A controversial landfill located at the rocky southern tip of the Promontory Point cape jutting into the Great Salt Lake has secured the final permit needed to open for business. Now all it needs is its first customer.
Weber County might just fill that bill, with all three county commissioners expressing interest in a deal they say could mean savings for taxpayers.
“It looks to me like a wonderful place,” says Commissioner Scott Jenkins. “It’s all developed, the streets are in, the loading docks are there, the lights are up, the pits are dug. They’re ready.”
Great Salt Lake advocates, on the other hand, fear such a deal could be the precursor to future disaster for the fragile lake ecosystem.
“The worst possible place to put a landfill is next to a water body. If it doesn’t happen in 50 years, it will happen in 75 years — there will be a leak,” said Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake. “We think it was irresponsible for the landfill to even be conceived there.”
State waste permit
The Promontory landfill has had a state permit for a Class 1 facility since 2004 allowing it to dispose of municipal waste. But it has never received a single truckload of garbage, and for many years was largely ignored by the public and regulators.
But owner Promontory Point Resources (PPR) set off alarms when it purchased the 2,000-acre site and, in 2017, applied for a Class V permit allowing it to take commercial and out-of-state waste.
Its proposal envisioned the project as one of the nation’s biggest industrial landfills, where waste from other states could be offloaded from Union Pacific Railroad cars that traverse the lake on a causeway. In that application, PPR also discussed the possibility of accepting coal ash.
A byproduct of coal-fired power plants, coal ash contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic. It is estimated there are billions of tons of the material in impoundments across the nation.
In February 2018, Promontory Point abruptly withdrew its application for Class V status as a state contractor was close to completing a required assessment. A few weeks later, the state finished its review and determined the company had failed to demonstrate a need for another Class V landfill in Utah (there are currently eight).
PPR, a subsidiary of ALLOS Environmental, was not happy. It sent a letter to the Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control days later, requesting staff limit public communication about the landfill. It also advised then-director Scott Anderson to remove documents about the Class V application and the assessment from the division’s website and social media pages. The company complained about the department making public records “easily accessible” to environmental activists.
It’s not the first time the landfill operators clashed with state regulators.
On July 12, 2017, Matt Sullivan, an environmental scientist with the division, sent an email expressing concern that PPR had started constructing its landfill without first notifying state regulators. Sullivan had only learned of the activity from a news report.
“During construction, it’s standard procedure that we visit the site operations as needed,” Sullivan wrote.
Most recently, as division staffers reviewed the landfill’s groundwater monitoring plan this spring, they suggested a “flow and transport model” to ensure PPR had adequately placed its wells to detect leaks. They worried the landfill’s three downgradient monitoring wells weren’t enough, given the facility’s size. The company, through a consultant, flat-out “disagreed” with the division, noting that “such modeling is not required and has never been performed in Utah for the permitting of a Class I or Class V Landfill.”
Ultimately, the division agreed with the company.
Lake dangers or ‘speculation’
On July 10, Ty Howard, division director, approved a modified groundwater plan, noting that while the division had initially wanted a groundwater model, “it was concluded that some input parameters were ill-defined” and not “useful in making a decision.”
Howard’s signoff means the landfill can begin taking garbage under its existing Class I permit as soon as it secures a contract with a local government.
Promontory Point CEO Ann Garner provided a statement praising the division for approving the groundwater plan and for its “meticulous attention, competence and fairness in reviewing our project.”
In an interview, the division’s solid-waste program manager, Allan Moore, was less than firm in assuring the integrity of the landfill. Asked whether he thought regulators would be able to detect a release before it reaches the lake, Moore responded, “I believe so.”
Lake advocates are far from reassured.
In a review of the landfill’s groundwater monitoring plan conducted for FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake, retired U.S. Geological Survey scientist Robert Baskin said he has “serious concerns.”
The property lies at the junction of two faults, Baskin wrote, and the rock beneath it is highly fractured. That means there could be a direct pathway for leachate, or garbage juice, beneath the landfill to seep into the Great Salt Lake. He figures any contamination that leaks from the landfill could reach the lake in a matter of days.
