AUGUSTA — Hatch Hill, the city-owned landfill that also takes the trash of residents from several surrounding municipalities, is filling up faster than previously projected and could be at capacity in as few as five years.

That news has prompted a sense of urgency in city officials to put together a plan for what to do when the landfill, which takes trash and recycling and is also a revenue source for the city, is full.

“I think our landfill is filling up quickly. I know the pandemic has increased the amount of waste,” Ward 4 City Councilor Eric Lind said at last week’s council meeting. “I’m concerned we’re going to end up, before we know it, without a landfill. You talk about a transfer station, that’s additional cost. It’s an enterprise. Any change is going to impact us in a big way.”

Public Works Director Lesley Jones said the landfill is filling up at a faster rate than previous projections anticipated, with the increased usage by residents during the coronavirus pandemic a factor.

Another factor is changes in the global recycling markets and regulations, which prompted the city to scale back the amount and types of items recycled. More construction debris, for example, have been put into the landfill after regulations were tightened and much of the debris could no longer be recycled as they had been previously.

“There is a sense of urgency,” Jones said. “There are not a lot of options.”

She said Monday the landfill likely has about five years of capacity left.

Woodard and Curran, the city’s engineering consulting firm that has worked for the city on Hatch Hill projects for many years, has done a preliminary analysis of a “vertical increase” in capacity at Hatch Hill. Jones said that would, just like it sounds, allow trash to be added to the top of the existing landfill, making it higher.

Jones said such vertical expansion could add another 10 years of use to the landfill, but would require a permitting process.

According to a Woodard and Curran analysis, that would cost between $15 million and $20 million. The firm’s report found a vertical expansion could provide an additional 500,000 tons of capacity. The cost of the expansion could be covered by a 10% increase in tipping fees, from $68 a ton to $75 a ton.

The landfill covers about 50 acres of the city’s 450-acre Hatch Hill site. Jones said expanding the footprint of the landfill could be considered, but said that would be a major project.

She said another alternative would be the city “getting out of the landfill business” and instead converting to a transfer station, which would send the trash that now comes into the landfill to other facilities that take solid waste for disposal, of which there are few in Maine.

At-Large City Councilor Marci Alexander said it will be good to hear the city’s options.

“When I first got on the council, we had a much more optimistic prediction of the life of it, based on usage,” she said. “And then that usage has changed a lot.”

Customers throw trash off the back of a pickup truck Tuesday as heavy equipment operators move the pile at Hatch Hill landfill in Augusta. Officials say the landfill could be at capacity in as few as five years. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Jones noted that when the portion of the landfill now in use opened in 2000 — the third expansion of its development — it was projected to last 20 years, which it has already exceeded.

“We were able to get more years out of its original design life,” Jones said, “so we’re on borrowed time now.”

City Manager William Bridgeo said he would schedule a workshop on the issue for the council’s second informational meeting, Aug. 26. He also authorized Woodard and Curran to prepare at least preliminary information on the city’s available options to address the pending problem, so city councilors can “have a thoughtful conversation about how we go forward.”

Woodard and Curran officials met with state Department of Environmental Protection officials in May to discuss a vertical increase at Hatch Hill. In a letter to the city, the firm indicated it appeared DEP officials would be supportive of a vertical increase. But they recommended the city still explore other options for comparison purposes.

Jones said other options are limited, in part because waste-to-energy plants are largely at capacity already. In addition, the Fiberight trash to energy facility in Hampden that was expected to take municipal solid waste from many Maine communities is not up and running. That leaves a Waste Management landfill in Norridgewock and a landfill at Juniper Ridge in Old Town as the only options.

Hatch Hill brings the city of Augusta about $3 million a year in revenues, from user fees from private haulers and from surrounding municipalities that pay a fee so their residents’ trash can be brought there. Those municipalities include Chelsea, Farmingdale, Gardiner, Hallowell, Manchester, Pittston, Randolph and Whitefield.

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