Problems are piling up quickly at the Dillingham landfill in Southwest Alaska. First, the solid waste permit issued by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation expires on June 1. If the city continues the practice of open burning its garbage, the department will not renew the permit.
"We were put on notice four years ago by DEC that we will not be allowed to open burn," said city manager Rose Loerra.
The second problem is space. If the city stops burning its trash, the landfill is going to run out of room to bury it eventually, though no one can say for sure how soon that will happen.
"It doesn't help that we just learned we have about 40 percent more material in the waste stream than we initially thought," said Loerra. "Dillingham Refuse was hauling waste straight to the burn pits, bypassing the sorting bins where our waste is normally assessed. We just figured that out, and it changed our numbers."
The city could invest in a compactor, and perhaps excavate more cells to bury the compacted trash, but the thought of heavy metals leaching into the high water table has discouraged that as a permanent solution.
Instead, for several years, city officials have been shopping around for an industrial incinerator, which would burn the city's waste within a contained system. As output, the incinerator would produce heat, ash, and flue gas, which would hopefully meet EPA and DEC air-quality regulations.
"We've been exploring the idea for a while now," said Loerra "We've probably considered five company's incinerators over the last year and a half."
Thus far, a major problem the city has encountered has been fuel consumption.
"Some of the models would've needed 200 gallons or more of diesel per day to operate, which would have added up to something like $100,000 a year. That's way over our budget," said Loerra. She pointed out that the Dillingham landfill does not operate seven days per week.
In March, Loerra, councilman Paul Liedberg, and an engineer under contract with the city, traveled to Williamsport, Penn. to inspect incinerator models manufactured by Pennram Diversified Manufacturing. Pennram says its various incinerator models are currently operating in remote areas around the globe, and are used at hospitals, military bases, resorts and veterinary clinics. The company was one of three low bidders responding to the most recent request for proposals, which specified a maximum of 75 gallons of diesel per day. Loerra says they were impressed with what they saw.
"Pennram's conventional system would probably require 61 gallons of diesel per day to manage our waste stream, and it could be less than that."
Although the model they looked at is not designed to capture waste energy for other use, it does reuse its own heat to continue incinerating more trash.
"The diesel is really used to get the system started," said Loerra. "After that, we hope it would heat itself, especially in the summer when we have the highest volume of combustible waste."
The system will cost $618,000, according to Loerra. With the added shipping and setup, the total price will come to $850,000. That's comfortably within the $1,900,000 state grant issued last year.
She and Liedberg both say they will recommend the Pennram incinerator to the city council at April's meeting.
"We're excited about it, and so is the company. We're hoping to reduce our waste by 95 percent, and have a neater, cleaner landfill. Pennram wants to show its incinerators are good solutions in Alaska's remote communities."
If the city council approves the purchase, Pennram will begin assembling the order for shipment with an estimated October arrival date. Loerra believes the system could be constructed on-site and operating by the first part of next year.
Correction: Jim Paulin was originally credited as the author of this article. We regret the error.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.