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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northside Landfill eyed for solar development

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

The city of Spokane could soon transform part of a former environmental wasteland into a solar energy generator.

City officials will consider soliciting a solar energy company to build an array of photovoltaic panels at the Northside Landfill, an expansive 345-acre parcel on Indian Trail Road that was only recently lifted off the Environmental Protection Agency’s priority list of Superfund cleanup sites.

After more than 30 years of rehabilitation, the solar project could mark the start of a gradual evolution of a polluted landfill into a blend of transportation, recreation and energy production infrastructure.

Councilwoman Candace Mumm called the beginning of the landfill’s redevelopment “exciting.”

“I know the neighborhood is very invested in the future of this property,” Mumm said.

Solar potential

The EPA removed the Northside Landfill Superfund site from its National Priorities List last year, citing decades of cleanup work that began after 1982, when tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, was discovered in the nearby groundwater in the early 1980s.

Potential uses of the Northside Landfill, analyzed by the city and EPA, are limited due to the delicate nature of the capped landfill.

“They determined a solar development would be the best use,” Chris Averyt, the city’s acting director of solid waste disposal, explained to the City Council’s Public Infrastructure and Environmental Sustainability Committee on Monday.

Spokane's Northside Landfill on July 14, 2020 in north Spokane.   (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)
Spokane’s Northside Landfill on July 14, 2020 in north Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-RE)

The solar project would begin with the city issuing a request for proposals. Two portions of the property, totaling about 25 acres, have been identified as suitable for a photovoltaic solar array.

The city would lease the land to the solar energy company, which would in turn reap the revenues of its energy production. The land would be suitable for 4 megawatts of production capacity, according to city estimates, and an Avista substation across Nine Mile Road would provide a connection into the electrical grid.

The Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that each megawatt of production capacity is enough to power about 100 homes in Washington, a rough estimate dependent on the amount of energy consumed by the average home and the suitability of the climate.

Similar projects elsewhere have netted an average lease payment of about $2,100 per acre, which for the Northside Landfill project would translate to about $50,000 a year or more for the city.

Nearby neighborhood councils were informed of the plans on Monday night.

Karen Kearney, chair of the Balboa-South Indian Trail Neighborhood Council, said she’s long driven past the landfill and thought there must be a better use for it. Kearney suggested she’d endorse solar development at the site as long as it does not compromise the cleanup work.

“It seems like the perfect place to do it. It’s huge,” Kearney said. “Barring any complications from disturbing the soil to a point where it’s unhealthy for the water for the neighborhoods, at this point in time I would think it’s a good (plan).”

The EPA, in a 2018 assessment of the Northside Landfill, agreed, and said any installation should be built under the close watch of environmental regulators.

“While the site’s cap does pose some limitations, these can be overcome with proper planning as has been successfully demonstrated at landfill sites across the country,” the report stated.

Troubled history

Though not discovered until the 1980s, the environmental contamination at the Northside Landfill was the result of practices dating back decades. The landfill was unlined, as was common at the time, allowing harmful solvents and chemicals to leach into the soil and be carried downstream, according to the EPA.

PCE is linked to a variety of health impacts, including cancer.

The city stopped dumping waste into the three unlined “solid waste cells” in 1991, and in 1993 began the process of extracting, treating and testing the groundwater. In 2020, the EPA determined that the city met its remediation targets and removed the 135-acre capped portion of the landfill from the priorities list.

Although the site was deleted from the National Priorities List, the groundwater will continue to be monitored and it still will be subject to a five-year review, the last of which was conducted in 2017.

The city still uses a small portion of the property as a lined solid waste cell, which collects waste that bypasses the Waste-to-Energy Plant.

The future

City officials are exercising patience. Because of where it’s at in the closure process, Averyt explained that potential uses are limited.

It’s still perhaps too early to be exploring many development options for much of the landfill as a result of pollution and wells at the landfill where gas is collected, Averyt said.

Mumm, whose district includes Indian Trail, said she’s heard from the neighbors that they want the property’s future to include a recreational use and a road connecting Indian Trail Road and Nine Mile Road.

“There are wildfires and canyon fires that go up the slope here, and we’ve had a couple instances where we had difficulty evacuating,” Mumm said. “Before we tie this up with a solar farm – which would be a great use – I really hope the city can look with our engineers at the possibility of at least creating some sort of emergency access through here.”