Future of Rockbridge trash unknown

A truck empties its load into the landfill. Photo by Leigh Dannhauser.

By Leigh Dannhauser

Rockbridge County has turned down two proposals for turning its trash into energy.

The Board of Supervisors voted Nov. 13 to stop looking at two plans that would convert the area’s trash into gas that could be turned into fuel. The decision followed a   recommendation from the county’s Solid Waste Authority.

Community Energy Independence Inc. and EcoCorp Inc. had each submitted proposals to the county under the federal Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act of 2002, without invitation from the county. The county created a committee to review the proposals.

County Administrator Spencer Suter says the review committee sent each company a series of follow-up questions after receiving the initial proposals.

“[Community Energy] determined we didn’t have enough tonnage for it to be profitable,” Suter said. “EcoCorp we just never heard from again.”

The county currently dumps its solid waste into a landfill near Buena Vista. But the state Department of Environmental Quality has ordered the landfill be closed by December 2014. The landfill does not have a lining. Linings were not required when the landfill was built in the 1970s. A lining keeps pollutants from entering the groundwater.

The state originally said the landfill would have to close at the end of this month. But the county got a two-year extension earlier this year. The debate over what to do when the landfill finally closes has gone on for several years.

Community Energy’s plan was to convert the trash into gas by burning it. By using high temperatures and low oxygen, according to the plan, the process would not release any contaminants into the air. The gas that is produced can be turned into fuel.

But the current landfill is too small to have enough potential energy to make the venture worthwhile, Suter said.

“In the future that could easily be revisited with [a] new landfill,” he said.

EcoCorp’s proposal incorporated using a dry anaerobic process in an enclosed facility. The process produces and traps what is called bio-gas.

EcoCorp President John Ingersoll says the county would need to separate material that cannot be biologically degraded, such as metals and plastics.

“Microbes decompose food waste, paper, green stuff, and produce fertilizer,” said Ingersoll. The microbes also produce methane gas that can be trapped and sold for fuel.

Graham Simmerman, waste manager of the region for the state’s environmental quality department, said the county was granted an extension of the landfill closing date because of economic hardship and the need to do additional planning work.

The two years gave the county more time to look at more options: Build a new landfill into the current landfill, build an entirely new landfill, or take the trash to a landfill outside the county.

Suter thinks the most viable option is building a landfill into the current landfill, a process known as piggybacking. Suter says piggybacking requires a lining under all new trash put into the landfill. The lining would need to cover both the current trash and any new ground.

The piggybacking option would extend the life of the current landfill for 40 years, Suter said. It would also avoid the cost of closing the current landfill and monitoring it for pollution for 30 years, which closing would require.

The county has already built an $800,000 transfer station at the site, in anticipation of an earlier plan to separate recyclable materials before trucking the county’s remaining trash out of the county. The transfer station was built when county officials still thought they would have to close the landfill this year.

Suter says the transfer station is being used to take out recyclables, which should extend the life of whatever landfill option the county ultimately chooses.

The county has not made any final decisions yet.

“We don’t know for sure that we’re going to keep the landfill open,” Suter said. “We’ve got two more years before we’ve got to [come to a decision].”