Equipment needs top the heap at landfill

The lone transfer station at the Darlington County Landfill.	 Photo by Samantha Lyles

The lone transfer station at the Darlington County Landfill.
Photo by Samantha Lyles

By Jana E. Pye, Editor,

As another load of Municipal Solid Waste is processed at the Darlington County Landfill, trash spills across the transfer station’s grimy cement floor, mixing kitchen scraps and torn clothing with corrugated boxes and plastic bottles. A front loader lowers its bucket and trundles forward, shoving the mass onto a steel conveyor belt which carries the garbage up overhead and drops it into a tractor trailer, where it will be mechanically compressed until the trailer holds a whopping 80,000 pounds of trash headed for the Lee County Landfill.

This cycle repeats over and over, filling trailers about eight times a day, six days a week, keeping the county’s garbage moving away and out of sight. Most people never give the process a second thought… until something breaks down and everything grinds to a halt. Trucks break down, containers at the county’s thirteen convenience sites overflow, tempers flare and suddenly we are aware of how fragile the waste management chain really is. With a fleet of aging equipment under constant stress, and little money to repair or replace damaged components, that chain is sometimes stretched to the point of snapping.

Pallets of e-waste televisions packaged and ready to ship out. Photo by Samantha Lyles

Pallets of e-waste televisions packaged and ready to ship out.
Photo by Samantha Lyles

“A lot of the equipment we have here is old and outdated, and it costs a lot of money to fix it. But when you’re running six days a week, you’re going to have things break down,” says Renee Howle, director of Darlington County Environmental Services.

The equipment needs for DCES are so extensive that when former interim county administrator Tommy Edwards asked Howle earlier this year to prepare 5-year and 10-year lists of capital needs, her equipment replacement requests topped $10 million and included items like hauler trucks, trailers, roll-off containers for the convenience sites, and a second transfer station. As with all shopping lists, some needs are more urgent than others.

Darlington County’s landfill on Great Cypress Road is a Class II facility rated for yard debris, furniture, and construction and demolition debris. The landfill rows must be compressed daily, but the specialized machine for this task – a Rex Compactor – has been down for repairs for four years. In the interim, a bulldozer was used, and it proved a poor substitute. Workers regularly had to stop and remove tangles of debris (wire, mattress coils) from the dozer’s treads. Only recently did Environmental Services get the $75,000 needed to repair the Rex, and it should resume duty within a couple of weeks.

Compressing the landfill raises a lot of dust, which clogs air filters on trucks and tractors and brings work to a temporary stop. A watering truck would remedy this problem, but there’s currently no money in the budget for such a purchase. Howle says the landfill could receive an old tanker truck donated by the Darlington County Fire District, but there is no timeline for when that might happen.

Assistant director Jimmy Weatherford adds that inability to keep the landfill compressed and wet down also increases fire risks, and DCES employees regularly have to extinguish small fires.

Inside the transfer station, the margin for failure is even slimmer. Weatherford says that years ago there were two conveyors, one on either side of the building, but when those eventually broke down the county only replaced one. Now that lone transfer unit runs constantly throughout the day, shuttling sometimes corrosive trash along its steel belt. That belt alone would cost $100,000 to replace, and a new transfer station could cost over $500,000.

A couple of smaller needs have recently been addressed with the addition of a staff welder to repair damaged structures (like bins, trailers, and convenience site stairs), and the loan of a tractor mower to cut grass on the landfill’s 400-acre site.

Still, the bigger needs loom ahead, and there is no plan currently in place to pay for them. The Environmental Services budget is separate from the county’s general fund and the department is sustained entirely by fees and charges, like the $53 solid waste fee that appears on annual property tax notices, and the per-ton tipping fees charged to commercial customers for dumping costly disposal items like electronics.

That e-waste is a growing concern, since it must be specially prepped – palettes and plastic-wrapped – before shipping it off to a recycling company. Disposing of e-waste cost DCES $83,000 last year, and Howle says that total is trending upward for the foreseeable future.

“It’s all very costly, and there’s no money made out here,” Howle says. “That $53 covers most of what we do, but it’s all a guessing game. You don’t know what equipment’s going to go down, what you may need.”

Howle says that county administrator Terence Arrington has been pushing for members of Darlington County Council to take a field trip to the landfill, just to see firsthand the condition of the equipment and perhaps gain a clearer understanding of the challenges DCES faces.

“I know everybody is hurting for money. It’s across the board, not just here. But the landfill has been pushed to where we have to struggle to get what we need,” says Howle.

Author: Duane Childers

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