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Big Trash Dump Near Me
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A garbage truck dumps its load during the operational phase of the Larimer County Landfill in July outside of Fort Collins. The landfill is among those in Colorado approaching capacity. It will run out of space in 2024. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
In seven years, the mounds of earth growing skyward west of Fort Collins will blend into the landscape that surrounds them, foothills dotted with sagebrush and wild grasses waving in warm summer winds.
However, no trees are allowed to grow in these hills. That’s because their roots can penetrate a thick clay cap that keeps about 60 years’ worth of trash hidden from view.
Not one more kitchen garbage bag full of melon rinds and take-out containers will enter his gates. No other bike, broken bench or scrap pile of wood, nails and crushed tiles will continue in a pickup truck or commercial trash.
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The landfill will join the 190 other closed landfills, thousands of acres of buried garbage in Colorado. And Larimer County isn’t the only landfill that’s nearly full.
Colorado used to have 150 active landfills. Today, it has just 58, but the state is not out of space for garbage. Some Colorado landfills, which add thousands of trash-producing residents to their population each year, have more than 100 years of life left.
“Trash gulls” fly over part of the Larimer County Landfill, which will reach capacity in seven years. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
“Do we really want to use these landfills for another 125 years? There are much better ways to dispose of what we consider trash,” said Harlin Savage with Boulder-based Eco-Cycle, one of the largest nonprofit recyclers in the country.
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Colorado is seen as a state with “green credentials,” she said, but in practice it ranks in the bottom half of states for how poorly it recycles.
The state’s diversion rate — which measures how much waste is diverted from landfills through recycling — is rotten. Colorado is at 19 percent, compared to the national average of 34 percent, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In 2016, the latest year for which the data is available, Colorado dumped 7.9 million tons of trash into its landfills. The total for 2016 is 410,000 tonnes more than the year before. And 936,000 tons more than the year before. Since those 2016 totals were calculated by the state, Colorado has added an estimated 150,000 people.
Coloradans create 9.6 pounds of trash per person per day, with about 7.8 pounds of that going to the dump, while 1.8 pounds is recycled or reused, according to a 2018 state health department report to the legislature.
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And those numbers are decreasing, because the amount of trash per person is increasing and the percentage of recycled has dropped in recent years.
Jeff Boltz, who has worked at the Larimer County Landfill for 21 years and will retire about the same time as the landfill itself, is still shocked by what some people throw away, including a few leather sofas.
Boltz is the kind of guy who washes out margarine containers and reuses them to hold his lunch. The assistant director of solid waste, who bounces across roads built on top of closed sections of the landfill in his pickup truck, doesn’t use plastic baggies. He brings back old furniture. And he realizes that most people don’t think about trash as much as he does, or think about it a lot.
“They roll it out to the sidewalk. After work, they roll it back in. It’s here; it’s gone,” he said.
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Larimer County, which opened in 1963, has already sealed much of its buried trash. The land looks like any other rolling hills, but has become sunken in places where the waste underneath has broken down. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
As Colorado’s population has increased, along with its tons of trash, the number of landfills operating has shrunk.
The reason: stricter environmental regulations that in the 90s of the century and the steeper costs of compliance with them.
Colorado now has 58 landfills that take household trash, far more than several East Coast states where remaining landfills are in the single digits.
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While smaller, city- and county-run landfills still operate, there are fewer of them, and along the Front Range, the trash from Colorado’s big cities is being consolidated into huge, often commercially operated landfills.
Making sure the 190 closed and closed landfills in this state don’t contaminate soil or water is a big undertaking, and one that hasn’t begun in full force.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently began creating an inventory of landfills that closed after 1967, when the state passed the Colorado Solid Waste Act and began regulating it. Most of the closed landfills in Colorado closed under looser requirements than currently exist, purposefully ceasing operations before 1993 federal rules that lifted environmental standards.
About 90 landfills in Colorado chose to close rather than meet the standards. State officials intend to inspect each of them to determine whether they were properly closed and pose “a low risk to people and the environment.”
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Jefferson and El Paso counties each have nine closed landfills. Adams County has eight, Huerfano has three and Denver has one, according to the state’s inventory.
Larimer County’s landfill follows current, more stringent federal requirements to ensure it does not emit unacceptable levels of methane gas, contaminate groundwater or leave trash exposed after it is closed. And the state health department will inspect it to make sure.
In addition to the new initiative to inspect closed landfills, the department monitors closed landfills after receiving complaints or as part of the current post-closure monitoring requirements.
Among them was Capulin Landfill in Conejos County, where inspectors in 2014 found evidence of illegal dumping on county property. Construction waste, concrete, trash, furniture, tires, electronics and various 5-liter containers were scattered across the landscape. No gate or lock prevented people from illegally entering and throwing out their household or construction trash, according to state records.
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The state imposed the maximum $10,000 fine against the county in 2016 for violating the Colorado Solid Waste Act, but lifted it last month after the land was cleaned up, according to documents reviewed by The Colorado Sun under state laws on public records.
Open landfills are inspected annually in Colorado by a five-person division at the state health department. The state has a new goal of inspecting each landfill at least once a year, an improvement from previous years when the department did not have enough personnel to visit each landfill annually and traveled to inspect landfills typically after receiving complaints.
When state inspectors visit, they make sure the landfill keeps its workspace to a minimum, meaning only a small portion of trash is exposed to air.
They also ensure that the landfill controls wind speed, that a liner functions to prevent waste from leaching heavy metals and pathogens into the groundwater, and that trash exposed overnight is covered with a biodegradable powder or other substance to prevent it blows away or is carried by birds.
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Landfills with minor compliance issues, such as paperwork issues that are easily corrected, are asked to make the changes. Those with more serious violations are issued an advisory on compliance, and landfills that do not comply with or clean up environmental problems can receive the highest level of action, called a compliance order.
Nine operating landfills in Colorado are now under compliance orders: Milner, Firstview, Phantom, Phillips County, Sedgwick County, Eads, Granada, Washington County and Lincoln County.
Washington County Landfill, for example, was cited in 2016 for exceeding allowable levels of explosive gases and failing to dispose of windblown trash.
About 30 landfills in Colorado have compliance issues that are at least level two advisory status, according to state records. Small landfills are much more likely to have compliance issues, with 17 of the 19 small landfills listed as non-compliant by the state health department.
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Pitkin County Landfill is another of Colorado’s landfills nearing capacity. In Aspen, where on average every house is torn down and rebuilt every 20 to 25 years, the landfill is full of demolition material.
Nationally, the average filled by building materials is about 20 percent. In Pitkin County, it’s 62 percent, said Cathy Hall, the county’s solid waste manager.
The landfill, which was opened in the sixties, has another six or seven years before it runs out of space. The county has asked the Colorado Department of Health and Environment for two permits to expand — a north extension that can take eight years’ worth of trash and a south side that can take up to 42.
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