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Landfill siting FAQ

What are the steps in siting a landfill?

A landfill siting project starts when a person, company or municipality determines that a landfill is needed within a certain area in order to serve the waste disposal needs of that area. At that point, ch. 289, Wis. Stats., divides the siting process into two separate but parallel tracks: local negotiation/arbitration, and the review of the permit application by the DNR.

The local negotiation/arbitration process allows affected municipalities (counties, villages, cities and towns within 1,500 feet of the proposed waste filling boundaries) to negotiate directly with the landfill applicant on a variety of issues. If negotiations fail to produce a local agreement, both the local municipalities and the landfill applicant must submit their positions to binding arbitration. There are specific provisions that define how affected municipalities form a negotiating committee for this purpose. The negotiation/arbitration process does not involve the DNR, but is overseen by the Wisconsin Waste Facility Siting Board under the process set out in s. 289.33, Wis. Stats.

At the same time, the landfill applicant must study the proposed landfill site and provide information to the DNR to enable the department to determine whether a landfill can be built without causing environmental or public health problems. The steps in this process include:

  • An initial site inspection, during which DNR representatives determine whether the proposed landfill location is suitable relative to waterbodies, parks, roads and other physical features of the landscape as well as endangered resources and their habitat, water supply systems, historical structures and the like.
  • An initial site report (ISR), which provides information on the regional geology and land use as well as the basic layout of the proposed landfill. In response to the ISR, DNR staff provide the applicant with an opinion on the suitability of the site for landfill development.
  • An optional pre-feasibility report, a more detailed investigation of a site for which the DNR has issued a less-than-favorable ISR opinion but which an applicant believes may merit reconsideration based on additional field evidence.
  • The feasibility report, in which an applicant presents a comprehensive and detailed investigation of the proposed landfill site for DNR review. The feasibility report contains field information on the surface features, geology and hydrogeology of the site, the amounts and types of waste to be disposed of, the basic design of the facility including a proposed monitoring program, an evaluation of whether the landfill is needed, and an analysis of alternatives to the landfill. The DNR must first ensure that the feasibility report is complete before issuing a determination on the feasibility of the landfill proposal.
  • An environmental assessment (EA), which the DNR prepares once it has determined that the feasibility report is complete. The completeness of the feasibility report and the draft EA are subjected to public scrutiny through a 30-day public comment period and an opportunity for a public hearing. Approval of the feasibility report and certification of the EA by the DNR constitutes the major step in determining whether a landfill can be built from a technical and regulatory standpoint.
  • The plan of operation, which includes a detailed design, construction specifications, operational procedures, monitoring requirements, and a plan for constructing and financing the landfill's closure and long-term maintenance.

Once a landfill proposal makes it through the above steps in the process, construction can proceed, subject to obtaining any other necessary state and local permits (such as an air quality permit, permits for surface water alterations under ch. 30, Wis. Stats., and local conditional use permits). The DNR reviews and inspects the constructed landfill to ensure that it was built in accordance with the approved plans, and finally issues an operating license which allows a landfill to begin receiving waste for disposal.

Additional information is available about Wisconsin's landfill siting process.

Note: This does not apply to small-size or intermediate-size construction and demolition landfills or one-time disposal landfills; these facilities are governed by requirements in ch. NR 503, Wis. Adm. Code.

What is the DNR's role in determining where a landfill gets built?

The DNR examines the proposed landfill project at each stage of the review process and determines whether the proposal meets regulatory requirements that protect public health and the environment. These requirements include locational restrictions listed in s. NR 504.04 (3), Wis. Adm. Code, and performance criteria in s. NR 504.04(4), Wis. Adm. Code. The DNR also ensures that correct legal procedures are followed during landfill siting.

Can the DNR stop a landfill from being built?

State law presumes that safe and orderly disposal of solid waste generated by Wisconsin citizens and businesses is a worthwhile public good. Therefore, ch. 289, Wis. Stats., does not authorize the DNR to stop landfills from being built, but rather requires it to ensure that proposed landfills are located, designed, constructed and operated in a manner that protects public health and the environment and in accordance with a process that respects the rights of the public to provide input. If the DNR's review discloses that a landfill cannot be built in a certain location without causing problems such as groundwater contamination above the state's groundwater quality standards, the DNR may not approve the landfill proposal.

