot.”

The March 20 tour will be the first step in a process that will not only require the planning commission and county board to give its approval, but the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as well.

Niewind is confident that if the county board approves the proposed expansion, that the MPCA will sign off, but added that it is far from a rubber stamp of tacit approval.

“It’s a process,” Niewind said. “It’s not something I that I can predict. Would we like that to be the case? Yes. But, there are always things that have to be looked at. We have to submit a solid waste permit application, an air quality application, a stormwater permit application. There are quite a few things that have to be submitted. If the county rezones the property, it will help us with the MPCA. But, you just can’t put your finger on it and say, ‘yeah.’ It’s a process.”

The issue of landfilling has been a point of contention at the Rolling Hills site for decades, but the sense is that, as long as the facility continues to take the same type of solid waste that it has been over the last several years, it has a very good chance of being approved and that the Rolling Hills landfill will remain operational for years to come.