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Wisconsin's landfill siting process

In Wisconsin, all new landfills and expansions to existing landfills must get both state and local approvals before construction. Licensing of a landfill and negotiation/arbitration of local approvals are two separate processes that happen at the same time.

The DNR's landfill licensing process is a technical decision-making process focusing on the ability of the proposed landfill design to meet all criteria and standards to protect public health and the environment. The local approval process focuses on the local economic, social and land use impacts of the landfill and is overseen by the Wisconsin Waste Facility Siting Board.

DNR permitting process

DNR permitting process

The DNR technical decision-making process is summarized in Figure 1 [PDF]. It includes the following mandatory steps.

Initial site inspection

The purpose of an initial site inspection is to get a preliminary evaluation from the DNR on the potential a proposed property has to comply with the locational criteria and performance standards specified in s. NR 504.04, Wis. Adm. Code. As specified in ch. NR 509, Wis. Adm. Code, an applicant must first submit a written request to the DNR to arrange for an initial site inspection. This request must include the following minimum information:

  1. A cover letter identifying the applicant and authorized contact, type of landfill and operation proposed, property ownership, location by quarter-quarter section and present land use.
  2. Identification of any known potential impacts to endangered and threatened species in accordance with s. 29.604(4), Wis. Stats., and the federal Endangered Species Act, including any prior studies or surveys conducted at the proposed site.
  3. Identification of any historical, scientific or archaeological areas in accordance with s. 44.40, Wis. Stats., including any prior studies or surveys conducted at the proposed site.
  4. A map depicting existing conditions within one mile of the proposed boundaries of the proposed landfill.
  5. A preliminary identification of all potential conflicts with the locational criteria and performance standards specified in s. NR 504.04, Wis. Adm. Code, except under s. NR 504.04(4)(d) to (f).

For more information see the Landfill Initial Site Inspection Request Completeness Checklist [PDF].

Note: An initial site inspection is also required for all noncommercial soil borrow sources designated to be used in the construction, operation or closure of a specific landfill. A written request for an inspection of a soil borrow source must include the information listed in items 1 through 4 above, and a preliminary identification of all potential adverse effects on wetlands, critical habitat areas or surface waters.

During the inspection, DNR staff evaluate whether the proposed landfill would be within a floodplain or an area that would have an adverse impact on critical habitat, historical/archeological features and wetlands. DNR staff also check to see if the anticipated landfill footprint would be within required setback distances to navigable waters, state and federal highways, public parks, airports and water supply wells.

After the inspection, the DNR notifies the applicant in writing which locational criteria and performance standards the proposed property meets, which standards it does not meet and if further evaluations or additional studies are necessary. The applicant may use the DNR's initial site inspection letter to decide if the proposed property merits further investigation.

If no follow-up evaluations or studies are needed to determine navigability of nearby surface waters, the presence of critical habitat, wetland boundaries and other criteria, the completion of this step by the DNR generally should not take more than two weeks.

Initial site report

The next step in the landfill permitting process is for the applicant to submit an initial site report (ISR). The minimum ISR requirements are found in ch. NR 509, Wis. Adm. code. An ISR must include:

  • the information submitted for the initial site inspection and the DNR's initial site inspection response letter;
  • the proposed project's title;
  • identification of the owner and proposed operator of the landfill and any consultant;
  • a description of the proposed property and the anticipated limits of filling;
  • proposed landfill life and disposal capacity;
  • municipalities and industries to be served;
  • anticipated waste types, characteristics and amount of waste to be handled;
  • anticipated cover frequency;
  • mode of operation; and
  • the anticipated subbase, base and final grades.

An ISR must also contain a thorough discussion of the land uses that may have an impact on the suitability of the property for waste disposal or on groundwater quality and include a summary of the available published information concerning the regional geotechnical characteristics of the proposed location. No site-specific geotechnical investigation is required.

An ISR is evaluated by a DNR plan review team consisting of a hydrogeologist, environmental engineer and waste management specialist/investigator. The hydrogeologist has the lead review responsibility. After completing the review, the DNR renders an opinion on the proposed property's potential for development as a landfill and notifies the applicant in writing. The plan review team also uses the ISR opinion letter to identify any known constraints to feasibility. In a favorable ISR response, the DNR specifies any site-specific additional or unique information that smut be included in a feasibility report, which is the next mandatory step in the siting process. An unfavorable opinion letter is used to discourage an applicant from continuing to pursue a landfill siting before an irrevocable financial or political commitment is made.

The completion of this step by the DNR generally should not take more than two months.

