May 26, 2021

Misgivings After the Fact Won’t Prevent Utah From Becoming A National Dumping Ground And Won’t Protect Great Salt Lake From Landfill Contamination

“That’s not what they told us at the time,” he said. “Nope, I was never told that.” Rep. Lee Perry, Chief Sponsor of HJR 20—Joint Resolution Approving Class V Landfill for Promontory Point Resources, LLC during the 2016 Utah Legislative Session.

- 2/6/18 Standard Examiner, Box Elder lawmaker has mixed feelings about pushing Promontory landfill approval by Leia Larsen

On October 20, 2020, for the second time, Promontory Point Resources, LLC (PPR), a subsidiary of Allos Environmental of California, submitted a Class V permit application to the Utah Division of Waste Management and Radiation Control (Division). If approved by the Division and the Governor, a Class V permit would allow PPR to bring out-of-state industrial waste to its landfill facility on the SW tip of the Promontory Peninsula in Box Elder County. This location is completely unsuitable for a landfill because of the hydrogeologic connectivity between the landscape and Great Salt Lake that surrounds the peninsula on its three sides. Compelling evidence supports the fact that this particular area of the Lake is seismically active. And the landfill location would threaten a hemispherically significant ecosystem that supports millions of migratory birds, and contributes $1.32B, including 7,700 jobs, annually to Utah’s economy.

During 2017, the first time PPR applied and tried twice to show that another Class V permit was needed in the state, an independent review of PPR’s application and Needs Assessment concluded that the company failed to show that another Class V landfill was needed, especially given that we already have over 1,600 years’ worth of Class V storage. Well aware of PPR’s Class V pursuit, a wide range of Great Salt Lake stakeholders and FRIENDS hosted public outreach programs with the Division, raising questions and concerns about the practices of PPR and the prospect of a Class V landfill on the shores of Great Salt Lake. A white paper presented to the Division by the Great Salt Lake Institute, Great Salt Lake as an Ecologically Significant Natural Area, summarized research from scientific literature, the brine shrimp industry, mineral extraction industry, and ongoing research of all the major institutions of higher education in Utah to help guide decision-making regarding permitting of a Class V landfill operation in close proximity to the Lake. Even the Great Salt Lake Advisory Council, which advises the Governor, the Dept. of Natural Resources, and the Dept. of Environmental Quality on the “sustainable use, protection, and development of Great Salt Lake” submitted a letter requesting “further studies to determine the full extent of risks and the adequacy of the measures designed to address them.” Having failed to show that another Class V landfill was needed, PPR withdrew its application in February 2018.

However, PPR’s failure to show that need prompted the company to try another approach: make an end run and lobby the Utah Legislature to change the law by removing the Needs Assessment for Class V permits. Fortunately, those attempts during the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions failed, but the takeaway here is that PPR tried to skirt the existing laws it couldn’t satisfy by simply getting rid of them. So why is PPR reapplying?

Because out-of-state waste is where the money is.

In the 2020 Class V application, the Needs Assessment takes a completely different approach to the question of “need” than it did in 2017. This new—and theoretically improved—application focuses much more on out-ofstate markets. Using these new criteria, the assessment concludes that there is, in fact, such a need. In conversations that FRIENDS had with the Division about this critical difference, we encouraged the Division to not simply take the company’s word for it, but instead to conduct an independent review of the company’s conclusions. In letters that FRIENDS and other conservation organizations sent to the Division, we emphasized that without an independent assessment of underling premises contained in the latest Needs Assessment, the Division has no basis for concluding that the underlying facts and conclusions contained in that assessment are accurate. Given that, we would expect the Division to pursue the review in order to make an informed decision on this important matter.

A March 3, 2021 article California Dreamin’? written and researched by Eric Peterson and Jennifer Greenlee of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Box Elder News Journal, calls into question both the assumptions used in the assessment regarding the extent of the available California market, as well as some possible conflicts of interest among the relationships of the various parties involved in the PPR landfill. Given the ambitiousness of PPR’s proposed Class V operations plan, and the possible adverse consequences of getting it wrong, it is absolutely critical that the assumptions and conclusions contained in this latest Needs Assessment be verified. And although nowhere in the application does PPR indicate that it would consider out-of-state coal ash—a waste product from coal fired power plants that contains toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, and lead from throughout the United States—once a Class V permit is issued, a subsequent provisional request could be made to the Division to bring these wastes into the state. So due diligence NOW is imperative.

