Is the landfill space crisis over?

By Mike Kroll

It was just a few years ago that diminishing landfill capacity was perceived as a pending crisis, not only in Illinois but nationwide. In December the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued the fifteenth edition of its annual Landfill Capacity Report detailing each of the 57 Illinois landfills (52 remain in operation as of December 31, 2001). This report estimates that there was 14 years of landfill capacity remaining statewide at the beginning of 2002 with more than 25 percent of that capacity located within the local 14 county region including Knox County.

Upon initial glance it would appear that the once feared crisis is pastóbut is this the whole story?

In our Peoria/Quad City Region 3 there are eight landfills, including the Knox County Landfill, with a total estimated capacity of 41 years. Additionally, the Knox County Landfill was one of only a handful that either opened or expanded in 2001. Region 3 is also home to the state’s largest landfillóSpoon Ridge in Fairviewóthat alone accounts for ten percent of the entire state’s capacity. Owned by Allied Waste, the Spoon Ridge Landfill does not presently accept waste due to "unfavorable market conditions." Translated into English that means the corporate accountants at Allied do not feel that prevailing tipping fees yield sufficient return on their investment.

The average reported non-hazardous waste tipping fee in this region is a modest $26. At $22.50 the Knox County Landfill is only four bits higher per ton than the region’s lowest price and a relative bargain. Of course, these reported fees do not reflect the common practice of negotiating special (lower) fees for large quantity contractual arrangements. To maintain financial feasibility landfill operators must maintain a regular fairly predictable flow of waste, even if it comes at the expense of slightly lower gate fees.

Another seeming success for Knox County residents is the improved level of recycling. According to the IEPA countywide recycling rates in our region range from less than two percent to nearly 32 percent, averaging about 23 percent regionally. Knox County falls in the middle of the pack at 24.2 percent, but behind Peoria (31.9), Warren (30.4), Tazewell (25.5) and Henderson (25.2). Statewide the county with the highest recycling rate is Dekalb at an amazing 63.7 percent followed by Christian (59.8), Kankakee (50.3), Chicago (44.9), St. Clair (44.9), Kane (42.9) and Lake (40.3). The Illinois county average for recycling is 33.6 percent.

A lot of changes have taken place in both the landfill and waste hauling business in the last decade. The business that once claimed scores of small to medium independent companies working side-by-side with municipal operations is now clearly dominated by a handful of corporate behemoths. Two of the biggest, Waste Management and Allied Waste, are well represented in our area. Both companies are the result of repeated acquisitions that remarkably enough seldom result in direct competition between the 800-pound gorillas either in landfill or hauling operations.

In medium to large metropolitan areas a few of the smaller independent operation continue but in the Galesburg area Waste Management has become a virtual hauling monopoly. In our region either Allied Waste or Waste Management own four of the seven general waste landfills, including the currently mothballed Spoon Ridge landfill. The anticompetitive nature of the greatly diminished competition became evident earlier this month when commercial customers of Waste Management received notice of 25-36 percent fee increases.

There is no telling what the consequences would be if the two remaining municipally owned landfills in this region were to close or be sold. After years of financial challenges the Knox County Landfill is currently enjoying a steady waste stream enabling it to more than break even with both current expenses and future closing costs. In respect to the volume of waste received the Knox County Landfill ranked 30th statewide. The county landfill has even been able to accelerate repayment on the 20-year bonds sold to finance expansion. As long as this waste stream persists and costs remain under control the landfill just might be one less headache for the fiscally challenged Knox County Board.

The long-term prognosis may not be as positive as the spin the IEPA puts on this report. The metropolitan Chicago region not only generates by far the highest amount of waste annually but it is also seeing its local landfills fill to capacity and close with little prospect of opening new landfills in the immediate area. That waste stream will necessarily need to go somewhere else. When the Spoon Ridge landfill was first constructed the plan was to fill it with Chicago area waste brought into the facility on rail cars. The high cost, both financial and political, led to the postponement of that planóbut the idea is not dead.

While eleven landfills remain in operation in the Chicago region seven of these will close by 2005, including the state’s eighth and tenth busiest landfills. Even more troubling is that the Settlers Hill landfill in Kane County, currently the second largest waste stream in Illinois, will close in 2006. There can be little question that the market conditions will become much more favorable for Allied Waste to reopen Spoon Ridge in the not too distant future.