Podcast: Controversies swirl at future landfill near Great Salt Lake

A landfill is being built on Promontory Point near the shores of the Great Salt Lake. It has yet to take garbage, but it’s already loaded with controversy.

The 2,000-acre property will have around 1,000 acres of landfill cells for storing waste. Environmental advocates worry about impacts to the lake’s ecosystem and the migrating birds that depend on it. People living and working on the Promontory Point peninsula worry about increased truck travel and disruption of their quiet way of life. Still, others wonder and worry what kind of waste the landfill’s owners plan to take. Documents indicate they’re seeking out-of-state waste and potentially toxic waste, like coal ash and contaminated soil.

The landfill’s owners and operators, Allos Environmental, LLC, and Promontory Point Resources, LLC, say they’re meeting and exceeding the best practices for landfills and that safety and the health of the lake is their priority.

“Out Standing in a Field” podcasters Benjamin Zack and Leia Larsen drove across the Union Pacific Railroad Causeway, visited the site of the future landfill and surveyed the construction of its first waste cell. They listened to concerns of the landfill’s neighbors and those advocating the lake. They also re-examined the way the site’s approval to take out-of-state waste was rushed through the Utah Legislature in 2016.

Listen to the entire episode below or read the following transcript. Find more “Out Standing in a Field” episodes by subscribing wherever you get your podcasts — including Apple Podcasts, Google Play and SoundCloud.

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BENJAMIN ZACK: Last week we ventured out to the landfill site to get a sense of where it is. But first, we want to give some background.

LEIA LARSEN: Before we dive into the landfill, so to speak, we wanted to set up the controversy and everything that’s going on. Also last week, there were a couple meetings about this future landfill — one in Salt Lake City and one here in Ogden — and it stirred a lot of debate. People are confused about this landfill. They have lots of questions.

ZACK: Folks like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Great Salt Lake helped organize these meetings. They invited the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control to give some background.

LARSEN: An owner of another property on the Promontory Point peninsula who is opposed to the landfill opened the meeting in Ogden. She offered some history and some of her perspective.

CHRIS UDI: My name is Chris Udi. I’ve lived in Promontory for over 25 years and Box Elder County my whole life. Promontory Point is a quiet ranching, farming community. We raise our family’s crops and livestock in community with little country roads. … Our small, quiet, beautiful community is under attack. Promontory Point Resources has applied to the state DEQ for a permit to build one of the largest industrial waste dumps in the nation — in the nation — in my backyard and on the shores of our beautiful Great Salt Lake.

They filed with our county for a conditional use permit, which would allow them to go to work, develop the facility and begin to take in trash. … Meanwhile, they were putting forth legislation to allow them to bring in waste from outside the state. We were promised we would not see any of that waste hauled by truck up and down our small country roads. This was not true. They have yet to secure any use of the rail through Union Pacific.

I ask you, are we safe from hazardous waste? Will our lake really be protected? And if they break their commitment; what then? Pay a small fine and move forward. At what cost to those who live and depend upon the ecosystem there? At what cost to our beautiful lake and the birds who migrate through? Do we really want our beautiful state to become the dumping grounds for the rest of the country?

Approximate area of proposed landfill. Roughly half of the rocky 2,000-acre site will be devoted to landfill use, with the other 1,000 acres serving as buffer.

LARSEN: Lots of people are worried about what this landfill means for the Great Salt Lake, especially now that it seems to have all this momentum behind it.

ZACK: There are folks who feel the Division of Waste Management is the only thing that can stop it from going forward and taking out-of-state waste.

LARSEN: We talked with someone who helped articulate all the concerns for the Great Salt Lake, Lynn de Freitas with Friends of the Great Salt Lake.

LARSEN: Is it frustrating for you to hear lawmakers and others describe Promontory Point being in the middle of nowhere?

De FREITAS: Of course. There are lawmakers that refer to Great Salt Lake as being in the middle of nowhere, really. It’s just out there. It’s frustrating to hear representatives of the company, to read comments about, you know, there’s no environmental risk that this land use would have on this resource. Clearly that’s an indication that they don’t understand how fragile and complex the system is and that most people, you know, they think brine shrimp, but don’t think brine shrimp as a fishery. If you use the basic definition of a fishery, which Great Salt Lake is for many reasons, for a food source for birds but also an economic livelihood to harvest brine shrimp cysts and send them globally to help with aquaculture businesses. So I think there’s a myopia, if you will, that its location is not anywhere that’s significant. You certainly can’t see it until you see it. Environmentally, it’s in a pretty good place because there’s nothing out there. Yes, it’s very frustrating.

LARSEN: What specifically concerns you about a landfill being located on Promontory Point?

De FREITAS: It’s unfortunate, again, that there was even a Class I permit that was issued to open doors for the prospect of a landfill. Landfills in general have a character about them — that given the fact they are a site of waste disposal, regardless of what the nature of that waste stream is, it’s still a repository of awful things. Yes, we need places to figure out where we’re going to put our refuse. But I think the adjacent land use of this kind to Great Salt Lake is contradictory.

You know, I was talking to John Luft with Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program in the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; we were commiserating over this proposed landfill and the Class V. He said the thing about it is, once something begins to happen in that system, there’s really no way of stopping it. Because it is so intricate and it is so quirky. Even though you would think it’s very resilient, because look what the system is, look what can live there. It’s not a dead sea. It’s still fragile.

Signs opposing a large landfill are posted across the road from the site of the proposed landfill on Promontory Point on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016.

ZACK: I wanted to throw one out that’s the devil’s advocate question … (the landfill company says) “Well, we’re going to have very high fences, that will control any leakage problems or wind problems or interaction with the lake.” Does that relieve you in any way?

