Shawnee & Lenexa

Johnson County landfill regulations run up against state disapproval

Updated: 2014-01-14T23:17:02Z

By ROXIE HAMMILL

Special to The Star

Rules that require yard waste to be separated and composted rather than dumped in the Johnson County landfill have run into trouble with the state, giving new life to an ongoing struggle over who can regulate the privately run landfill.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment recently disapproved the county’s solid waste management plan, saying that the yard waste restrictions run afoul of a state law that limits counties’ abilities to restrict private landfills.

The county is appealing the decision.

The Solid Waste Management Plan is the blueprint for how the county wants to handle its trash and landfill. It is a guide for writing the more specific laws and punishments for violations.

The disapproval notice, sent out late last month, will not have an immediate impact on daily operations at the landfill, said Bill Bider, director of the state Bureau of Waste Management. But if the county doesn’t make the changes suggested by the state, it could affect such things as grants for green schools and other state-funded programs down the road, he said.

Meanwhile the county disagrees that its plan violates state law and has asked for a hearing and review of the legal issues, said Don Jarrett, the county’s legal counsel.

The plan was several years in the making and the rules on yard waste went into effect in January 2012. In short, they require twigs, leaves and grass clippings to be bagged separately and composted in an area apart from the other trash. The intent was to conserve space at the landfill, which was predicted to be full sometime in the 2020s without the action.

The state didn’t address the value of composting or saving landfill space in its disapproval. Instead, its objection centers on the fact that the Deffenbaugh landfill accepts trash from counties and municipalities outside of Johnson County. The new yard waste rules have the effect of forcing those jurisdictions to change the way they handle trash and grass clippings, according to the state. A new state law forbids one county from adopting a solid waste management plan that requires other cities or counties to make changes not required by the state.

Current state law does not require the separation of yard waste from landfills.

The solid waste management plan, up for its five-year update last year, has been the target of a vocal group of opponents, who say it is a waste of money and time and will not extend the life of the landfill. Several made their feelings known at a public hearing on the landfill in August.

Dennis Batliner, an opponent of the yard waste rules, said he’d like to see the yard waste rules completely eliminated. The waste separation is costly and aggravating to residents and does not conserve space, partly because Deffenbaugh has been allowed to put the finished compost back into the landfill, he said.

“Since implementation, the effects on citizens’ liberty, costs, time, and aggravation have been large,” he wrote in a later email. “(I got an email last night from a guy who spent $3500 to cut down two trees because he was tired of the difficulty in getting rid of leaves and sweet gum balls after these regulations took affect!)”

It’s rare for a solid waste management plan to get outright disapproval from the state, Bider said. He could think of only one other instance of a disapproval, of Wichita’s plan on behalf of Sedgwick County in the mid-1990s.

The state reviews the county plans and sends back recommendations for changes if there is a problem, Bider said. Once the changes are made, the plan goes forward.

The state sent letters to Johnson County twice in October with the warning that the county would be in violation if changes weren’t made. However the county never took the state’s suggestion.

Ruth Hopkins, chairperson for the Solid Waste Management Committee, which wrote the plan, said that composting yard waste is supported by a majority of Johnson Countians. “We all feel passionately about protecting the environment and protecting what we have in Johnson County,” she said.

There are varying interpretations of state law, and Hopkins said she believes the management plan is in the right. But she didn’t want to discuss specifics because of the pending adjudication.

Most of the yard waste currently being diverted away from the landfill is from within Johnson County, said Bider.

Wyandotte County also uses the landfill and has been implementing its own new rules on yard waste. The Unified Government’s web page announced this summer that residents can drop off yard waste at the landfill free of charge.

But Jarrett said it is difficult to say whether Johnson County’s new rules forced those changes because both counties were in the process of reworking agreements with Deffenbaugh.

Bider said the disapproval was given because having the plan in place opens the door for future decisions that may be stricter than what state law allows. “Our position is we have the state law. You have to judge the plan on the basis of the state law and that’s what we did,” he said.

Jarrett disagreed that the county plan violates the law. As for future questions, he said, the state would be free to raise those question if or when they happen.

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