There are plenty of old landfills that are known to be leaking. Why does the DNR continue to approve new landfills?

Prior to the 1980s, there were few regulations governing the design and construction of landfills. Older, leaking landfills are typically those that were designed without effective engineered features such as liners and leachate collection systems. Modern landfills are subject to much more stringent engineering standards that have established a good record of preventing leaks. The DNR believes that current standards are adequate to prevent landfills being sited today from adversely affecting the environment or the public.

Does a new landfill siting proposal require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)?

An EIS is not automatically required for a new landfill proposal. DNR staff prepare a detailed environmental analysis for each landfill proposal above 500,000 cubic yards in capacity to determine if a full-scale EIS is needed. Because modern landfills are relatively well-understood engineering structures and are tightly regulated to limit adverse environmental impacts, only rarely does the department determine that an EIS is needed for a landfill project.

What rights does the public have to influence where a landfill can or can't be built?

Individual landowners can influence the location of a landfill by exercising property rights if they own the land proposed for development of a private, non-utility landfill. However, municipalities and public utilities have rights of eminent domain that may supersede private property rights in some cases.

Citizens can also influence future landfill sites by working through the local political process to establish zoning regulations and other local ordinances that protect valuable natural resources and provide for orderly industrial development including solid waste management. Citizens can also participate in governmental decision making regarding zoning variances and conditional use permits that may affect landfill locations.

Once a landfill has been proposed for a location, the public can provide environmental information to the DNR at any stage in the review process. In addition, once the DNR determines that the applicant's feasibility report is complete, it publishes a notice in the local newspaper and provides a 30-day public comment period during which time it accepts formal comments on the environmental assessment and the feasibility report.

During the public comment period, ch. 289, Wis. Stats. provides opportunities to request either a public informational hearing or a contested case hearing to:

  • a county, village, city or town;
  • the applicant; or
  • any six or more persons.

Note that the hearing can be treated as a contested case hearing (a formal legal proceeding that allows for prehearing discovery and cross-examination of witnesses in the preparation of a hearing record that will be the basis of the department's landfill permit decision) only if those requesting the hearing meet certain criteria itemized in s. 289.27 (1), Wis. Stats.

Note: This does not apply to small-size or intermediate-size construction and demolition landfills or one-time disposal landfills; these facilities are governed by requirements in ch. NR 503, Wis. Adm. Code.

How is the siting process for a utility landfill different from other landfill projects?

There is no difference between the steps in the process followed by utility landfill projects versus those for other landfill, under DNR landfill rules. However, state statutes provide an accelerated timeline for the review of utility landfills connected with new power plant proposals, in order to ensure that Wisconsin maintains sufficient electric generating capacity for economic stability and growth. For the same reason, public utilities are also vested by state law with the power of eminent domain in certain circumstances.

Other regulatory reviews that power plant proposals must go through, such as those by the Public Service Commission, can affect the size and lifetime of a utility landfill but would not affect the landfill siting process or detailed requirements in DNR rules for siting, design, and construction and operation.

Because of the relatively inert and predictable characteristics of utility, foundry and other high-volume industrial wastes, the detailed landfill design requirements provide more flexibility for landfills that will contain only those wastes. These landfills must still meet the applicable locational and performance criteria in ss. NR 504.04 (3) and (4), Wis. Adm. Code.

What regulations protect the environment and the public from potential adverse effects of a landfill being sited nearby?

The DNR cannot allow a landfill to be built if it believes the locational and performance criteria of s. NR 504.04, Wis. Adm. Code, would be violated*. These criteria provide strong protection of public health and the environment from the impacts of landfill development.

In addition to the locational and performance criteria, DNR regulations with respect to the design, construction and operation of landfills are some of the strongest in the nation. The NR 500 code series contains stringent requirements for liners, covers, leachate collection, testing and monitoring, slopes, gas control, surface water management and operational procedures to ensure that impacts to the environment and the public from landfills are minimized. Landfills are also subject to federal and state air quality regulations, and both solid waste and air quality permits control emissions from landfills that might otherwise harm human health and the environment.

