After a prolonged battle, plans for a controversial landfill on the shores of the Great Salt Lake appear dead in the water.
For a second time, the owners of the Promontory Point Resources (PPR) landfill have failed to make a convincing case about why another big commercial dump that takes waste from other states is needed in Utah. The director of the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control issued a document Wednesday signaling his intent to reject the landfill’s requested Class V permit.
“The Director intends to deny the 2020 Application for reclassification,” the document says, “on the basis that there is sufficient landfill capacity at existing landfills within PPR’s self-designated wasteshed to meet the current and future needs of the State of Utah.”
The division has never denied a landfill permit in the past, a spokesperson confirmed.
Lynn de Freitas, director of FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, called the division’s decision “very responsible.”
“I’m heartened by it. It’s the right thing,” de Freitas said in an interview. “... The state of Utah should be relieved.”
Representatives for PPR did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The public has a chance to weigh in on the pending decision during a 45-day comment period beginning Thursday. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality will also hold a hearing on March 27, with options to participate in person or virtually. Comments can be sent via email to firstname.lastname@example.org as well.
Great Salt Lake scientists and environmental advocates have long sounded the alarm about a landfill at the PPR site, which sits only a few hundred yards from the lake’s water. Blowing trash can prove disastrous for migrating birds, nearby brine shrimp harvesting industries and mineral extraction companies. And toxic leaking garbage juice poses an ever greater risk to the lake’s ecosystem.
“We don’t want to be a dumping ground for other states’ waste,” said Timothy Hawkes, a former state representative and current general counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative. “Particularly when we have resources like the Great Salt Lake that are more sensitive than people might think to disturbances like that.”
PPR’s contentious past
The facility has held a Class I permit to operate as a landfill since 2004, under various owners, but has yet to take a single shred of trash. Class I permits allow nonhazardous waste through a contract with a local government, something the site’s operators have failed to secure in two decades.
Nearly seven years ago, PPR presented plans to upgrade the site to a commercial Class V landfill and begin shipping in contaminated soils and dangerous coal ash via rail from across the nation. PPR and its parent company, ALLOS Environmental, soon proved controversial.
They misled a board under the Governor’s Office of Economic Development in 2016 in order to secure a $16 million bond. Their lobbyists convinced the Utah Legislature to fast-track Class V approval the same year, despite PPR having no firm contracts or business plans in place. Lawmakers have since expressed regret over approving the scheme, saying they felt “duped.”
In the years that followed, awareness of the Great Salt Lake’s importance grew, even as its water shrank to record-low levels and its collapse became imminent. One Tooele-based legislator who initially supported PPR’s plan has reversed course, calling it “a terrible place to build a landfill.”
“Legislators and the general public have a newfound appreciation for the Great Salt Lake and the values it provides for all of us,” Hawkes said. “That’s just heightened concerns about anything that might make the situation worse out there.”
Despite securing bond funds and a green light from the Legislature, PPR still needed approval from the Division of Waste Management and the governor before it could receive a Class V permit. In 2017, apparently confident the permit was in the bag, PPR began constructing a massive landfill cell and supporting infrastructure, to the division’s alarm.
State regulators had asked PPR to prove its business case for their Class V permit through a report called a Needs Assessment, which is something required by law. The division then handed it to a consultant for review.
But PPR abruptly withdrew its application in 2018. The move came mere weeks before the consultant concluded the company hadn’t demonstrated a need for another Class V landfill in Utah.
PPR’s representatives wrote a rebuke to the Division of Waste Management, criticizing comments made to the media and demanding regulators stop making public records readily available.
By late 2020, the company had issued a new Class V application with a new plan. This time, PPR’s needs assessment made no mention of coal ash or other dangerous materials. Instead, it intended to truck in municipal waste from northern Utah and southern Idaho, arguing the facility would create competition with existing landfills in the region and potentially lower fees.
Once again, the division’s consultant found in May 2021 PPR hadn’t demonstrated the need for another Class V landfill in Utah, even with its new business model. Communities across the region have their own landfills, or contracts with other commercial landfills, with many decades worth of capacity left.
The division director has apparently agreed Utah has no need for PPR’s out-of-state operation, even after asking the consultant in June of last year to revise its findings and pare back some of the critique.
De Freitas has carefully monitored the PPR saga over the years and said Wednesday’s decision came as a relief.
“I didn’t know what to think as this process was going through the wringer,” she said. “... It’s always been pulling teeth to get the company to come to the table, to be forthcoming, to provide the information that could inform the best decision.”
When PPR constructed its now-mothballed facility in 2017, it had to build new groundwater monitoring wells and develop a new blueprint for detecting leaks. Division staff requested better modeling and more wells, given the facility’s size.
The company pushed back, saying it “disagreed” with the division and noted “such modeling is not required and has never been performed in Utah for the permitting of a Class I or Class V Landfill.”
The division ultimately gave in and approved PPR’s groundwater plan. FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake legally challenged the decision, which currently sits before the Utah Court of Appeals.
De Freitas said a determination on the issue remains important. The company can still take trash if it manages to ink a deal under its Class I permit. Any sort of garbage piling up on the Great Salt Lake’s shore poses a threat, even if it’s not coal ash. The division’s pending rejection of the Class V permit makes no mention of the lake or its vulnerable ecosystem.
“I don’t think it’s lost on anyone,” De Freitas said, “that landfills in general tend to have problems with contamination issues, particularly [when] adjacent to waterbodies.”
PPR applied to renew its Class I permit in January 2021. A spokesperson with the Department of Environmental Quality said the petition remains under review with no decision made.
This article is published through The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.