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Landfill operation FAQ

What protections exist for neighbors and the environment if a landfill is built and then starts to leak or cause other serious problems?

Landfills operators are required by code to monitor groundwater, surface water and, where appropriate, air and soil to ensure their facilities are not emitting contaminants that could harm public health or the environment. This monitoring is carried out during the active life of the facility and for as long after closure as is necessary to ensure that the landfill is not producing potential contaminants.

State laws specify stringent response actions that landfill operators must undertake if contaminants are detected outside of their facilities. Responses to groundwater contamination, for example, would be intended to prevent adverse impacts to neighbors or the environment, and might include increased monitoring, changes in design or operation practices, active remediation such as groundwater pumping and treatment or the construction of protective underground walls, or even discontinuation of landfilling and closure of the facility.

If, despite these precautions, a landfill were to cause groundwater contamination that adversely affected its neighbors, the DNR would require the landfill owner to mitigate the effects of the problem by providing an alternate water source and, if necessary, a replacement well or other clean source of water, in addition to remediating the landfill and cleaning up the contamination. In addition, the affected property owner would likely have recourse under common law to seek compensation for any damage caused by the landfill operation.

Can the DNR prevent a landfill operator from importing waste in Wisconsin?

The U.S. Constitution forbids states from placing undue burdens on interstate commerce. Courts have consistently ruled that this means landfill operators generally have the right to accept waste from out-of-state for disposal in Wisconsin landfills. Sometimes local negotiated agreements contain restrictions on the sources of waste that the landfill operator has agreed to during the negotiation process, but the DNR cannot impose such a restriction on a landfill operation.

Does a 15-year limit apply to the lifespan of a landfill in Wisconsin?

Wisconsin statutes specify that a proposed landfill cannot be designed with more than 15 years' capacity. The DNR reviews proposed landfills to ensure that this limit is adhered to in the design. However, once a landfill is built, if less waste is generated and the landfill continues to have space after 15 years of operation, it can continue to accept waste past that time until it reaches its originally approved design capacity. In part, this ensures that the approved final cover can be placed as planned and that it functions as designed.

In addition, landfill operators can propose expansions of existing facilities that extend the cumulative life of a landfill past 15 years. This allows them to make use of the landfill support structures and haul routes that have been established for the original landfill.

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.

Can the DNR force a waste generator to recycle its waste instead of disposing of it in a landfill?

The DNR can enforce recycling regulations that affect municipalities and businesses, but the recycling rules only cover certain materials. For example, lead-acid batteries, appliances, tires, yard waste and waste oil are banned from landfilling in Wisconsin, and other materials like cardboard, aluminum and steel cans, glass and plastic containers, and newspapers and magazines are subject to statewide disposal restrictions by local ordinances.

Generators of other wastes that can be safely disposed of in landfills are not subject to restrictions on their decision to landfill their waste materials. Often, market conditions or other considerations dictate that large volumes of waste material such as utility ash and foundry sand can be safely and economically used outside of landfills, but these uses usually depend on the characteristics of the waste material and the processes that produce them. If processes change, the waste may need to be landfilled until a new beneficial use is developed.