DNR staff enforce the regulations and the permit conditions with inspections during construction and operation of the landfill. Landfill operators are also required to set aside funds to ensure that their facilities are closed safely and maintained for at least 40 years after closure.

Note: This does not apply to small-size or intermediate-size construction and demolition landfills or one-time disposal landfills; these facilities are governed by requirements in ch. NR 503, Wis. Adm. Code.

*The DNR is authorized to issue exemptions from certain locational and performance criteria only if the applicant demonstrates circumstances that warrant an exemption. To obtain an exemption, an applicant must show that the proposed facility will still meet all applicable environmental standards and regulations.

I am concerned about a proposed new landfill (or landfill expansion). How can I make my concerns known?

The landfill licensing process administered by the DNR is a technical decision-making process which focuses on the ability of the proposed landfill design to meet criteria and standards to protect public health and the environment. There is a public comment period during this review process. During the comment period, affected parties can request a public hearing. If you wish to have your name added to the list of interested parties for a particular landfill proposal, contact the DNR staff person assigned to the county in which you are located.

There is also a negotiation/arbitration process separate from the DNR review, which focuses on the local economic, social and land use impacts of the landfill. Local units of government can choose to participate in the process to negotiate how the landfill is designed and operated. This process is overseen by the Wisconsin Waste Facility Siting Board. Contact your local unit of government to find out if they intend to participate in the negotiation/arbitration process for a landfill.

See Wisconsin's landfill siting process for more information.

My water supply well is located within 1,200 feet of a proposed landfill or landfill expansion. How can I be sure my water supply is not threatened?

DNR rules (see s. NR 504.04(3), Wis. Adm. Code) specify that the landfill's waste fill boundary must be more than 1,200 feet away from a public or private water supply well. The landfill owner may apply for an exemption to that rule. In response to such an exemption request, DNR staff will review your well location and construction, local hydrogeology and the proposed landfill design in order to determine whether your well's water quality might be threatened by the landfill. If, in the opinion of the DNR reviewers, your well would not be threatened, the exemption would be granted and approved as part of the feasibility determination for the landfill. Sampling your well may be included as part of the environmental monitoring requirements for the landfill approval.

The DNR requires landfill applicants adequately notify you that the proposed landfill or landfill expansion would be within the 1,200-foot separation distance from a water supply well. You should receive such a notice before the feasibility determination is made. This will allow you to decide whether you want to be involved with the siting process by, for example, contacting your local negotiation committee and alerting them to your concerns. You may also contact the DNR review staff to provide comments on the environmental assessment and to learn more about the proposed landfill.

Who decides where a new landfill should be located?

No single person or agency determines where a landfill will be located. Landfills are sited through a complicated and sometimes contentious process designed to preserve the legal rights of all parties involved. It's important to understand that the DNR does not propose locations for landfills — landfill proposals are made by waste companies, municipalities and companies like utilities that generate large amounts of waste.

The landfill siting process is defined in ch. 289, Wis. Stats., and the NR 500 series of administrative rules that have been written to interpret ch. 289. These laws lay out the steps in the process as well as the roles played by the applicant proposing the landfill, the public, the DNR and the local municipalities where the landfill is proposed to be located.

Generally the factors that go into determining where a landfill will be developed include:

  • The location of other landfills — often a waste management company will attempt to expand an existing facility rather than build a new one from scratch, in order to take advantage of existing structures and established hauling routes.
  • The locations where waste for the landfill will be generated — the closer the landfill to the places where waste is generated, the more efficient it is to transport the waste to the landfill.
  • The presence or absence of physical constraints to landfill development, such as wetlands, lakes, rivers and floodplains, steep slopes, populated areas, public water supply wells, inappropriate soils or bedrock, highways, parks and utility corridors.

There are very few (if any) perfect places for a landfill, necessitating compromises among landfill proponents, local residents, municipalities and the DNR. However, the DNR may not allow compromises to endanger the health and safety of citizens or the integrity of the natural environment.

Can a municipality stop a landfill from being built within its boundaries?

