How High Will It Go?
neighbors concerned about planned expansion of Eau Claire’s Seven Mile Creek landfill
When Kathy and Dennis Campbell bought 40 acres in town of Seymour in 1996, they looked forward to living in the midst of trees and open land on their property 4½ miles northeast of Eau Claire.
Then, just three months after they made that purchase, the Eau Claire County Board approved the sale of a county-operated landfill near the Campbells’ home to Superior Services, a decision that was to impact the lives of the couple and others who live near the site more than they could have imagined.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wind or not, I can smell it. When it’s really bad it just about gags me.”– Dann Jackson, Town of Seymour resident
The board’s action transferred county control over the landfill to its new owners. In ensuing years, Seven Mile Creek Landfill has become ever larger as ton after ton of garbage from not only the Chippewa Valley but Minnesota and Iowa made its way there.
These days, when the Campbells look a half mile to the south, they see a mountain of garbage that has grown substantially during the past two decades and towers above its surroundings.
“You look out the window and wonder how high is that mountain of garbage going to be?” Kathy Campbell said on a recent morning as she and her husband perused records related to the landfill in their home’s kitchen. “We never imagined this when we bought this property.”
In November 2018, landfill owner Advanced Disposal announced it is seeking approval for another expansion, the fourth at the landfill in the past 20 years. The Ponte Verde, Florida-based company intends to grow the area where trash can be piled by 12.5 acres and allow it to be raised by as much as 60 feet higher than currently allowed over a 22-acre space. (Advanced Disposal did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article.)
More than 1,000 tons of garbage are dumped daily at the landfill’s 79.5-acre active area. More than one-quarter of that trash is trucked from out of state. The rest comes from Wisconsin: If you toss something in the trash in the Chippewa Valley, chances are its final destination is Seven Mile Creek Landfill.
The last expansion, which occurred in 2016, increased the maximum elevation by 40 feet. Those living near the landfill said as the landfill has expanded, so have the number of related problems they face. More garbage dumped there means additional issues with odor, traffic, noise, litter blowing onto surrounding properties, and animals such as gulls and rats, they said.
“I don’t want to uproot my family, move away from the family farm. But it’s something I wonder about when I see this landfill keep growing.”– Dann Jackson
“It seems like the growth of the landfill is exponential,” said Jason Engen, who lives about three-fourths of a mile west of Seven Mile Creek Landfill. “It just keeps growing and growing and growing.”
The prospect of yet more growth at the landfill – this expansion an especially large one that would add dumping capacity for an estimated eight years – has prompted reactions and concerns among many town of Seymour residents. More than 70 of them attended a meeting in December to learn more about the proposed expansion and to voice worries about it.
“The bigger this (landfill) gets, the more it impacts all of us who live out here,” said Dann Jackson, who raises cattle, pigs, goats, and chickens on his farm three-fourths of a mile northeast of the landfill.
Jackson grew up on his family farm just a half mile from his property and is no stranger to strong odors such as cow manure. But on some days, he said, the stench from the landfill is so strong he doesn’t want to be outside.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s a wind or not, I can smell it,” he said. “When it’s really bad it just about gags me.”
Dan Bauer and his wife Elise live about a quarter-mile north of the landfill, on the farm where he has lived all his life. He recalls back when the landfill site was a farm house and a field, before trash and odors and truck noise were commonplace. “There have been so many changes out here with the landfill, and not for the better,” he said.
Town of Seymour residents hope a committee composed of representatives of the City of Eau Claire, Eau Claire County, and the town where they reside can win concessions from Advanced Disposal to ease the impact of the proposed expansion. The Landfill Siting Committee negotiates terms of expansions with the landfill operator. The state Department of Natural Resources also is part of the process and has final say over approval.
As part of ongoing negotiations, the Siting Committee has proposed a property guarantee measure that would require Advanced Disposal to pay people living within one mile of the landfill the fair market value of their property if a landowner doesn’t receive an offer within 180 days of listing a property on the market. The provision would require the company to pay the difference if a property sells for less than fair market value.
Anders Helquist, an Eau Claire attorney representing the Siting Committee, said the property guarantee addresses “the most common concern” committee members have heard from town of Seymour residents related to landfill expansion. Fair market value of properties within one mile of the landfill would be set at a value as if they were not near the landfill, Helquist said.
Siting Committee member Thomas Kemp said he backs the property guarantee, given that the growing landfill is likely to have an increased impact on nearby residents.
“With the height increase, it will be harder to hide the landfill than it was before,” Kemp said. “When you can see (the growing garbage pile) from your house … that is when it starts to impact property values. We want to make sure that homeowners have a safety net if they want to move.”
