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  • Tom Roepke

Down in the Dumps: Lurking Landfill Dangers - Part II

Practical Responses to Lurking Landfill Questions:

Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle


Citizens of any municipality operating a landfill need to carefully and continually explore concerns about its environmental impact. A growing public awareness of Vernon County’s geology is generating heightened concerns about the proposed four-acre expansion of the county landfill. This article explores some of these concerns and offers a few helpful actions that can be taken in response.


Landfill Concerns: Grounded in Geology


As described on the Vernon County website, the Solid Waste & Recycling Facility’s mission includes, “… empowering the citizens to take greater responsibility for the protection and enhancement of their environment by providing integrated, cost effective, and environmentally sound solid waste disposal.”


A rising concern being expressed to the Vernon County Board questions whether the county’s current approach to waste management is effectively protecting and enhancing our environment. Retired geologist Kelvin Rudolfo and other area residents are opposing the landfill expansion. The main issue is based on an awareness that Vernon County as an environmentally sensitive region for operating a solid waste disposal facility.


Additional concerns in the community exist regarding the economic viability of the operation. Overall, there may be a need for public forums inviting members of the public to ask questions and express their concerns related to solid waste management in Vernon County. This would also provide an opportunity to publicly recognize the recycling program’s success in reducing the volume of material going into the landfill, the service of handling toxic waste materials, and the good work done by a very small staff running the facility.


Regional Geological Concerns


Vernon County is geologically described as a karstic landscape, defined in the dictionary as land “underlain by limestone which has been eroded by dissolution, producing ridges, towers, fissures, sinkholes and other characteristic landforms.” Whether it’s possible or probable, when a landfill liner leaks toxins into the ground below, these contaminants may quickly pass directly down into the water table through vertical cracks and fissures in the karst. While landfill operators regularly test water quality from sample wells, if a leak in the liner occurs beyond the area being tested by these wells, the contaminants will not be detected.


Feasibility Study Findings


The Vernon County Board voted to go forward with the four-acre expansion and approved funding for the costly feasibility study required by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (WDNR) application process. The resulting 2,368-page document was sent to the WDNR as part of the application to permit the proposed landfill extension. The document is highly technical reading and it does little to alleviate the safety concerns of the general public.


The feasibility report provides a detailed account of the application process that started when, “Vernon County issued an Initial Site Inspection (ISI) request on November 4, 2020. The WDNR conducted an ISI for the proposed Expansion on November 18, 2020.” Apparently, the initial site proposed for the extension did not result in WDNR approval to proceed with the plan. The county submitted a revised ISI request on September 3, 2021 to consider an alternative area for the proposed expansion. A second WDNR site inspection determined that the alternative site had “potential to be suitable for an expansion.”


The county board’s next step was to submit their Initial Site Report (ISR) on November 17, 2021 to the WDNR, detailing its case for moving forward with the proposed landfill expansion. A detailed account of the paper work done during the next two years is available in the feasibility report for the interested reader. Currently, the landfill extension proposal process is nearly complete. The WDNR responded to the county’s latest revised application with a notice of incompletion, indicating a need for more information.


Questions are being asked about the possibility of waste being accepted into the landfill from beyond Vernon County. The feasibility study states, “The Vernon County Landfill accepts wastes primarily from within Vernon County…In 2018, Vernon County modified its policy to allow acceptance of out-of-county waste. However, out-of-county waste is not a significant source of incoming waste nor does Vernon County currently pursue out-of-county waste for purposes of adding additional revenue and/or becoming a regional facility.”


A reasonable question to ask is why a modification was made in 2018 to accept out-of-county waste.


A careful reading of the feasibility study gives rise to a number of additional questions. For example, in Section 4.9 the “cause and significance of groundwater standard exceedances,”

are explained by saying, “exceedances of several inorganic parameters exist on-site; they are thought to be due to background conditions and there is currently no evidence that the active MSW Landfill (WDNR License No. 3268) has caused groundwater contamination at the facility.”


Clarification is needed regarding what is meant by background conditions. An exploration of the assumption that a lack of evidence found means a clean bill of health for the landfill would be helpful as well. The public needs a description of what the exceedances are and a plausible explanation of what is causing them.


Questions arise again in Section 4.10 of the study:


Impacts of Expansion on Groundwater Quality

 “No groundwater quality impacts associated with the historic solid waste disposal operations have been identified at the site. Due to the design requirements for the existing and proposed landfill Expansion, including an engineered liner/cover and leachate collection, the proposed Expansion should not adversely impact groundwater quality.”


Again, stating that groundwater impacts have not been identified does not assure the public that they don’t exist. Neither does the statement that “the proposed expansion should not adversely affect groundwater quality.” The public wants to be assured that it won’t.


The US Environmental Protection Agency published a statement saying, “Although liners and leachate collection systems minimize leakage, liners can fail and leachate collection systems may not collect all the leachate that escapes from a landfill. Leachate collection systems require maintenance of pipes, and pipes can fail because they crack, collapse, or fill with sediment. The US EPA has concluded that all landfills eventually will leak into the environment. Thus, the fate and transport of leachate in the environment, from both old and modern landfills, is a potentially serious environmental problem.” 


