When Jack Nemeth, the Executive Director of the Solid Waste Agency of Northwest Nebraska, greeted me at the start of our tour of the landfill, the first thing he did was put on his mask. Perhaps this action is something we take might consider par for the course after living a world that has been impacted by Covid-19 for so long. But that isn’t the case with Nemeth. As essential workers, he and his team of employees are the only ones in the area with the knowledge required to operate the trucks that carry Chadron’s waste to the bailers, and later to the local landfill. Because of that, Nemeth and all of SWANN’s staff members place additional priority on following social distancing, and mask-wearing guidelines.
As we walked, he spoke about SWANN’s trash removal efforts and the way the systems work to maintain a beautiful and cleanly space within our town. He informed me of the complex nature of trash, and the construction of the landfill, I couldn’t help but think: what would Chadron look like without the invisible essential workers who safely dispose of our waste? It’s not something that I had considered previously, and according to Nemeth, that means SWANN is doing their job right: “We slip in and slip out. Our goal is to make it feel as though no one was ever there. People shouldn’t have to think about it. The only thing they have to do is put their trash in the dumpster and call it a day.”
Prior to the implementation of the Ground Water Protection Act, trash was managed city by city, with minimal disposal procedures implemented in rural areas. SWANN was our area’s solution to the problem of how we would, as a community, adhere to the standards set forth by the new federal laws detailed in this act. According to Nemeth: “SWANN was formed as a result of the Ground Water Protection Act that went into effect in the early 90s. Around ‘94, I think it kicked in. What happened was, part of the groundwater protection act was a federal act. We weren’t allowed to have a landfill situated over ground water within 70 feet underneath it. It affected this area, all these little towns on highway 20 had their little landfills—which basically consisted of picking up all the trash in town and dumping it somewhere. That was considered a landfill. Not necessarily any liners or any drainage or anything, just a place to dump the garbage.” In a separate interview, Duane Rhembrandt, SWANN’s operations director, stated how people used to handle their garbage prior to the implementation of the groundwater protection act, “In rural areas they used to just go out back and dump their trash in a blowout somewhere. They weren’t going to be able to do that anymore.” There was a considerable amount of community pushback against the establishment of SWANN when it was initially founded. Though it later became clear that it was a necessary organization.
The Chadron Landfill is located roughly 14 miles outside of town. According to Nemeth, it is unique due both for its ability to conceal the waste our area generates, and for the nature of the land and ground water upon which it was built. He stated: “Where our landfill is right now, if you didn’t know where it was you probably wouldn’t know it was a landfill. Because you just drive by it on your way to Rapid City. Just before you get to the state line and off to the right, and unless you saw the gate there, you wouldn’t see seagulls flying around or trash flying around—it just looks like a part of the rolling prairie. The beauty of that land, from the top to where you hit ground water is about 750 feet.” The depth of the ground water allows for the absence of a synthetic ground liner (or geosynthetic membrane). Nemeth stated that, out of the 23 permitted landfills in the state, our landfill is the only one is the state of Nebraska that is able to avoid that requirement due to the depth of the groundwater on the plot of land chosen for its construction. Rhembrandt spoke eloquently as he emphasized the way this combination of foresight and accidental luck resulted in a number of benefits for our community—both from an environmental standpoint, and from a fiscal perspective. The omission of this liner results in dramatically lower costs for both the set up and maintenance of the landfill, as the tractors are not forced to navigate around the geosynthetic membrane, but instead have freedom to function on the land itself. SWANN also addresses the interaction between rainwater and waste. Nemeth stated, “The Department of Environment and Energy determines the requirements for landfills. They determined that everything has to be on a specific grade. Water has to drain 2% one way and 1% another, so it all goes slowly, because whatever rainwater touches the garbage-face has to be drained into a big leachate pond.” During my tour of the landfill, Nemeth told me that geese and ducks were common visitors to the leachate pond, and I was surprised to find clusters of sunflowers thriving in the area.
Everything about the space, from the leachate pond to the clear engineering in the way the trash is disposed of, reflects the dedication to care and efficiency possessed by those who maintain the landfill and manage Chadron’s waste. I certainly gained insight into the function of the landfill from the right people, as Nemeth and Rhembrandt’s excitement to detail how the landfill functioned was clear in both in the quality of the work they perform and the information they gave me. Their excitement was contagious. I was stunned to find myself admiring the architecture of both the landfill, and the way the bales of trash were arranged and structured.
During our interview, I posed a series of questions based on community concerns regarding the lack of recycling during the Covid-19 pandemic. On this topic, Nemeth and Rhembrandt were clear: at our local facility, recycling poses a danger to the essential workers who handle our waste. Because trash is often combined into the recycling, workers are put in the position of having to separate trash from recycling. Nemeth stated: “Every one of those bins that comes in, we have to touch every piece of it.” This close contact poses a higher risk of coming in contact with germs and bacteria related to the virus. He continued, “We’ve got 15 fulltime people picking up all the trash for one hundred miles. One of us comes in sick one day and goes to the hospital and they test the rest of us and they go, ‘Well, you guys are all out for the next 12 days.’ Who is gonna pickup waste?” In addition, though of lower concern, there is currently little to no market for recycling, though both Nemeth and Rhembrandt hope that the situation will soon improve. SWANN has been committed to maintaining recycling in Chadron for the last 27 years and has every intention of continuing to manage Chadron’s recycling in the future. However, with concerns for essential worker safety and the lack of a market for recycling in mind, recycling is suspended. Nemeth encouraged the community to call SWANN with any questions regarding this decision.
When asked how the Chadron community can contribute to better waste management, SWANN asked that we try to make certain not to throw our trash away in the bins marked specifically for grass and leaves. To show our appreciation for the essential workers at SWANN, we ask that residents continue to dispose of their leaves properly, and to make certain not to dispose of trash in the green bins.
I learned a great deal when discussing the landfill and waste management with Rhembrandt and Nemeth. Touring the landfill and discussing the way SWANN manages our waste illuminated the necessity of trash disposal and the invisible actions of our essential workers at SWANN. The Chadron landfill is a place where science, engineering, and land function together for the purpose of waste management. When I look around our beautiful little corner of the world, I can’t help but appreciate the essential workers who help keep it that way.
Keep Chadron Beautiful would like to thank SWANN for their time and assistance in creating this article. If you know of a community business or organization that you would like to nominate for a community spotlight piece, please email Stef Glass at KCB1234@bbc.net.