Optional step: pre-feasibility report

In cases where regional geotechnical or any available site-specific geotechnical information indicates the proposed property may have poor geology or unusual hydrogeological conditions, the DNR recommends submitting a pre-feasibility report. Submitting a pre-feasibility report, however, is not a required step in the siting process. The level of site-specific geotechnical information specified for a pre-feasibility report is found in ch. NR 510, Wis. Adm. Code, and it is similar to information required for an ISR. The advantage of the voluntary pre-feasibility report is that it allows a landfill applicant to obtain a revised opinion from the DNR based on site-specific geotechnical information, which should reduce the risk of proceeding directly from the reduced scope ISR to doing major feasibility studies on a property that may have little or no potential of being approved.

Feasibility report: one of two major steps

Obtaining a favorable feasibility determination from the DNR virtually assures the applicant the proposed landfill can be developed from a technical standpoint.

Ch. NR 512, Wis. Adm. Code, specifies the minimum information to include in a feasibility report. Required items already addressed in an ISR or a pre-feasibility report can be cross-referenced rather than included in the feasibility report. Along with information requested in the DNR's ISR opinion letter and any revised pre-feasibility opinion letter, a feasibility report must contain:

  • a comprehensive and detailed site-specific geologic and hydrogeologic investigation that includes baseline groundwater quality data;
  • a preliminary engineering design that includes a description of the proposed environmental monitoring for groundwater;
  • leachate, surface water, gas, air quality and soil moisture (if applicable);
  • an environmental assessment;
  • documentation of the need for the proposed landfill; and
  • an analysis of the alternatives to landfilling such as waste reduction, reuse, recycling, composting and energy recovery initiatives and services.

Initial site inspection response letter(s) and soil test results for any proposed noncommercial soil borrow source(s) designated to be used in the construction, operation or closure of the first phase of the proposed landfill also must be included in a feasibility report.

For a feasibility report, the hydrogeologist of the DNR plan review team is once again the lead reviewer and he/she receives comments from a waste management investigator and several other program specialists in the applicable local DNR field office. The hydrogeologist fills out a feasibility completeness checklist to determine if all of the minimum information required has been submitted. If required information is found to be missing, the DNR notifies the applicant in writing that the report is incomplete and lists the information needed to make the report complete. This letter may also include a request for additional or unique information the plan review team believes is necessary before a feasibility determination can be made.

Environmental analysis must be performed

When a feasibility report is found to be complete, the hydrogeologist prepares an analysis of the significance of any impacts the proposed project would have on the public's health, welfare and the environment. After completing a draft of the analysis, the hydrogeologist recommends whether an environmental impact statement (EIS) should be completed on the proposed project. If the DNR decides that an EIS must be written, the feasibility completeness determination is delayed until the EIS is completed. The completion of an EIS, and an associated mandatory public hearing on the completeness of the EIS, can take up to a year or more to complete.

Public hearings may be held

If an EIS is not required or after an EIS is completed, and if the feasibility report is complete, the hydrogeologist prepares a short summary of the proposal and a public notice stating that the DNR has received a complete feasibility report. The DNR public notice is published in the local newspaper. In the notice, the DNR requests public comments and provides information on how six citizens or an official of the host municipality, or any municipality located within 1,500 feet of the proposed landfill, can request that a public hearing or a contested case hearing be held on the technical feasibility of the proposal.

If no hearing is requested, the plan review team considers the public comments received before writing the feasibility determination. If a public hearing is held, the feasibility determination is required to be written within 60 days after the hearing. When a contested case hearing is held, it is conducted before a hearing examiner in much the same way as a court trial. The DNR plan review team and the other parties to the hearing testify under oath and are subject to cross-examination. After a contested case hearing, the feasibility determination is made by the DNR secretary, or the DNR secretary's designee, based upon a review of the hearing record. A contested case hearing is intended to address technical issues of site feasibility, including the need for the landfill and the ability of the proposal to meet design and performance standards and to protect the public's health, welfare and the environment.

Submittal of incomplete/inadequate information, public controversy, locational problems and unusual hydrogeologic conditions significantly impact the review time for feasibility reports. Depending on the completeness of a feasibility report, any locational problems and whether or not an EIS must be prepared or a public hearing must be held, the DNR's completion of the feasibility step in the siting process can take from six months to more than three years.

Plan of operation report: second of two major steps

A plan of operation report includes the final engineering design, design calculations, details on the phases of construction, proposed construction documentation, sequencing of operations, daily operations, monitoring, closure design, long-term care of the proposed landfill after closure and a detailed estimate of the costs for construction, operation, closure and long-term care of the landfill.

