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A look at Dillingham's costly trash problems


 Burying trash is costly, as is burning it through the new incinerator. Sorting helps, if residents will do so, but the council seems poised to raise rates to help offset the expensive problem of managing trash.

The City of Dillingham continues to look for the best way to manage its some three million pounds of annual trash. Space to bury it is limited, and the fill to cover it is expensive. The incinerator reduces most garbage to a fine ash, but glass and metals are clogging the machine, adding to the fuel bill.

One of Ken Morton's jobs is to manage the roughly three millions pounds of trash that arrive at the Dillingham landfill each year. As the city's public works director, Morton has been crunching numbers and comparing the two main options: burn or bury.

Earlier this year he submitted a report to the city on the future of the landfill’s operations, including a proposal for a new landfill area, known as a “cell.” Morton says the “active cell” (the area of the landfill currently being filled with trash) will probably be full by the end of this year. The active cell contains ash from the landfill’s incinerator operation, as well as trash that is not able to be run through the incinerator.

Once the trash is dumped in the cell, it is compacted down and covered with fill to prevent the contents from being dispersed. The active cell is surrounded by berms that extend its operational life.

This is where Morton’s plan for a new cell comes in. Morton and his staff are preparing to do the work needed over the summer. “The new cell is to have three phases and should last 45 years,” Morton says.

This projection is dependent on continued optimal operation of the landfill’s Penram incinerator, and the incinerator is not without its problems.

Trash that is not properly sorted before being fed into the incinerator can make an already costly operation even more expensive and frustrating. If a blockage in the incinerator cannot be easily reached, the incinerator must be stopped and allowed to cool before the offending item can be removed. “A small piece of pipe can shut the incinerator for up to three days,” explains Morton, noting that this has happened in the past.

But is the everyday glass and cans in unsorted trash that create the biggest challenge.

“Glass and metal creates problems operationally with the incinerator,” he said. “It reduces its efficiency and it requires us to embank more when it’s down and increases operation costs.”

For the most part the incinerator operates well, though it is currently eating almost three times as much oil as originally planned.

Even so, Morton believes it is an indispensable piece of the puzzle.

“It costs about the same per year if we buried everything instead of burning in the incinerator and burying the other third,” he said. “The challenge, though, is the available space that we have goes away much quicker.”

Trash problems in rural Alaska are not new, of course, but communities have had to evolve their solutions to meet changing regulations. In 1996, the Department of Environmental Conservation banned the practice of open burning of general trash. It was this regulation, when ADEC stopped granting Dillingham exceptions, that led to the purchase of the incinerator in 2015.

Credit KDLG
The burn area. Only limited items of trash can be burned following stricter regulations enacted by the state DEC enacted in 1996 but not enforced in Dillingham till recently.

"DEC worked on the larger landfills first, and as they brought those landfills into compliance they stretched their gaze further out," Morton said.

Dillingham city manager Rose Loera said while the regulations and required testing are costly, it has been a welcome improvement to rid the city of the great plumes of blue smoke which rose from open burning at the landfill, “which isn’t good for the neighbors.”

“We’re monthly doing our testing and it’s very expensive, about $80,000 a year, and that is just one of the tests,” Loera said of monitoring the wells in the incinerator. “We [also] have to do methane testing, and we have to test the ash coming out of the incinerator.”

No matter what the city does, the costs of dealing with trash will likely increase. Current projections estimate operating costs of roughly $750,000 this year, most of which is subsidized by the general fund. Burying more trash will take more staff and fill costs. Burning more at higher efficiencies will take staff hours to sort the garbage that goes into the incinerator or to burn it through longer cycles with less cool downs.

Morton has recommended the city increase its landfill fees closer to other comparable cities, and perhaps discount those who give a "scout's honor" that glass and metal have been sorted out. The city has also taken away this year's "free dump days" normally associated with the community cleanup in May.

Left unraveled yet is how to sort the large percentage of garbage picked up by a local refuse company, which compacts all of the garbage before delivering it to the landfill.

Reach the author at lawrence@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.

Credit KDLG/Lawrence Hamilton
The new cell which Morton hopes to have completed later this year. The Public Works Department hopes the cell will have a lifespan of 45 years.

Credit KDLG/Lawrence Hamilton
The incinerator at the Dillingham Landfill

Credit KDLG/Lawrence Hamilton
Public Works Director Ken Morton stands next to the incinerator. "It's a pretty clean operation," he said about the machine