Where garbage goes to die

BOMAG operator Wayne Leitheiser (right) and Clay County Landfill manager Brett Rice at the landfill south of Hawley. (Photos/Nancy Hanson)

You empty the wastebasket into the bin. On Garbage Day, Moorhead’s sanitation trucks comb the boulevards, grabbing those bins with an automatic arm and emptying them into the back, then compressing the mess with a push plate.

The truck rolls on down the street. Your garbage? It seems to be gone for good.

But collecting Moorhead’s solid waste – the polite term for the discarded scraps, cans, packaging and miscellaneous odds and ends that you’ve bid farewell – is only the beginning. Life goes on, at least for a time, for the loads of left-overs from the city’s households.

Clay County’s Solid Waste Management Office takes custody of all that the city of Moorhead and other municipalities collect and deliver. Some day soon, all kinds of waste will be collected in the $21 million Resource Recovery Center now being constructed on the north side. For now, though, it’s trucked out of town to one of two complex final resting places – the Clay County Landfill, 182 acres south of Hawley, or the Perham Resource Recovery Facility, a powerful incinerator serving Clay and four neighboring counties.

In other words, when our garbage goes to die, two choices await: burial or cremation.

Kirk Rosenberger took the Extra on a guided tour of Clay County garbage last week, two days before retiring as director of Solid Waste Management. In his seven years in Moorhead, he says, the county has taken big steps forward in how it handles what its citizens throw away.

The most significant by far is the new complex, on which construction began in 2021. The waste transfer station combines several efforts now handled in separate locations. Thirty-two-foot concrete walls surround its 15,000-square-foot tipping floor, where garbage trucks disgorge their contents to be ultimately trucked to the landfill or incinerator. The department will also collect hazardous household waste there – paint, varnish, insecticides and the like – as well as electronics that must be dropped off (at no charge), bundled and shipped away to be dismantled, recycled or destroyed.

A fraction of the county’s trash is trucked to Perham. There, Rosenberger explains, the five-county incineration program burns household waste to fuel two gigantic industrial boilers. It burns at 1900 to 2000 degrees to generate steam that, in turn, is fed to the Tuffy’s Pet Food and Bongards Dairy manufacturing plants. Besides saving space in the increasingly burdened landfill, the burning reduces its customers’ consumption of natural gas by 15,000 million cubic feet per month, saving about $140,000 in expense. It also powers the plant itself.

Moorhead usually trucks two semi loads of waste onto the Perham tipping floor each day. Other huge gobs of garbage are delivered by Fox Sanitation, which provides service to smaller Clay County towns. As one of five owners of the utility, Moorhead is allotted 15% of its annual capacity – about 56,000 tons next year. Other loads come from Otter Tail, Becker, Wadena and Todd. Dating back to 1986, the facility has been operating under public ownership for 20 years.

On the tipping floor, front-end loaders dump the waste onto a conveyor belt that carries it into the plant. First stop: A visit with the crew of eight “pickers” who sort out obvious missteps, from oversized chunks of furniture and tires to medical waste. The belt carries it past two powerful magnets and an eddy current of air that single out metals, both ferrous and aluminum. Once it has passed muster, it rides away to a towering pile to await its final trip into the facility’s two incinerators.

While most is burned to generate steam, the ash that remains is scraped out afterwards. It can be used as a sub-base on asphalt road projects – a plus, since aggregate is said to be in short supply in Minnesota. Once compacted with the native clay, it contributeds to a tough, durable sub-base for roadways.

Far more of Clay’s solid waste is trucked to the sanitary landfill – some 300 tons per day. Located on the so-called Hummocky Moraine south of Highway 10, the site encompassed four cells, one of them only two years old. All are lined with clay, gravel and membrane to prevent seepage into the groundwater. Much of its bulk looms like a grass-covered butte 40 feet above the surrounding farmland; according to site manager Brett Rice, it will rise another 50 feet in decades to come.

Here, some 20 semi trucks per day take turns climbing the slope and unloading their contents. Those who run the landfill jokingly refer to it as Wayne’s Hill in honor of Wayne Leitheiser, the operator who has run the county’s 80,000-pound BOMAG machine for every weekday for more than 15 years. The BOMAG runs back and forth, back and forth, crushing out air pockets and compacting the messy piles into layers that can be sealed with layers of ash from the American Crystal plant in Moorhead, sawdust from Lund Boats in New York Mills, and “fines” – the tiniest bits of garbage sifted from the collection – to hold it down, reduce blowing and minimize the smell.

But burial isn’t the final act. The waste’s last days contribute to other challenges. Rainwater percolates through the dense mass, collecting at the bottom of the pits. As organic contents rot, they generate methane, the nastiest of greenhouse gases. That’s why a network of pipes underlies the trashy mountain. Methane is collected by a network of 38 gas wells and channeled to two flares, where it burns harmlessly 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, the leachate – now-polluted water that’s silently dripped through the mass – is also collected in wells, then pumped into tanker trucks. From there, it sloshes along Highway 10 back to Fargo, where it’s sanitized in the city water treatment plant and discharged into the Red River.

“Clay County has been proactive about solid waste,” the now-retired Rosenberger observed as his term came to an end. “We’ve added a lot more wells for testing water quality. We’re doing our best to minimize the chances of harming the groundwater. We’re looking for ways to mine the resource that the landfill represents, though the economics of that kind of operation don’t really work yet.”

The problem, he says, is the volume of what Clay County residents throw away. The landfill cell currently in use was initiated just two years ago with the expectation of lasting five to eight years. By now, he suggests, it may have two years left at best before yet another must be opened. “It’s filling up way too fast,” he says, then recites the mantra of civic solid waste experts everywhere: “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

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