Chapter NR 514, Wis. Adm. Code, and the conditions in a feasibility determination specify the minimum information a plan of operation must contain. After the applicant receives a feasibility determination, there is usually at least one meeting between the applicant and the DNR to discuss the feasibility conditions of approval, prior to the submittal of the plan of operation report.

The DNR plan review team is responsible for ensuring that all design, construction, operation, closure and financial responsibility details required by ch. NR 514 and all of the conditions of feasibility are addressed in the plan of operation. The environmental engineer is the lead reviewer and makes sure that good engineering practices are being proposed. The hydrogeologist reviews the environmental monitoring proposal, any alternative concentration limits proposed for exemptions to the groundwater standards which were granted in the feasibility determination and preventative action limits proposed for the groundwater quality indicator parameters for each well at the site. The DNR typically completes its review of a plan of operation in three to six months.

Construction documentation report after landfill construction

Following DNR approval of a plan of operation for the proposed landfill and after obtaining any required local approvals, the owner can begin construction of the facility. Landfills are constructed one phase or unit at a time. During major construction steps of the landfill, DNR staff conduct inspections. Documentation reports are prepared by the applicant's engineering consultant. These reports document the construction process, including the compaction of the clay liner, installation of the geomembrane liner — i.e., composite liners consisting of a 60-mil HDPE geomembrane and four foot thick clay liner are now required for all municipal solid waste landfills — and leachate collection pipes.

After construction, the owner must submit a comprehensive report containing a detailed narrative describing the construction of the landfill phase or unit in chronological fashion with particular emphasis given to any deviations from the approved plan of operation. The report must also include detailed documentation of all aspects of construction. This includes surveys of various grades, field and laboratory soil test results, engineering plan sheets documenting the constructed grades, the precise location of all leachate collection storage and removal structures, the specifications of materials and photo documentation.

Chapter NR 516, Wis. Adm. Code, describes which elements must be included in a landfill construction documentation report. After the assigned DNR engineer reviews and approves the documentation and the proofs of financial responsibility have been implemented, the DNR makes a final inspection of the constructed phase or unit before a issuing a license. The landfill owner can only begin to accept waste after receipt of the license from the DNR. The review of a landfill construction documentation report is usually concluded by the DNR in a month.

Landfill must be licensed before accepting waste

Following DNR approval of the construction documentation report for the first lined phase of the landfill and the financial assurance mechanism for closure and long-term care, the DNR will issue a license for the operation of the landfill. Waste may not be disposed of in the landfill until the license is obtained.

Local approval process

Local approval process

At the same time as the DNR technical decision-making process, the applicant must seek and obtain any applicable local approvals. Figure 2 [PDF] summarizes this process. These would include any permits or approvals required by pre-existing local ordinances to construct or operate a landfill, and can include zoning variances, building permits and other criteria. Although local approvals need only be obtained prior to construction of a landfill, as a practical matter many applicants do not develop a feasibility report until the issue of local approvals is resolved. The local approval process has two major components: negotiation and state arbitration.


A person proposing a new landfill or expansion of an existing landfill must apply for all local approvals at least 120 days before submitting a feasibility report to the DNR. At that time, any affected municipality — e.g. county, township, village or city within 1,500 feet of the proposed landfill's limits of filling — may choose to enter into negotiations with the applicant. Any municipality choosing not to negotiate waives its rights to enforce any local approval requirements.

In general, the site owner will offer design, financial and operational incentives to the municipality in exchange for a negotiated agreement and to gain waiver or approval of local permits. Virtually any issue is negotiable except the need for the proposed landfill and agreements which would make the owner's responsibilities under the DNR approved feasibility report less stringent. Commonly negotiated concessions on the part of the owner include:

  • operational issues such as hours of operation, waste materials accepted, nuisance control, lighting, vehicle routes and access, aesthetic screening and fencing;
  • recycling efforts to be implemented;
  • private well monitoring and replacement if necessary;
  • post-closure site use;
  • payments to local governments for local costs of regulation, fire control, road maintenance, payments in lieu of taxes;
  • economic protection of neighboring property owners for loss of property value; and
  • establishment of a local advisory committee.


If the parties cannot reach a negotiated settlement, they may petition the Wisconsin Waste Facility Siting Board (WWFSB) to issue an arbitration award. Each party must submit its final offer for a negotiated settlement to the WWFSB. After a hearing on the final offers, the WWFSB must select, without modification, the final offer of either the applicant or the local committee. As described above, Wisconsin's landfill siting process is complex, comprehensive and time consuming. It can take three to five years or more to plan, design and construct a new facility.

Other contacts
If you have questions about the local approval process, contact:
Brian Hayes
Executive Director
Wisconsin Waste Facility Siting Board (WWFSB)