Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Henry Netherland

Lake County Commissioners reconsider dump site closure


November 5, 2020

Henry Netherland, Pathfinder

Lake County Executive Administrative Assistant Kate Stinger, District 3 Commissioner Gale Decker, District 1 Commissioner Bill Barron, Solid Waste Manager Mark Nelson and District 2 Commissioner Dave Stipe met with residents about the Porcupine Creek Solid Waste Site Oct. 29.

SWAN LAKE - Lake County Commissioners said they would engage in further discussions to avoid closing the Porcupine Creek Solid Waste Site following public comments at a meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 28 in the Swan Lake Community Center.

Several residents came to argue against the closure after the county's Solid Waste Board recommended closure of the site due to illegal dumping, gate damage and vandalism from contractor use. A member of the public presented a petition with over 100 signatures from residents south of Goat Creek asking the commissioners not to shut down the site. It was also said that elderly residents would have to use the Ferndale Transfer Station site 13 miles away and that many could not make that trip throughout the winter on a consistent basis.

Solid Waste Manager Mark Nelson was asked why they were considering shutting the site down now. He responded that the Solid Waste Board had been considering it for a long time but this year they had reached a tipping point with issues and repairs increasing in frequency.

Before comments began, District 1 Commissioner Bill Barron said the commissioners' office received numerous calls, none of which were in favor of shutting down the Porcupine site.

"What we want to do tonight is go through some of the issues we're having and some of the problems and come up with a solution that will work for everybody that allows us to keep this open," Barron said. "It is not our goal to close it but it's definitely going to change."

District 2 Commissioner Dave Stipe said around 28 of Montana's 56 counties take on garbage. Garbage is considered a fee and not a tax and that services cost more than what is being charged.

Nelson said the Porcupine Creek garbage service costs approximately $101,000 based on historical waste volumes, average personnel costs and other estimated expenses. About $70,720 is collected in solid waste user fees, leaving excess costs of around $30,380.

Nelson said everyday the site receives around 1.5 tons of trash leading to a rough collection of 525 tons 350 days out of the year. He identified four types of waste: soft residential and household goods, which are legal, and construction and brush, which are illegal. Animal carcasses can be placed in the landfill or left where found.

The cost of coming from Ferndale to Porcupine, maintaining the site and disposing of the site's garbage is almost $190 a ton. Porcupine Creek has historically represented 20 percent of the North Route's tonnage which also includes Ferndale and Woods Bay container sites.

One of the primary motivations behind the site's closure is the inappropriate dumping of contractor waste. Nelson said Lake County construction dumping should actually take place at the landfill outside of Polson rather than the Porcupine site.

"We're getting a huge amount of construction waste," Nelson said. "And I think everybody knows that there's all kinds of building going on in the valley. The contractors are not supposed to be dumping in there, but they also know when my guys leave and they've got no problem dumping it."

One resident pointed out that if the site were to close, then contractors would simply move where they are dumping their materials to a different solid waste site. Nelson acknowledged they were having contractor dumping issues at the Ferndale site as well.

Barron said the old landfill near Polson, where all construction and demolition waste is supposed to go, has enough capacity to last another five to six years. Nelson said the Transfer Station was built because the landfill was near capacity in 2000. Through work with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, in addition to only accepting construction waste, the remaining site life was able to be extended before contractor waste has to be taken to Missoula for disposal.

A suggestion to prevent illegal contractor dumping was installing a keycard system where only residents would be able to enter. To prevent residents from giving their card to their contractor, there would be a limit for how much they could dump for free. If the contractor uses the key, then it would count towards the resident's free amount.

Another resident asked Nelson why the department could not be harsher with fining those who dump illegally. He responded that the maximum one could be fined for illegal dumping is $200 according to state law. Barron said another issue with bringing illegal dumpers to court is that often when someone witnesses said dumping, that person must then testify. From Barron's perspective this is not common.

One idea that was shared among multiple attendees and commissioners was having the site open 12 hours a day for two to three days a week rather than having it open 24 hours, seven days a week except for 11 holidays. It was also suggested that they assign a staff member who would take alternate shifts throughout the week at the Porcupine and Ferndale sites to deter instances of illegal dumping.

Nelson said generally speaking, the Ferndale and Porcupine sites are unattended aside from a daily truck driver and someone who changes the Porcupine lid opener batteries semiweekly.

Nelson said if someone was staffed at the location, then the site could potentially offer recycling services with improved waste separation and trucking requirements coordination. Staff would also decrease contamination commonly found in unsupervised recycling drop-off bins. This would improve the cost effectiveness of the recycling program because the material would be more marketable versus just being considered trash.

Barron said if the site remained open, then it was probably going to become a semi-weekly manned facility.

If a staff member was hired for the facility, then their salary would most likely amount to between $27,000 and $28,000 according to Nelson. He said the staff member would be assigned to other container sites and the total compensation would be divided among them.

Considering the condition of the site, at bare minimum an additional $20,000 would need to be put towards bringing the safety railing up to current building code, rebuilding the site walls and making other improvements. Nelson said the railing is intended to prevent people from falling into the bin while disposing their waste. One of the first insurance claims the department paid out was due to a man falling out of his pickup into the container.

If the site remains open, Nelson said he believes it would be a better use of funds to build a new site closer to the highway and tear down the old one.

He said much of the finances could be handled through budget allocations this and next fiscal year. The Solid Waste Board's reserve funds were wiped out in 2014 by the Class 3 landfill fire and until they are rebuilt, everything must be paid with the current cash flow.

Commissioners said they would meet with the Solid Waste Board to consolidate the issues at their Nov. 18 meeting. A virtual meeting over Zoom will then take place in December where the commissioners will make their final decision. In the meantime, attendees can send additional comments by emailing with Porcupine Creek in the subject line, or calling (406) 883-7278.


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