Given this information, the statement in the landfill expansion feasibility study addressing ground water quality is less than reassuring. Overall, the feasibility study and general proposal process requires more public attention than it has received.


Reasonable Recommendations, Helpful Actions



Our initial work when addressing any concern is to educate ourselves as fully as possible about the history and current status of the problem. Hopefully this post, along with the references below, will support your individual exploration into why landfills are a problematic method of managing our garbage. The Vernon County Landfill offers free tours of the facility every Friday. It’s an educative experience to witness heavy equipment driving over layers of local garbage, and also to see the mountains of material that have been reclaimed for recycling rather than buried in the landfill.



 Talking with family, friends, neighbors, and community members about landfills is a second helpful action. Many people may have little if any understanding about what happens to their garbage after it’s picked up from the curb. Waste management is a process that needs to be well understood by those who generate the waste, and that includes everyone. Bringing the subject up for casual discussion is a community service. Organizing community gatherings designed to foster collaborative inquiry and deepen a shared awareness is a helpful action to take. Questions are a catalyst for effective inquiry and community conversations. Here are a few possible conversation starters.


Questions About Landfills to Explore in Conversations

Do you ever wonder what happens to your trash after the truck takes it away?

Do you think greenhouse gases are being released into the atmosphere from the landfill?

How can we be certain that toxins are not contaminating soil, air, and water in the area?

In what ways might a landfill impact the natural habitat of plants and animals?

Are we aware of the economic and environmental costs of managing our municipal waste?

How can we reduce the volume of material sent for burial in a landfill?

Does Vernon County generate enough garbage to run an environmentally sound, economically viable landfill?

Would a larger “regional” landfill be sounder than Vernon County’s small municipal landfill?

Will the proposed landfill expansion be economically viable?

Will inadequate in-county waste require Vernon County to solicit out-of-county waste?


Participation in Lifestyle Changes

Changing our own lifestyle habits to address the challenges of solid waste management is an essential way to model a helpful response. Reducing the volume of garbage we personally send to the landfill is a powerful example of this type of modeling. Home composting, reducing the amount of plastic we purchase, and limiting the consumption of commercial goods are all viable ways to reduce the volume of material we personally send to the landfill. One of our primary duties as inhabitants of the planet is to reduce the volume of material we send to be buried in the earth. Wisconsin residents need to lobby for a drastic statewide reduction in the volume of trash currently being buried in our landfills.


The United States has the distinction of being the most wasteful nation in the world. If the total amount of waste we produce is divided equally between the entire population, each American produces over 1,700 pounds of waste every year. Approximately half of the country’s yearly waste will meet its fate in one of the more than 2,000 active landfills across the nation. We can do better.


Participating in the democratic process locally, regionally, statewide and nationally is an important way to address environmental concerns. It’s the heart of environmental activism. This involves regularly communicating with elected and appointed officials at all levels. Personal attendance at local school board and county board meetings as well as candidate forums are powerful ways to inform and express your views. So is a handwritten letter addressed to each of your representatives.


Becoming an activist or increasing our level of activism is another lifestyle change worth considering. Phoning, e-mailing, and having face-to-face conversations with governmental officials paves the road to stronger forms of advocacy that may be needed, depending on how issues are or are not addressed. Participating in public vigils, marches, and petition drives provide a sense that we’re doing something in response to an issue. It’s a legitimate sense, one grounded in truth.




Inform yourself about our local landfill and its possible environmental impact.

Learn about local geological features as they relate to landfills and water quality.

Limit the volume of material being sent to the landfill: reduce, reuse, recycle, compost.

Advocate strongly to reduce the volume of municipal waste produced.

Research alternatives and feasibility of closing the landfill.

Charge households by weight to bury the garbage they produce.

Support the implementation of citywide composting.

Talk with your family, friends and neighbors about ways we can better care for the earth.


In these ways and more, we can work to live in harmony with each other and the rest of the inhabitants of our planet.



 Vernon County website information on the landfill.

 Conservation Law Foundation: Despite state and federal regulation, landfills leach harmful chemicals into the ground and water supply.

 U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 040-03, August 2003; Clearly addresses the question of whether landfill liners leak. They do.

 Information on karst landscapes from the National Parks Service.

EPA on groundwater monitoring and corrective action.

 EPA website, technical data on landfills.

Wisconsin Waste Reduction and Recycling Law.

 Excellent resource for a wide variety of statistical information

1 Σχόλιο

12 Ιουλ

I never understood why, at least in Viroqua, there wasn't a commercial composting set-up. The brush and compost site already provides an excellent location, and the city could then use the compost in their own projects. Or they could sell the compost back to Viroquans! Getting food out of our landfills would go a long way to reducing both leachate and methane production, as well as prolong the lifespan of our landfill by not filling it in so quickly!

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