A little bit of historical perspective always helps:

Way back when in 2001, two thousand acres of land on the SW tip of the Promontory Peninsula were purchased by Promontory Point Land Resources, LLC to create a landfill. After a bewildering number of name and legal status changes, in 2004 the Division granted a Class I permit to Promontory Landfill, LLC allowing that new owner to take in-state municipal waste once certain conditions were approved by the Division. Those conditions included construction of the facility and installation of groundwater monitoring wells, a financial assurance bond to cover closure and postclosure costs, and contracts with local governments. Around 2016, having recently purchased the relatively unchanged property that came with the Class I permit (due to expire in August 2021), PPR secured $16.25M in bonding from the Utah Private Activity Bond Authority. Around this same time, PPR managed to persuade Representative Perry to sponsor legislative approval of PPR’s Class V plans (HJR 20), a necessary step for a Class V permit. With bond money burning a hole in their pockets, in 2017 PPR used those funds to construct the first phase of its landfill, but without letting the Division know it was doing that. The Division only learned that construction had begun through a news report, even though coordinating construction of a landfill with the Division is standard procedure. Details, details.

This pattern of begging forgiveness rather than asking permission was repeated when the company installed its three new monitoring wells without Division approval. In fact, the Division went on to suggest that the company conduct a “flow and transport model” to ensure PPR had adequately placed its wells to detect leaks. The company “disagreed,” refused to do the modeling, and insisted that the Division approve the wells it had already installed. Given that the purpose of the monitoring wells is for early detection of waste stream contaminants that leave the landfill and percolate into the surrounding landscape and the groundwater that flows to the Lake, this is where FRIENDS stepped in to challenge the Division’s approval of those wells without that modeling.

The issue is that the substrate of the landscape where PPR’s facility is located is fractured bedrock, and experts agree that strategic placement and depth of the monitoring wells under this circumstance must be informed by flow and transport modeling to maximize early detection of leaks. Compelling data exists to support evidence that regardless of how durable landfill liners are, they eventually will leak. And the placement of monitoring wells to detect leakage is critical to addressing the problem early on. Adding insult to injury, when a landfill is located next to a waterbody, the contamination to the environment is compounded exponentially. In this case, the Great Salt Lake ecosystem would be the recipient of these contaminants which would impact the unique ecological values of the system that affect the food web for birds and brine shrimp, as well as adjacent industrial mineral operations like Compass Minerals that produces organic potassium sulfate, a fertilizer for fruits and nuts. Bruce Anderson, president of Mineral Resources International, a family-owned company that harvests minerals from the Lake that are sold as human supplements to more than 50 countries stated, “We’re concerned about the unknown that is not adequately planned for, and that’s why I believe that site should have been considered a fatal flaw to begin with because of the inability to plan for and mitigate the huge risk in the event of a significant natural disaster.”

Which brings us to PPR with a newly constructed landfill that’s been empty for almost four years, and with over $16 million in bonds that have to be paid off. Why is it empty? Because there’s a tight municipal waste market; the landfill is located where it would take lots of truck trips and lots of miles to haul waste to its facility, and with all of that the company has failed to secure any municipal contracts. That math, along with mounting financial pressures, has put PPR in a position where it either obtains a Class V permit for the Promontory Point landfill, or the state is left with a very expensive hole in the ground.

As an aside, during the 2021 session, a commendable step toward justice was taken by Rep. Tim Hawkes who sponsored HB 399—Approval of Nonhazardous Solid or Hazardous Waste Facilities. The law requires that legislative approval of a nonhazardous solid or hazardous waste facility be automatically revoked if an application is withdrawn. Although the sweep of the law could not be retroactive to include PPR, it’s a step in the right direction for the future to prevent the legislature from providing a “blank check” for applications that lack merit. So much for hindsight, right?

Meanwhile, given that the Division has shown a pattern of simply endorsing whatever PPR wants to do, and has failed to require the company to take the steps necessary to show that this landfill will not substantially harm the Lake, there’s no reason to believe that the Division will act differently if it approves PPR for its Class V permit. As for PPR, we have very little faith that the company will police itself, be accountable and transparent in its practices, and regard the significance of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. With all of that, and because FRIENDS’ mission is to preserve and protect the Lake, we strongly oppose the company’s efforts to obtain this Class V permit. This landfill sits on the very shores of the Lake—which would be a scary prospect even if the landfill contained nothing but local waste. It’s unfathomable that PPR might actually make Promontory Peninsula the dumping ground of the West. I trust that you feel the same. And if you do, I hope you’ll join us in expressing your opposition to the Division about this permit.

In saline and spring,