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Kansas Legislature pulls rug out from under Johnson County landfill plan

Updated: 2013-06-04T20:29:59Z

By KAREN DILLON

The Kansas City Star

Thanks to the Kansas Legislature, Johnson County finds itself with a surprising hitch in its plan to extend the life of its major landfill.

And thanks to legislators, it looks as if Wyandotte County residents won’t have to separate their yard waste from their trash after all. At least not for a while.

More than a year ago, the Johnson County Commission planned to require yard waste to be separated from any trash being dumped in Deffenbaugh Industries’ Shawnee landfill. That applied to private haulers and anyone else, including residents living outside of Johnson County whose trash goes to the landfill.

But in late May, the state Legislature put the skids on the county’s law.

The Legislature, in the waning days of its session, quietly passed a bill that prohibits any city or county, such as Johnson County, from passing laws that affect the laws of another local government regarding solid-waste disposal.

“This was a bill developed in response to Johnson County’s waste ban,” said Bill Bider, director of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s waste management division. “This bill now says you can’t do what Johnson County did. They can only regulate their own people.”

Reaction was quick — possibly setting up a legal fight.

Johnson County had worked out a delicate agreement with Wyandotte County requiring those residents to separate yard waste. The commission had even given Wyandotte residents a year-and-a-half extension despite heavy criticism.

D-day was July 1, but the date has been canceled, said Mike Taylor, a spokesman for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan.

“I can tell you we won’t be implementing a yard-waste ban come July 1st,” Taylor said. “We have five brand new members of the commission, and it’s an issue that none of them have had time to get up to speed or talk about. I told my boss this is going to take a pretty extensive communications campaign because it is a massive change for our residents.”

Johnson County officials were surprised when they learned the agreement had been broken and said Wyandotte officials had not yet contacted them.

“We have not been notified of anything to change that,” said Lougene Marsh, Johnson County health director. “It would be imprudent to comment at this juncture.”

Marsh said she had been advised by county attorneys that there was nothing in the state law that affected current agreements.

“Our understanding was there was nothing in the language of the law that made it retroactive,” she said. “If there are arguments to be made to the contrary, then those will have to be made.”

A Deffenbaugh official said he also was surprised by Wyandotte County’s announcement but said they would be speaking.

“I’m ... confident we will arrive at a solution that all parties can embrace,” said Tom Coffman, senior vice president.

Johnson County and Kansas have lagged the nation in recycling and yard-waste bans. For example, Missouri has banned yard waste from all landfills for decades.

Johnson County officials first began talking about banning yard waste from the Deffenbaugh landfill almost seven years ago.

The landfill in Shawnee is regional with trash and yard waste coming to it from not only Johnson and Wyandotte but also Miami, Leavenworth, Osage, Atchison and Jefferson counties.

At the time the commission was developing the ban, citizens were told that the landfill was going to have to close in 2027 because it would be full. (Eventually the public learned the landfill would be open until at least 2043, creating more mistrust among Johnson County residents about the genesis of the ban.)

Residents also raised concerns about having to pay an increase in their waste bill.

The county’s ban was delayed a couple years and then finally implemented in January 2012.

Just before the ban was implemented, Wyandotte County officials said they did not plan to follow it. Officials said their contract with Deffenbaugh did not require yard waste to be separated. After haggling, Wyandotte agreed to join the ban when its contract ended this July.

The controversy again erupted over the ban last summer after the program was well underway in Johnson County, when The Star learned that Deffenbaugh was still putting yard waste in the landfill.

Deffenbaugh was turning the yard waste into compost and then using it to layer the trash in the landfill.

“We are aware (Deffenbaugh) is doing it,” Marsh said this week. “There is nothing in our current code to prohibit their use of compost that way.”

Some Johnson County residents questioned why they had to pay Deffenbaugh to pick up the separated yard waste if it was still being put in the landfill.

“That is in conflict with what we were told,” said Dennis Batliner, a resident who has opposed the ban.

With the new state law, it remains to be seen what will happen to the county’s yard-waste ban.

Some but not all the other counties and towns in the Deffenbaugh service area are following the ban.

To reach Karen Dillon, call 816-234-4430 or send email to kdillon@kcstar.com.

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