After state environmental violations, Routt County considers amending Milner landfill permit
July 19, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County officials are expected to chime in on state-mandated upgrades to the Milner landfill that are required to bring it into compliance with environmental regulations.
The Routt County Board of Commissioners will discuss amendments to landfill operator TwinEnviro Services’ special-use permit at its 1:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting in the Routt County Courthouse.
The county's amendment is intended to bring two county-issued zoning documents — a special-use permit and certificate of designation — in line with requirements of the state, which regulates landfill operations.
The Routt County Planning Commission approved all but one line of the proposed amendments at its July 5 meeting. The line removed from the amendments said the existing landfill basin liner was incompatible with a type of oil and gas production waste, specifically fluids used to extract minerals from the ground in fracking operations.
Violations and warnings
In 2016, the state issued the Milner landfill several warnings that the operation did not meet regulations. In 2017, these warnings became formal violations. An annual state inspection found additional concerns, including problems in record keeping and storing coal ash in an unapproved area. Warnings were issued for improper storage and management of ash, accepting waste at the solidification basin outside of operating hours and failing to meet some testing requirements in the solidification basin.
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The Planning Commission initially focused on violations that impact the landfill's solidification basin — a pool where liquid wastes are mixed with coal ash to become solidified so they can be thrown away with other wastes. Liquid wastes include items such as latex paint, portable restroom waste, used anti-freeze and the waste that flows into traps at car washes.
"This is an important resource for our community,” said Jeremy Behling, owner of several auto shops in Steamboat. “Most people don't think about what happens when their oil gets changed, what happens when you go through the car wash, all that stuff that comes off your car. Where does that go? We don't want it in the rivers. We don't want in the streams. We need a place to dispose of it."
In 2010, TwinEnviro received approval to accept a special type of liquid waste produced by oil and gas companies called exploration and production waste, which includes fracking fluids. TwinEnviro owner Les Liman said no oil and gas company has brought exploration and production waste to the landfill for the past three years. About 10 of the state's approximately 70 landfills accept exploration and production waste, according to Curt Stovall, of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The state has called for upgrades to the solidification basin's liner, which is currently thinner and not as strong as the liner required by regulation, according to Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman. The solidification basin is also missing a required secondary liner intended to catch leaks, Cowman said. He added that the liner system is not suitable to contain certain chemicals found in exploration and production waste.
The amended zoning documents would require the landfill to add the stronger, thicker liner atop the existing liner to create a secondary containment, a requirement the state has already issued.
"What we're trying to do is avoid a release that could affect downstream water sources," Cowman said.
A test of the existing liner showed that it has weakened, leaving the potential for leaks, Stovall said. “It's hard to know whether or not the solidification basin is leaking."
Elevated levels of chloride have been found in the area of the landfill, an initial indicator that other, more serious contaminants could be leaking.
"When you take these types of substances, you're taking on a little bit of risk," Cowman said. "That risk increases as you add on those issues." He said TwinEnviro has agreed to step up its monitoring for possible contamination.
Liman said the landfill makes about $1,500 per year on liquid waste disposal. He estimated the required upgrades would cost at least $100,000.
"The economics are not very good," Liman said in the planning meeting. "It becomes a question of, ‘Do you want this basin to close and force liquid waste to go to the Front Range or drive the cost so high that businesses are back to dumping liquids in open fields?’"
Grand and Jackson counties send waste to the Front Range after landfills closed due to the rising cost of compliance, Liman said.
When addressing the Planning Commission, Liman refuted the results of the liner test. He said the strength of the liner was tested at a level of pressure it would not actually see. He also said the landfill has a secondary liner in the form of a clay liner. He added that compatibility with certain chemicals in exploration and production waste is a non-issue because these chemicals do not sit in the basin long enough to erode the liner.
"I don't like to be characterized that Twin is irresponsible," Liman said. "This is a good facility, and we really feel it works." He said that the landfill has made some mistakes, but the landfill's environmental compliance officer is working to bring it into compliance.
The landfill will continue to be allowed to operate the solidification basin through Oct. 31, at which time its state approval will expire. The landfill has been given a couple options to move forward: TwinEnviro can update the liner in the solidification basin and continue to accept oil and gas waste, or the company can choose to accept fewer types of liquid waste, which would allow for a temporary extension until October 2019. Regardless, regulators have said they will not allow the solidification basin to continue operating after October 2019 without an updated liner.
"People who are interested in protecting Routt County's ability to have a local disposal site should come to that hearing and tell the commissioners how they feel about that," Liman said Thursday. "Many counties in Colorado have lost their disposal site."