Before becoming Bowling Green’s largest trash dump, the Butler County Landfill was a coal mine.
Miners cleared forested terrain and stripped through deep layers of soil to extract coal at the Butler County site until 1979, according to city records.
In 1986, the city decided to fill the degraded land with its trash – leaving behind headaches for the future employees tasked with managing its leachate, the liquid and often harmful byproduct of landfills.
On Tuesday, Bowling Green city commissioners approved $450,000 to help correct this decades-old problem.
The city has hired EnSafe to design a roughly two-inch pipe to pump wastewater from the landfill to the Morgantown treatment plant about a mile away.
It’s a fairly simple solution that will reduce gas mileage, labor hours and the production of leachate, according to Bowling Green environmental manager Matt Powell.
“It saves money, it saves time,” Powell said.
The project, which will be completed between February and June, will be overseen by the city’s environmental compliance division. Kentucky Division of Waste Management’s Historic Landfill Remediation program will first need to approve EnSafe’s design – and later reimburse the city for its undertaking.
Bowling Green’s Public Works Department manages four landfills. There’s also the Glen Lily Landfill, a 30-acre landfill on a nearly 270-acre site that was opened in 1973, the roughly 150-acre Hobson Grove Landfill and a 15-acre landfill on Old Louisville Road.
The Butler County Landfill extends about 105 acres on a 286-acre property, and the trash sinks 75 to 125 feet underground. It operated from 1986 until 1992 and remained a significant environmental concern for years. The city had to send semitrucks to the landfill to haul out the leachate.
Due to significant leachate discharges, the city reached out to the state for assistance.
As part of a pilot program, the state provided an exposed geomembrane capping system (basically a really big plastic tarp) to cover 13 acres of the landfill’s steep, coal-stripped hillside. The geomembrane, which was installed in 2014, acts as a vacuum seal.
“A 200-pound man can bounce on it,” Powell said. “Critters run across it.”
But the quick fix was ultimately ineffective, according to Powell. It wrinkles during hot weather and becomes taut when it’s cold, and the frequent shrinking and swelling pull out the landfill’s little candy cane pipes, which ventilate the roughly half-methane, half-carbon dioxide landfill gas. It’s costly and time-consuming to repair the vents.
In 2015, the city built a leachate “tank farm,” which is where the landfill’s six 10,000-gallon tanks pump their leachate before it’s transferred to Morgantown’s wastewater treatment plant.
The following year, the city added a powerful sprinkler system to pump up to 13,500 gallons of leachate per acre per day, weather allowing. The wastewater partially evaporates, and the rest circulates back through the system.
“Land applying takes tons of staff time, and trucking is hard on the roads, expensive and difficult to get scheduled,” Powell said.
The city still sends people to the landfill every other week for a checkup. They remotely sensor the leachate tank farm’s fill level, and a mini weather station captures data on solar radiation, precipitation and wind speed, so the city staff are immediately aware when the tanks need to be emptied.
And the city tests adjacent surface water every three months. Leachate transferred to treatment plants contain varying concentrations of “contaminants of emerging concern,” chemicals from pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, household chemicals, steroid hormones and plant or animal sterols, which could cause harm if released to the environment, according to ongoing research by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Toxic Substances Hydrology Program.
The current setup was supposed to be a temporary solution. But earlier this year, the state announced it didn’t have the funding for phase two of the pilot program at this time.
So Powell proposed an incremental solution: The city will manage the EnSafe-designed force-main project. It’s only a portion of the original plans for phase two, but it will allow the city to discontinue land applying or trucking the leachate.
“In the end, it’s tremendously more efficient,” Powell said. “We offered to handle the logistics and find the contractor if they reimbursed the cost.”
But it’s not the final step in correcting past mistakes.
After building the wastewater pipe, the city plans to reduce leachate production and improve surface runoff – and finally close the Butler County Landfill in another few decades.