Because the Legislature believed solid waste disposal to be a public necessity like roads and wastewater treatment, the landfill siting process it established in Wisconsin law does not allow local municipalities to veto landfill proposals within their jurisdictions. Municipalities within 1,500 feet of a proposed landfill do have the authority to negotiate directly with the applicant for the landfill permit to settle issues such as protection of local property values; traffic, litter, noise, dust and odor concerns; times of operation; payment of host fees; monitoring of neighbors' water supply wells; and numerous other related issues. In addition, landfills are subject to pre-existing local zoning regulations, which may limit where a landfill can be built within the municipality. "Pre-existing" means the ordinance is in effect at least 15 months before submittal of a landfill initial site report or feasibility report to the DNR.

Note: This does not apply to small-size or intermediate-size construction and demolition landfills or one-time disposal landfills; these facilities are governed by requirements in ch. NR 503, Wis. Adm. Code.

What impact does the presence of endangered species or historically sensitive features such as burial mounds have on the siting of a landfill on a given property?

The documented presence of endangered or threatened species on a property proposed for landfill development could require the proposal to be altered or even withdrawn in order to avoid or minimize damage to the species or its habitat. The DNR can, under very limited circumstances, allow the taking of an endangered or threatened species if the activity that causes the taking will not jeopardize the continued existence and recovery of the species or its ecological community and the benefit to public health, safety or welfare justifies the activity. For more information on endangered resources review procedures and resources.

Cultural heritage or archaeological features can also affect a proposed landfill development project. The presence of a culturally or historically significant feature in an area proposed for landfill development requires an investigation to verify the presence of the resource, assess its condition and to determine whether it meets criteria for inclusion on the National Registry of Historic Places. If it does, the applicant must work with the department and the Wisconsin State Historical Society to evaluate whether impacts can be avoided and what kind of investigation and mitigation (e.g., excavation, relocation) strategies might be needed. Burial sites, particularly Native American ones, necessitate a higher level of scrutiny, and adverse impacts to such sites are rarely if ever authorized.

What kind of geologic conditions would be unsuitable for a landfill? What about karst geology (i.e., bedrock with solution features such as sinkholes and caves)?

Much of Wisconsin has geologic characteristics that are compatible with landfill development. Wisconsin has generally stable bedrock that is not subject to significant faulting and movement. In many areas, prehistoric glacial activity left behind a substantial blanket of clay or soil above bedrock that, in conjunction with conventional engineering features such as landfill liners, allows for efficient excavation and groundwater monitoring and effective containment of waste materials.

Geologic conditions that cause more concern include those where bedrock is near the surface and is fractured in a manner that makes groundwater more difficult to monitor using conventional methods. Of greater concern still are the limited areas of the state with shallow karst geology, where limestone and dolomite bedrock near the surface have been subject to dissolution and the formation of caves, cavities and sinkholes. Karst geology varies from small-scale dissolution features that do not compromise the integrity of the bedrock to large cavities that weaken the bedrock significantly. Specific locations within a region containing karst features may in fact be suitable for landfill development, as dissolution may only have affected the bedrock on a limited and localized scale.

The DNR carefully examines bedrock geology as part of its review of a proposed landfill's feasibility report. Where there is a potential for groundwater flow in fractures or the presence of bedrock dissolution features, DNR staff may require additional investigation to ensure that the proposed location is physically capable of supporting the weight of a landfill and that it can be monitored. These measures may go well beyond the minimum requirements in DNR rules. If the uncertainties about a site's geology are much greater than usual, the DNR may require the preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, to assure development of a sufficiently detailed evaluation of the suitability of the proposed location for landfill development.

Why do landfill projects take up so much more land than they need for the actual landfill itself?

Landfills are required by state regulations to maintain a minimum of 100 feet between the fill boundary and the property line. In addition, a landfill operation involves other support structures that take up space such as roads, office, scale, visual screening berms or plantings, soil stockpiles and borrow areas, maintenance shops and surface water control structures such as detention ponds. Moreover, landfill operators prefer to maintain a significant distance between the landfill operation and neighboring properties to minimize the potential for nuisances such as dust, noise, odor and litter to adversely affect neighbors.