‘Dirty politics’: What a fight over trash in Box Elder means for Utah’s environment and property rights

Developer says Box Elder County leaders, including the spouse of a nearby property owner, are biased against his project.

(Leia Larsen | The Salt Lake Tribune) Randy Moulding discusses a landfill he proposed on his property in Box Elder County's Hansel Valley on Dec. 28, 2020. Moulding received approval from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, but the county has denied his rezoning request. Meanwhile, county leaders have backed a Promontory Point landfill that is controversial because of its proximity to the Great Salt Lake.

No one likes the prospect of trash in their backyard, and landfills can be a dirty business.

But developer Randy Moulding wonders why the controversial Promontory Point Landfill near the shore of the Great Salt Lake continually gets the green light from Box Elder County officials while his proposed site in the largely undeveloped Hansel Valley keeps hitting roadblocks. His site, called Franklin Hill Landfill, is a straighter shot on the freeway, arguably better for the environment and clearly less threatening to the migratory birds that use the lake.

He has a permit from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and local governments are ready to sign up and send garbage his way. But county officials continue to block his business.

“They’ve taken away my right to do what I want with my property,” Moulding said.

The same officials have promoted the Promontory landfill. They’ve vouched for it to state legislators. They even passed a resolution last year agreeing to send the county’s trash there in case of an emergency at the county-owned landfill — a move that was legally dubious since it didn’t appear on the commission’s meeting agenda.

Meanwhile, the Promontory landfill has not managed to earn a dollar or take a single piece of trash since it received its first permit nearly 20 years ago.

One clear difference is that the owner of the land next to Moulding’s is politically connected and has been an outspoken opponent.

“Their landfill never has worked at Promontory,” Moulding said. And yet, “we feel like [Box Elder County leaders have] done everything for Promontory and everything for us to not get a permit.”

Late last month, Moulding sued the county and its commissioners in Utah’s 1st District Court.

Wild birds and water

Hansel Valley is a rural area with rocky hills, cattle rangeland and dry farms between the Utah-Idaho border and the Great Salt Lake. Standing atop Franklin Hill, about 15 minutes east of Snowville, Moulding explained why his property was an ideal location for the region’s municipal waste.

It’s directly off Interstate 84, but barely visible to motorists because of a rolling hill. There’s a well with enough water for dust control. Plus, Moulding has decades’ worth of experience operating a construction and demolition landfill for Weber County and, by all accounts, those county officials are pleased with the partnership.

Moulding owns 2,200 acres in all and plans to develop 225 acres as his landfill. He’ll continue raising cattle on the rest.

Another Hansel Valley property owner is Tim Munns, husband of Box Elder County Planning Commission Chair Laurie Munns. Tim Munns also owns thousands of acres south of Moulding’s land, with the closest parcel about a mile away. It appears to be undeveloped.

When Moulding first went before the Planning Commission in the spring of 2014, seeking a rezone for his proposed landfill site, he carried with him a letter from Wasatch Integrated Waste Management District officials, saying it was an intended customer. Wasatch is a special service district serving Davis and Morgan counties.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Tim Munns immediately voiced concerns about impacts to groundwater, meeting minutes show. His was the first signature on a list of about 330 county residents who signed a petition either saying another landfill was not needed or wanted in the county, or that they “adamantly oppose” any landfill in Hansel Valley or along I-84.

“Our main concern is the groundwater,” Laurie Munns told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview. “It’s our only source of water. There’s no other way to get water out in Hansel Valley other than deep water wells.”

She declined to discuss her opposition further, noting that “I’m pretty close to this situation.”

Neighboring towns, the Bear River Water Conservancy District and other nearby property owners shared concerns about potential groundwater pollution in 2014. Others raised questions about whether the landfill would impact threatened sage grouse and other wildlife.

Moulding offered to take the planning commissioners on a site visit in May 2014 to help assuage their concerns, according to emails obtained in an open records request. But it appears they had already decided against Moulding’s landfill.

“I don’t mean to sound lazy, but if this ... doesn’t have a snowballs chance of getting past our desk, I’m less than motivated to go to a site visit,” wrote Desiray Larsen, a member of the planning commission. “If the majority of the commission has already made up their mind for disapproval, I can’t imagine a site visit would persuade them to change and say, ‘Hey, this place really does look like a dump.’ ”

Nevertheless, commissioners agreed to tour the landfill site the following month. Ahead of the visit, Laurie Munns, who was not yet chair, emailed an invitation to other members to drop by her house “for a steak dinner after our site visit” as long as it wasn’t a conflict. It’s not clear from records whether the meeting happened or what was discussed.

“2014 was six years ago. I’m not going to comment on that,” Munns told The Tribune this month.

While landfill impacts to groundwater and wildlife are reasonable concerns for Hansel Valley residents, numerous groups have expressed similar fears about the Promontory landfill for decades.

A multimillion-dollar company that harvests food-grade minerals from the Great Salt Lake, currently doing business as Compass Minerals, has spoken out against the landfill since at least the early 2000s. The neighboring business worried garbage juice could leak into the lake and hurt its operation.

National and local organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, Western Resource Advocates, the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council and FRIENDS of Great Salt Lake have also raised alarm over nearly two decades that a landfill on the Promontory Point Peninsula could impact the millions of migrating birds that depend on Great Salt Lake each year.

In 2017, signs reading “SAY NO” to the Promontory landfill popped up on properties throughout the county, even as commissioners rubber-stamped requests from Promontory’s owner, ALLOS Environmental.

More recently, biologists with Westminster College and hydrologists have shared concerns about the Promontory landfill, including a potential groundwater pathway to the Great Salt Lake, and have called on the state to do further study.

