Delta ‘Subsidizes’ Landfill – and Wonders Where’s the Missing 400 Tons of Trash?

Delta's landfill got nearly a third less trash – and revenue – in 2014 than city officials were expecting. (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Delta’s landfill got nearly a third less trash – and revenue – in 2014 than city officials were expecting. (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks)

City of Delta Junction officials are worried about the rising cost of operating the city’s landfill. And they’re  wondering what happened to the 400 tons of trash they were expecting to be dumped there.

How do you lose 400 tons of trash? That’s a question Delta Mayor Pete Hallgren is trying to answer after finding out the city got one-third less tonnage of solid waste dumped into the city landfill last year than expected.

“The amount of garbage that’s come in has dropped – fairly dramatically,” he said. “Which means we’re taking in less revenue now than we were four years ago.”

Hallgren says landfill use has been slowly declining over the past four years. But he says the dropoff of tipping fees last year is putting pressure on the city budget.

“Somewhere along the line, we’ve got to at least recognize the fact that the landfill is just not paying its way right now,” he said.

The City Council intended the landfill to be self-supporting after it was built in 2005. But Hallgren says the city has been “subsidizing” the operation over the past few years with money coming out of a $300,000 state grant. But he says that can’t continue, because the remaining money is needed to expand the facility.

“It’s looking like we are out over a $100,000 out of that grant,” he said. “And we’re going to have to use the grant to build a new cell. We don’t need it quite yet, but you’ve got to build them before you need them. So, the grant is not going to be available.”

Delta Sanitation management and owners declined to talk about the company's problems, despite several phone calls and a visit to their office earlier this month. (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Delta Sanitation management and owners declined to talk about the company’s problems, despite several phone calls and a visit to their office earlier this month. (Photo by Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks)

Last month the city council hiked landfill tipping fees by 28 percent, from $125 to $160 per ton. It was almost enough to close the revenue gap. Hallgren says closing the landfill is not an option.

Meanwhile, the question remains: where’s the missing 400 tons of trash?

The mayor, and others, says some is getting dumped at Fairbanks North Star Borough transfer sites in Salcha.

“Let’s face it – Delta people go to Fairbanks. And there’s transfer stations on the way to Fairbanks from Delta.”

Data from the borough’s hauling contractor shows trash dumped at Salcha and other borough  transfer sites increased last year, but there’s no way to determine how much of that came from people from outside the borough.

City officials also are concerned at least some of the missing trash has been burned or buried in unregulated dumps, though there’s been no report of that around Delta.

But one area resident did report tons of trash being stored on the property of the local trash-hauling company.

“You could very definitely smell rotting garbage,” said Stacy Petersen, who lives down the road from Delta Sanitation in a mainly residential area.

Petersen says she’d been complaining to the company for storing trash in big rolloff-type dumpsters on its property for weeks. One day last fall she and her husband, Jamie, came across an overwhelming stench wafting from the property while they were out walking their dogs.

“The smell was so bad we could only go halfway and then we turned around and came back,” she said.“That’s when I told Jamie I said ‘That’s it. I’ve had enough.’”

Petersen took her complaints to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, which launched an investigation. Delta Sanitation officials told the agency they’d run into financial problems and had to store trash on their property until they could catch up on payments to the city so they could start using the landfill again. The city had started turning away Delta Sanitation trash trucks early last year after the company racked up thousands of dollars in unpaid fees.

In October, the agency ordered Delta Sanitation to fix its finances and pay the city.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Conservation ordered Delta Sanitation to remove the trash and take it to the landfill.

Company officials declined to talk to KUAC. But last month they did haul seven tons to the landfill.

City officials admit they still can’t account for what happened to the other 393 tons of trash.