De FREITAS: Yes, there are certain structural elements you can incorporate in a landfill that are kind of typical. Like the high fences and you cover trucks; you cover waste at end of day and wet it down so the dust is limited. But I think that, again, we’re talking about the possibility of the nature of a kind of waste that is going to be transported across the lake to this site, then emptied into the site one way or another. Inevitably, there are dust issues.

Given the prevailing winds that occur in that part of the landscape and the frequency of fairly decent wind power, velocity speed, it’s not unlikely that even under the best of circumstances, there’s going to be residual dust that will come from transportation and deposition of this waste into that facility. So I don’t know. You could probably say the same about nuclear reactors or coal-fired power plants. There are certain systematic measures that are part of the design and the practice, but there’s always that plus-minus factor that plays into, you can’t take care of everything all the time. It’s just something that’s realistic.

Newly constructed leachate storage tanks sit at a proposed landfill on the southern end of Promontory Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Leachate is liquid that escapes from the waste in the landfill.

ZACK: I get that the site feels remote. If you drive there from Ogden, it’s about an hour and 40 minutes … but you can actually get there more directly, if you have proper permission, by driving across the Union Pacific railroad causeway, which is what took us out to the site of the future landfill.

LARSEN: We met with Brett Snelgrove of Allos Environmental, the parent company of Promontory Point Resources, LLC.

SNELGROVE: As you can see from here, we’ll go to actual landfill cell. We’re not even at where garbage will be placed. But from here the closest point to the Great Salt Lake goes right across out here to high water mark. … We’re over 3,200 feet from the closest part. When you put it in perspective … that’s over three football fields worth of distance away … from the high water mark. That’s the ultra high one, in 1987.

Image by: BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Brett Snelgrove with Promontory Point Resources looks over the landfill under construction on the southern end of Promontory Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Critics have opposed the landfill due to its location near the shores of the Great Salt Lake. Snelgrove says that PPR, which owns the landfill, is meeting or exceeding all required environmental safety measures.

LARSEN: There were some public forums (about the landfill) this past week. Did you send anyone?

SNELGROVE: Yep. Per the request of DEQ. We weren’t formally invited by the organizers, which we thought was interesting. We’re always eager to talk about it. Sometimes it’s better we aren’t there, so issues can be addressed without anything directed emotionally just at us. The issues that arose, there’s some concerns, obviously, citizens have things we’d like to address. These aren’t anything new, if you read our permit, a lot of these things are addressed … Nothing new stood out or arose that we weren’t aware of before. I think there’s a lot of misinformation and we’ve been mischaracterized quite a bit.

We’re always eager to have people come look for themselves. Concerns like earthquakes or if the lake ever rose to a record high above high water mark, there would be bigger concerns before it ever hit us. Before we’d even be close to being liable to have water hit our landfill, the whole causeway would be washed out. Union Pacific’s railroad would be gone.

Old landfills, 100 years ago, landfills weren’t lined. Now we have not only a membrane … we have a geosynthetic clay liner. … With that, technology has changed and continued to change. We’ll be at the forefront of that.

An 11-acre landfill "cell" awaits waste at a proposed landfill on the southern end of Promontory Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. The cell is the first of several planned dumping grounds at the 2,000-acre site. Construction is still being done on roads, buildings and other infrastructure at the location.

LARSEN: This is top-of-the-line engineering and technology you’re using. But technology changes. This is a big surface area. You just need one puncture, one rupture, even 200 years from now.

SNELGROVE: There’s monitoring in there, too. There’s leachate, there’s everything else. We’ll be able to tell if anything were to happen. We’re very confident it won’t. More importantly, that’s like saying, “I’m not going to do something because I’m worried I’ll walk out and get hit by a car.” You can’t anticipate everything that’s going to happen in your life. Sometimes there are unknowns. With this, all the unknowns for the regulation have been met. We’ve also exceeded those. I don’t think it’s fair to say, “I need you to anticipate 400 years from now” because there’s no way physically possible to do that.

LARSEN: Speaking of unknowns, I think a lot of people are uneasy because they don’t know what you plan to landfill here.

SNELGROVE: With any business contract, obviously you don’t … until your contract is signed and worked through. This project, if you look at the history of it, there were contracts signed with previous owners. Based on that, they never built the actual landfill. So any logical business, county, city would not be quite as eager to sign up again and put themselves back on the line until they knew this was actually going to happen.

LARSEN: Now I know you don’t want to share the contracts you’re trying to work out, who your clients might be, but how sure are you that coal ash is going to be landfilled here?

SNELGROVE: I’m not sure that coal ash is going to be landfilled here. That’s just one of the opportunities.

Crews work around the edges of a proposed landfill on the southern end of Promontory Point on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. Construction has begun on a Class I landfill, but controversy has arisen over a proposal to turn it into a Class V landfill, which would allow for a wider variety of waste. Much of the pushback has been due to the landfill’s location near the Great Salt Lake.

LARSEN: But you must have an idea, a probability. Are those the contracts you’re heavily going after?

SNELGROVE: No. Honestly, that wasn’t the contract we’re heavily going after. But because in our permit, we cast a wide net to include that, so it didn’t get excluded. For some reason, coal ash is the only thing that’s ever been focused on. Nobody’s focused on the industrial waste. All the media and everything else has focused just on coal ash. Again, coal ash is produced in Utah. Coal ash is stored in Utah already. We understand there are concerns, but there’s a great opportunity for coal ash and we didn’t want to count ourselves out. …

I’m not talking coal ash customers currently. Doesn’t mean we won’t in the future, but currently that’s not even on our target list.

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