Officials from the Johnson County landfill apologized this week for the strong odors, muddy streets near the landfill and trash along the highway that have plagued Shawnee residents for the past six months.
Landfill operators appeared before the Shawnee Planning Commission Wednesday night to explain what steps they are taking to solve problems that have caused a spike in complaints to the city in the months since Deffenbaugh Industries was bought by Waste Management.
“Quite honestly, we dropped the ball,” said Jim Murray, senior district manager at the landfill. “We didn’t perform up to the level the city was used to.”
The apology didn’t stop some commissioners from chastising the company. Commission Chairman Augie Bogina expressed frustration that complaints from citizens and inquiries from the city were not promptly taken care of.
“That was sloppy work out there. There was so much trash some days it made the city look bad,” he said, referring to trash that accumulated along Interstate 435 last summer. “If your company was responsible, that’s not being a good corporate citizen and you yourself should have recognized that without the city reminding you.”
Bogina and others mentioned the good relationship the city had with Deffenbaugh before the sale and said it compared unfavorably with Waste Management’s debut.
“We had a real good relationship with Deffenbaugh and we’re expecting the same or better with Waste Management and so far it’s not there yet,” said Commissioner Alan Willoughby.
Commissioner Dennis Busby said Waste Management was well known for doing a good job with landfills in other parts of the country, citing Livermore, Calif., as an example.
“Honest to God, all I want is for you to do the same for us here because right now you are a detriment to the quality of life in Shawnee,” Busby said.
A variety of reasons were given for the rash of complaints. Murray and Dale Hoekstra of Waste Management said the odors were caused by an unexpectedly wet spring. The area’s rainfall was 15 inches above normal for the period from April through August, Hoekstra said. Much of that rain ended up in the 70-foot-deep bowl of the active trash collection cell of the landfill, despite operators’ best efforts to divert it with berms and ground covers, he said.
Once it became clear that the rainfall was affecting the odors, he said the company sped up the installation of interconnected wells to capture the gas and a flare to burn off the excess. The landfill already had 330 wells for gas collection. Thirty-two more have been installed since January and complaints began to drop after the new flare was lit Jan. 30, he said.
The gas is a byproduct of the decomposition of landfill trash. Normally it takes three to five years before wells are needed in a new area, Hoekstra said.
Other problems were attributed to the transition between landfill owners and problems with a temp agency.
Waste Management uses temporary workers to pick up litter that makes its way from the landfill, at 17955 Holliday Drive, onto the interstate, Murray said. Last summer and fall the company had a difficult time finding workers to pick up along the route, but the company has since switched temp agencies, he said.
Murray also assured commissioners that the company would send street sweepers — or workers with hand shovels if necessary — out weekly to keep landfill mud off the roads and out of the storm water system.
Commissioners also were concerned about what they said was too slow of a response from Waste Management.
Murray said the ownership change was a “poor excuse” for the breakdown in communication with the city, but pledged to make sure there would be no future problems.
Bogina remained unconvinced that the majority of problems could be attributed to the ownership transition.
“There couldn’t have been that much transition of people out there that they didn’t know what their jobs were each day,” he said.
Bogina noted that promises were made to the city for cooperation in 2001 by Deffenbaugh Industries when the permit was granted, “and it seems like just because there was a sale it seemed like the emphasis of cooperation changed.”
One resident spoke at the planning commission meeting, asking landfill operators to consider some landscaping to beautify the west side of the property, which is the side most neighbors see. The landfill’s western edge is devoid of trees and shrubs now, said Jeff Arnold, a neighbor of the landfill.
The area has been used as a landfill since the 1950s and was sold to a private equity firm in 2007. Waste Management bought full control in March 2015.
The discussion before the planning commission was part of a regular review of the landfill’s special use permit. Commissioners voted unanimously to review it again in three months, telling the company to look into beautification of the west side of the property.
In the interim, the city and landfill operator will begin work on a three-year formal agreement about litter and odor control.
Roxie Hammill: firstname.lastname@example.org.