Such contamination, if it killed microorganisms that are crucial to the lake’s food web, “would be catastrophic to the ecosystem of Great Salt Lake and the industries that operate on or adjacent to GSL,” Baskin warned. He also pointed to the potential devastation to tourism, millions of migratory birds, waterfowl hunters and others reliant on the lake’s ecosystem.
In his decision last month, Howard, who became state waste management and radiation control director in March, called these and other concerns “speculation” and beyond the scope of the required review of the groundwater monitoring plan. While numerous public comments called for a thorough hydrogeological study of the site, Howard noted the landfill’s plan met the state’s solid waste rules and that no commenter had provided evidence that challenged the landfill operator’s geological findings.
Bonnie Baxter, a biologist and director of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute, said the burden of studying Promontory Point’s geology should fall on state regulators, not the public, since the state has the resources and authority to do so.
“That’s the state’s Catch-22. The state says there’s no evidence, but the state has the capability of providing evidence,” Baxter said. “We need an independent review of the hydrology of the area, and the people who do that report should not be people paid by the landfill operation.”
A release from landfill to lake is as inevitable as an earthquake, Baxter added.
“As our lake dries up, because of development and climate change, the margins are becoming full of dust that blows into valleys,” Baxter said. “Whatever is in the lake water ends up in the dust, and that ends up in the lungs of humans on the Wasatch Front.
“Even if you don’t care about the ecosystem proper and the birds, everyone cares about the air they’re breathing.”
Weber County currently has a waste management contract with Republic Services, which hauls garbage in 25 double-trailer semis almost daily to the Wasatch Regional Landfill 90 miles away in Tooele County.
The route to the Promontory landfill is only 80 miles but takes twice as long, mostly because it involves county backroads. If the facility builds a spur from the nearby Union Pacific causeway, however, trash would need to travel only 25 miles by rail.
As of this summer, the county is paying Republic Services $40.49 per ton to dump its trash. Although he wouldn’t provide details, Jenkins, the county commissioner, said PPR has made an offer that would “save us a fair amount of money.”
Jenkins said he’s looking into whether the county can break its current contract with Republic, which expires in 2021.
Commissioner Gage Froerer has also indicated his support of a possible deal with PPR.
“If the public went out there and took a look, they’d see it’s probably as good a site as you can find,” Froerer said. “The state doesn’t approve these things without due diligence and making sure soils are protected from any possibility of leakage. You rely on the state to do this job, which I believe they have.”
Commissioner Jim Harvey said he supported a contract with the Promontory landfill because it could help reduce traffic on Interstate 15 and improve air quality.
When asked about friction between the landfill company and the division, however, Harvey seemed taken aback.
“Our philosophy is to be open and transparent,” Harvey said. “Anything that would go against that I’d have concern with.”
It’s unclear whether PPR will pursue another Class V permit, and company officials declined an interview request for this story.
But there are several indicators that such an application could reappear sometime in the future.
In this year’s legislative session, Senate Majority Whip Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, sponsored SB266, which would have allowed that permit without the division director’s approval and without assessing whether the facility is needed.
The bill failed to make it to committee despite its sponsorship by a Republican leader and the company’s team of lobbyists that includes some of the Capitol’s star persuaders: Spencer Stokes, a former Weber County commissioner, one-time state Republican Party executive director and first chief of staff to Sen. Mike Lee; Lincoln Shurtz, of the Utah Association of Counties; and Jordan Garn, son of former House Majority Leader Kevin Garn.
(Republic, which isn’t interested in new competitors, also has some serious lobbyist muscle: Paul Rogers, a former state senator and one of the most experienced lobbyists on Capitol Hill, and Tas Biesinger, a former leader of the Utah Home Builders Association. Biesinger, as of the last week of the most recent legislative session, also registered as a lobbyist for FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake.)
Promontory Point Resources’ parent company on its website still has a “FAQ” page that discusses what, if anything, will change “when” it receives a Class V permit for its Promontory facility. In that bullet point, the company says “very little” would change and it “does not anticipate accepting” coal ash.