Episode 3: The move from smaller landfills to transfer stations
By Anne Gallagher, Jordan Opp, Riley Tolan-Keig and Tom Searl
SPRINGFIELD – The back roads of Springfield are dominated by cornfields, but a large, green hill over 10 stories tall stands out against the flat plains. Underneath that towering hill is over 25 years of garbage.
What used to be the Sarpy County Landfill is now the Sarpy County transfer station. Instead of putting the trash into the ground, employees distribute it into trucks and transport each day’s waste to a landfill in Iowa.
Dennis Herskind, the Sarpy County transfer station site manager, said the facility acts as a middleman.
“Basically people drop their trash off here at the transfer station. And we’re basically FedExing it over to the landfill,” Herskind said.
In 2011, Waste Connections partnered with Sarpy County to replace the landfill with a transfer station.
“We have four-axle trailers, so 30 tons of garbage per trailer, pack that down, then we roll a tarp over the top of the trailer to try to contain all of that trash from blowing out on the highways,” Herskind said.
In 2020, the Sarpy County Transfer Station processed approximately 210,000 tons of waste for the calendar year. Anyone can take their trash to the transfer station, but most of it comes from Sarpy County, Nebraska’s fastest-growing county.
According to the U.S. census, Sarpy County had a nearly 18% population growth in the last 10 years. There are now 187,196 people living in Sarpy County as of 2019. Building a transfer station was a cheaper solution than buying more land in the developing county.
Leone Young, the owner of an environmental consulting agency based in Connecticut, said transfer stations don’t replace landfills. Instead, they channel and organize waste disposal outside of urban communities.
A transfer station is an “aggregator or a conduit, not a replacement because ultimately, you still need a repository for the waste,” Young said.
In 2017, the Sarpy County landfill officially closed and started its 30-year monitoring period.
Megan Stubenhofer-Barrett, the communications director for the county, said despite the landfill’s closure, the transfer station still offers residents a place to dump their trash.
“It is still a service to our residents. They can still bring a car or a truck or a trailer if they have a mattress or even their household debris, they can bring it there and for a fee, dump it as they always had before,” Stubenhofer-Barrett said.
The station transfers up to 800 tons of trash per day to the Loess Hills landfill 30 minutes away. Loess Hills is located in western Iowa and is the closest Waste Connections facility to Springfield.
“Not very many people want to drive from here to Loess Hills or to, you know, Butler County. So having the transfer station in town has alleviated some of the problems of people dumping in the roadside ditches out in the country,” Herskind said.
The Sarpy County Transfer Station is an example of what is happening across the country. Larger, regional landfills are replacing smaller facilities as urban populations grow.
Young said that transfer stations are a part of this changing waste disposal process.
“When we talk about growth and transfer stations it is (about) the natural outgrowth of closure of landfills over time,” Young said.
Transfer stations can be a more economically and politically viable option than expanding landfills.
Don Preister, a former state senator and long-time environmental advocate, said NIMBY syndrome, or “not in my backyard syndrome,” is common among residents near potential landfill sites.
John Knapp is one of those residents.
“You know, the garbage, nobody wants it in their backyard,” Knapp said.
Knapp has lived in Springfield his whole life. He recalls the community’s opposition to the new landfill before it opened in 1990. Springfield residents even passed an ordinance to try to stop the landfill, but the county still went ahead with construction.
Jeanne Krajicek is a neighbor to the transfer station and remembers when the landfill was built.
“When they first decided they were going to put the landfill in. We all fought all the neighbors and everybody fought against it and all that but it didn’t work,” Krajicek said.
Krajicek lives down the street from the transfer station. She and other Springfield residents are grateful that the landfill has been closed.
Although Sarpy County no longer has a landfill, the 210,000 tons of waste per year still need to go somewhere. As fewer landfills are built, Preister said people should be more conscious about the waste they’re producing.
“Everybody just wants it to go away, throw it in the garbage can and forget it, let it go someplace,” Preister said. “There is no someplace, there is no way, everything stays on this earth.”