After tense discussion, Routt County commissioners and Milner Landfill officials agree on new special use permit
February 12, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — After a long, and at times contentious, discussion, officials from the Milner Landfill, which is operated by TwinEnviro, agreed to expanded oversight and water testing by Routt County representatives during a Routt County Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday.
These changes come after inspectors from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment found the landfill to be in violation of environmental regulations dating back to 2017.
The landfill is allowed to operate because of a county-issued special use permit. The commissioners amended that permit in July 2018 in response to the environmental violations, but TwinEnviro disagreed with the language of the amendments and complained that more water testing would put an economic burden on the landfill.
It has been operating without a special use permit ever since.
The disagreement coalesced around Condition 21 of the amended special use permit, which allows officials from Routt County to take samples of both ground and surface water at any time. Previously, the county only required groundwater samples.
Every year, TwinEnviro conducts about 20 groundwater quality tests at 10 monitoring wells around the landfill, according to TwinEnviro owner Les Liman. Water samples from those tests go to two testing facilities. The first is ACZ Laboratories, a facility owned by TwinEnviro. The county sends a duplicate sample of each test to its own facility to ensure the results are fair and accurate.
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Liman said each water test conducted at ACZ Laboratories costs about $2,000, a bill that the landfill has to pay as part of its permit with Routt County. He told commissioners that adding surface water testing would exacerbate the economic burden of conducting those tests.
"I think that we are sampled to death and regulated to death," he said. "It just really makes it harder and harder to keep a disposal site in Routt County."
The commissioners and landfill officials eventually agreed on the language of Condition 21, which allows Routt County Environmental Health officials to take ground and surface water samples “based upon identified and agreed upon protocol.”
The amended condition requires the county to notify TwinEnviro before conducting these tests and to allow employees from the landfill to be present during water sampling.
Matters of efficiency and fairness
Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman argued that expanding the county's role in monitoring the landfill, instead of relying on a single, semi-annual inspection from the state, is mostly a matter of efficiency.
"We are closer to the site; we are able to visit the sight more frequently and address issues more expediently," Cowman said.
Cowman, who would be the primary county official conducting water tests at the landfill, added that he expects to conduct surface water tests only when water levels at the landfill could cause waste runoff into the nearby Yampa River. He saw a particular need to test surface water in the spring when snow melt frequently causes flooding in the area.
"I'm not going to go out there arbitrarily and take a sample," Cowman said. "There needs to be a good reason."
Liman countered that provision, citing a lack of trust in Cowman's ability to conduct fair testing. A letter that TwinEnviro sent to Alan Goldich of the Routt County Planning Department accused Cowman of having a conflict of interest because his wife's involvement with the landfill.
"Mr. Cowman repeatedly mischaracterizes issues at the landfill to Twin's disadvantage," the letter said.
Liman echoed the sentiments of that letter when addressing the expanded water testing requirements.
"Any sample that Scott would take, we'd have to take it to our own lab or a lab that we trust," Liman said.
Marlin Mullet, CEO of TwinEnviro, said certain contaminants commonly show up around the landfill during a high spring runoff. He explained that TwinEnviro has measures to capture that waste before it leaks out of the landfill.
He worried that Cowman could find contaminated water during a spring runoff and cause unnecessary fear over public water safety.
"You can make a problem where no problem exists," Mullet said.
Cowman assured the commissioners and TwinEnviro representatives that he wants to maintain an amicable relationship with the landfill, but he also has a duty to protect downstream drinking water sources, namely the Yampa River.
"I think it's just our responsibility to have that oversight and have that ability to address problems," Cowman said.
Commissioners added surface water testing requirements at TwinEnviro after state inspectors issued violations over 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. Examples of liquid waste include latex paint, used anti-freeze and portable restroom waste.
Cowman said in July 2018 that the basin did not have a sufficiently strong liner to contain that waste. The existing one is more than 10 years old.
The basin also did not have a secondary liner to protect leaks, Cowman said.
Samples taken in the area of the landfill have found elevated level of chloride, an initial indicator that other, more serious contaminants could be leaking.
State regulators required the landfill to either add a stronger, thicker liner to the existing one to prevent future leaks, or to stop accepting certain types of liquid waste.
Liman said the landfill has taken a third option. TwinEnviro still accepts liquid waste, but it now transports that waste to another facility.
Liman explained that upgrading the liner was not economically feasible, according to a previous article on the issue. He estimates the required changes to the liner would cost the landfill more than $100,000. The company only makes about $1,500 each year on liquid waste disposal, according to Liman.
He told commissioners Tuesday that for a smaller, rural landfill such as TwinEnviro, adding county testing requirements on top of state regulations causes undue burdens.
"We're talking about a significant expense to an operation that is doing 5 percent of the Front Range," Liman said of the new surface water tests. "It's a real problem."