While the property guarantee plan sounds like it could be good for landfill neighbors, Kathy Campbell called it a “double-edged sword” because she worries allowing the landfill operator to match any property purchase offer as proposed could lead to more landfill expansions beyond the 331 acres Advanced Disposal already owns there. She said those living near other Advanced Disposal landfills in Wisconsin are provided more protections through property guarantee measures at those locations “and I don’t understand why we shouldn’t be treated the same here,” she said.
Neighbors also are seeking annual “sociological payments” that would be paid to those living near the landfill, a form of compensation for the adverse impacts they experience because of living near the landfill.
People living near four of the six Wisconsin landfills operated by Advanced Disposal receive yearly compensation payments ranging from about $1,000 to $3,000, plus cost of living increases, Kathy Campbell said. She and some others believe the more than 100 owners of properties within a mile of Seven Mile Creek Landfill should receive some sort of compensatory payment, too.
Bauer backs that idea but said he isn’t optimistic a compensation payment will be enacted. “We feel like we’ve been left out of the discussions altogether,” he said.
Instead of direct sociological payments, the committee has proposed increasing the landfill tipping fee from $1.64 to $3.74 per ton of trash dumped there. The additional revenue – estimated to be hundreds of thousands of dollars – would be divided among local governments, who would decide how to spend that money, Helquist said.
However, landfill neighbors say, that money wouldn’t go to directly to them, but instead would be spent by the town on various projects.
Eau Claire County Board Supervisor Joe Knight, who represents the town of Seymour district where the landfill is, commended the Siting Committee for proposing the property guarantee measure. But he disagrees with its stance against making direct payments to those living near the landfill.
“It appears everyone else will make out well on this deal except the people living close to the landfill,” Knight said.
According to Advanced Disposal records, Seven Mile Creek Landfill has about two years before it will be full, according to terms of the last expansion agreement. The landfill took in 390,108 tons of garbage in 2018, including 105,296 tons from Minnesota and 600 tons from Iowa. In fact, Seven Mile Creek Landfill too more out-of-state trash than any other landfill in Wisconsin in 2018, according to DNR figures.
"If the expansion is approved, it would provide dumping capacity for about eight years beyond the end of the current agreement," Helquist said.
Many town of Seymour residents said they were told years ago the landfill would be filled by now and closed. They said they didn’t anticipate it would be allowed to repeatedly expand, and they’re upset at how much trash – 27% of which comes from out of state – is being dumped in their neighborhood.
“The more this landfill expands, the more it impacts all of us who live out here,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to uproot my family, move away from the family farm. But it’s something I wonder about when I see this landfill keeps growing.”
Landfill neighbors submitted a list of concerns signed by 123 people to the Landfill Siting Committee in September. Two months later, after several public meetings, the Siting Committee submitted an initial proposal to Advanced Disposal that seeks additional litter control measures and further sustainability efforts that could include solar energy and increased composting. The plan also involves transforming the site into a nature conservancy after the landfill closes.
Jackson, Bauer, and some other Town of Seymour residents question why the committee’s membership doesn’t include anyone who lives within a mile of the landfill. Some also wonder whether expansion discussions are being rushed as Advanced Disposal is negotiating a sale of the landfill to Waste Management, which is expected to be finalized this spring.
“We appreciate the committee’s effort, but there is more they could do,” Kathy Campbell said, noting a lack of transparency in the process. “How come the people of the neighborhood have not been used as a resource about this? We want to be included to help make this a better situation.”
Kemp said Landfill Siting Committee members are listening to landfill neighbors. The committee doesn’t have the power to determine whether an expansion can occur – that decision is overseen by the DNR – but it does help determine conditions the landfill operator must abide by.
“I am sympathetic to the community’s plight with this,” Kemp said. “I understand this (expansion) is not something anybody would want. But we’re going to do our best to make sure no parties are damaged by this expansion.”
Residents will have the opportunity to ask questions and discuss concerns about the landfill at a public information meeting scheduled for 6pm Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Seymour Town Hall, 6500 Tower Drive.
Meanwhile, the DNR is conducting a landfill expansion feasibility review, a process that includes examining the proposal’s possible impact on groundwater, forestry, fishing, wildlife, and wetlands.
When the review is completed, the DNR will oversee a 30-day public comment period about the proposed expansion. Once that process is finished, Advanced Disposal must submit a plan of operation that also requires DNR review to make sure plans comply with state regulations regarding health and the environment. That plan must garner approval before the new expansion could occur.
Until then, landfill neighbors said they plan to continue to express their concerns about the proposed expansion with the hope it will lead to the best possible outcome.
“We’re doing everything we can,” Dennis Campbell said. “Now we hope (the committee) will consider our concerns and negotiate for what we want.”