Rotting garbage stinks, but it doesn’t compare to the stench of broken promises.
Two years after construction of the state-of-the-art Fighting Creek Landfill, Rockford Bay residents predict they’re in for a long haul. They say last week’s furor over smelly trash is just the latest in a string of unkept pledges by Kootenai County.
The volume of problems has residents plugging their noses, shielding their eyes and worrying about their lakes and streams.
“I’m really concerned,” says retiree Dale Ward, who owns 20 acres near the landfill. “My life savings is invested in this place.”
The dump was to be odor-free. Instead neighbors have endured the ammonia stench of drainage ponds and the methane smell of decaying waste.
Officials swore the landfill wouldn’t be seen from the highway. Equipment breakdowns led to temporarily visible garbage, and county officials now admit the trash mound someday will tower up to 200 feet.
Residents say trash was to be dumped only six days a week. Except in winter, haulers truck garbage every day.
Residents were told the landfill wouldn’t damage area waters. Erosion filled a nearby creek with silt and led to lawsuits.
Commissioners said the landfill would handle 40 years of county waste. It’s now expected to reach capacity in half that time.
The county sometimes has reasonable explanations, residents admit, and most of the commitments were made by past officials.
But “the promises came from our county government,” says Ed Joy, leader of a group that battled the landfill for years. “That has to bind their successors or what they say means nothing.”
Few residents blame Solid Waste Director Steve Wulf, who admits mistakes and tries to fix them. Some joke that he’s the only thing that has worked as hoped.
“We know he’s trying and he’s definitely earning his money,” says Don Shriner, who grew up a mile from the landfill. “But this is wearing awfully thin.”
County commissioners agreed in 1989 to put the landfill at Fighting Creek, 13 miles south of Coeur d’Alene. They pledged it would be top-of-the-line. By many standards it is.
Residents get unlimited use of the $40 million landfill for $80 a year - far less than Spokane and other neighboring counties pay.
A plastic liner coats the bottom of each seven-acre “pod.” When a pod fills with garbage, it is covered with more plastic, mounded with clay and seeded.
Liquid from the trash drains into aerated ponds and recirculates through the garbage, evaporating in the process. What doesn’t evaporate can be trucked to Coeur d’Alene and filtered through the city’s sewer system.
But Rockford Bay residents suffered the acrid odor from those ponds last summer.
“It was pretty ripe,” says Terry Lewis, who lives 2,000 yards from the landfill. “You could certainly tell when the wind shifted.”
That’s because aerators were out of use during a $2.8 million, 15-acre expansion last summer, Wulf says.
Residents also saw an open mound of garbage this fall, though it’s supposed to be covered daily. Open trash draws seagulls that hang around the bay dropping waste of their own.
“I see it all from my window,” says Ward, who tracks workers through binoculars.
Ward researched the landfill before building his house. He was told the mound would never be visible from the road.
That claim was foolishly made by a former administration, Wulf said. The mound has to be high, though it will be covered and eventually look like surrounding hills.
The trash was exposed because a special truck used to cover it threw a rod, Wulf said. The county had bought a new one before it broke down. It’s still in transit; it was shipped from Kansas.
“We were ahead of the power curve, but who could have predicted such a long delivery process?” asks Commissioner Dick Compton. “John Deere even stopped making the damn things.”
Residents say they were told haulers would take a weekly day of rest, to limit traffic congestion and noise from the site. Wulf never heard that and says the landfill handles 2,100 tons of garbage a week - too much to do in six days.
Former commissioner Frank Henderson predicted the landfill would last 40 years, but it’s filling faster than expected. Garbage processing there increased 11 percent a year for four of the past five years - a factor of growth.
“I can tell what’s happening with the economy by how much garbage we get,” Wulf says.
During initial construction, heavy rains and poor erosion control washed soils into Fighting Creek. Former sheriff Rocky Watson sued and won a $40,000 settlement.
“Every time we get into a new phase of this thing, we pay the consequences of the county’s learning curve,” Watson says.
That’s why residents like Brian Bacon fear toxic liquids will escape the site and contaminate the ground or the lake.
“It will fail,” says Bacon. “And it will pump every kind of chemical and metal in the lake.”
Wulf says it won’t happen and promises vigilance. Residents say they believe he is sincere.
But that changes nothing.
“We’ll just have to constantly be watching and holding the county’s feet to the fire,” resident Roy Lakewold told a group of 40 area residents last week. “It’s not my first choice, but it’s what we’re left with.”