“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,” Lynn de Freitas with FRIENDS told The Tribune in 2019. “We think it was irresponsible for the landfill to even be conceived there.”

Moulding said he was approached years ago to buy the Promontory landfill site, but he was also put off by its location.

“I’m really not against any landfills. I’d be a hypocrite if I was,” he said. “But that landfill, to me, the worst thing is the blowing garbage because they can’t retrieve it [when it lands in the lake]. I can retrieve it up here.”

Two different timelines

In August 2014, Moulding asked the county planning commission to set aside his rezone request while he pursued a Class I landfill permit with the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control.

“They’re the experts” and could prove Moulding’s landfill wouldn’t irreparably harm groundwater or impact sage grouse, he said. “I did it thinking that was the best thing for me to do, for Box Elder County.”

About a year and a half later, Promontory Point Resources (now owned by ALLOS Environmental) acquired the empty, still-undeveloped Promontory landfill property and its existing Class I permit.

Class I landfills can be operated by commercial owners like Moulding or ALLOS, but require a contract with a local government to take waste. Almost as soon as it acquired the Promontory landfill, ALLOS began working to secure Class V status, which would allow it to take certain waste from just about anyone, including clients out of state.

ALLOS had big plans for its new landfill, application documents show, including importing coal ash from around the nation using the railway causeway bisecting the Great Salt Lake.

Those dreams abruptly came to a halt in February 2018 when ALLOS withdrew its Class V application, after it became clear Utah’s Division of Waste Management would likely deny the permit. A state consultant’s review had determined ALLOS did not demonstrate the need for another Class V landfill in Utah.

During the time in between, however, the Box Elder County Commission approved a municipal solid waste rezoning request for the Promontory landfill, based on a recommendation from the planning commission, because the landfill’s existing zoning wasn’t current with the latest code. The County Commission also approved a $35 million bond for the Promontory landfill that was later reduced to $16 million after review from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

ALLOS got to work spending those millions to construct a landfill cell and buildings, despite not having all its permits or any contracts in place. It has since defaulted on payments for the bond.

In 2019, after more than four years of state deliberations over sage grouse habitat and aquifers in Hansel Valley, the Division of Waste Management approved Moulding’s Class I permit for his landfill. The division specified, however, that Moulding would need to take strict measures to prevent releases to groundwater and earthquake damage.

But in August 2020, Laurie Munns and the rest of the county planning commission voted to recommend denial for the Hansel Valley rezoning request — the final bureaucratic hurdle Moulding needed to clear before opening for business.

When that vote moved to the Box Elder Commission the following month, Moulding requested 15 minutes to argue his case. The commissioners allowed him five minutes, then unanimously voted to deny the application.

ALLOS recently announced it will again seek a Class V permit for the Promontory landfill, this time basing much of its business model on the municipal waste Moulding wants instead of commercial sources and coal ash. But ALLOS still can’t find any customers. An attempt to court Weber County for a waste contract last year proved unsuccessful.

(Photo courtesy FOX13) A landfill on the tip of the Promontory Point cape jutting into the Great Salt Lake has yet to find a customer, despite Box Elder County commissioners rubber-stamping its requests.

Weber County Commissioner Jim Harvey, however, send a letter in support of Moulding to Box Elder County last August.

“As our northern neighbors, we encourage you to consider Mr. Moulding’s location as a county approved site and could support you as permitted,” Harvey wrote, adding that, after a personal site visit, he did not consider the Promontory landfill “viable.”

“It’s a lot farther, not as the crow flies, but in driving miles,” Harvey said in an interview.

Weber County sends 25 double semi-trailer trucks each weekday 90 miles south through the Salt Lake urban corridor to the Wasatch Regional Landfill in Tooele. If the county had the Hansel Valley site as an option, Harvey said, it would shorten the haul, reduce congestion on Interstate 15 and improve air quality.

Transporting the waste to the Promontory landfill would take half again as long as the trip to Hansel Valley and would require routing trucks by farms and residential homes on county roads, whereas Moulding’s landfill is accessed by freeways.

Taking safety and environmental concerns into account, Harvey said that Moulding’s landfill “is just smarter.”

“That site, it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect,” Harvey said.

Harvey told The Tribune, “I’ll make a lot of enemies in Box Elder County because I support it.” And he questioned why Laurie Munns was allowed to vote on Moulding’s rezone request, given her apparent conflict of interest.

Reached by phone, Box Elder County Attorney Stephen Hadfield said the Munns’ proximity to the proposed Hansel Valley site did not invalidate her from helping to determine the fate of Moulding’s property.

“The planning commission is made up of volunteers. ... It’s designed to have people from all parts of the county,” Hadfield said. “The fact that a person lives in the same vicinity as a project does not create a conflict, it actually helps because we get perspective from that area.”

But it remains unclear why the county’s elected decision-makers — the County Commission — consistently back the Promontory landfill despite the failures by its owners to run a viable business.

The commission chair, Stan Summers, declined to comment for this story, citing Moulding’s pending litigation.

Curtis Murray, the mayor of Plymouth, was among about a dozen Box Elder County mayors who signed a letter in opposition to Moulding’s landfill last year. He now says he regrets it.

“I got blindsided,” Murray said. “I believe in my heart it had a lot to do with our county commissioners. I think they’re dead set against the whole thing. They were pushing hard to get everyone to sign.”

He said Summers appeared to oppose Moulding’s landfill the most.

“This is just my opinion, but I think there are probably inside people there who [only] want the one on Promontory to happen,” Murray said. “I do think it’s dirty politics. They should give Randy a fair opportunity.”