LANDFILL GROWS TOO TALL

Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Section: MAIN NEWS
Edition: main
Page: 1A

BY BRENT D. WISTROM, The Wichita Eagle

Workers at the Cornejo & Sons Inc. landfill on K-15 have piled construction waste well beyond what permits allow, angering nearby residents and ignoring an agreement with the state and city.

It has been that way for years. Ron Cornejo, the company’s co-owner, and city officials acknowledge that in interviews and through city records.

They say the restriction that limited the mound’s height to about 5 feet above the nearby train tracks went unnoticed until recently, and nothing required the company to report the height.

Now it’s about 60 feet beyond the permitted height.

City inspectors alerted Cornejo & Sons of the violation in December, according to Kurt Schroeder, superintendent of central inspection.

Now the company wants the city to legitimize the mound’s stature and let it grow slightly more to about 77 feet above the train tracks.

The request comes after four extensions to the landfill’s life and a record of environmental problems, some of which Ron Cornejo disputes.

In recent years, the state has cited the landfill for repeated violations that inspectors warn may let landfill waste discharge into the nearby Arkansas River and increase the chance of a fire.

The Eagle obtained a city report that analyzed many of the same state environmental records.

“Over 70 percent of the violations are recurring indicating that the facility cannot or will not comply with past inspection citations,” it says.

Reducing the height of the pile hasn’t been widely discussed. Kay Johnson, the city’s top environmental official, says it may be riskier to remove the debris than to cap it because of all the dirt and debris that would be stirred up.

A separate city report says it would probably also be an “economic hardship ” for Cornejo & Sons.

City planning officials recommend letting the trash pile be about as high as it was in February – 66 feet – on the north end.

The district advisory board voted 9-0 to endorse capping the north end at its current height and keep the south end below the current restriction of 5 feet higher than the tracks.

It’s up to the City Council to decide what to do April 7 – the same day voters pick council members for District 3, which includes the landfill, and Districts 1 and 6.

The state, which has already fined the company thousands of dollars, will also weigh in.

Dennis Denker, chief of KDHE’s landfill permit section, said it would be up to the city to enforce the height listed on the local agreement.

But, he said, KDHE should make sure the landfill follows its approved design, including height.

“Something slipped up here in our whole process, it looks like,” he said.

He said KDHE would examine the height issue when it reviews Cornejo & Son’s request.

“I think it’s something we need to take a close look at,” he said.

‘One mess after another’

The landfill is one of the tallest land features on the city’s south side. It is visible from two of the city’s most traveled highways.

Allowing the pile to be at its current height – or higher – would make it trickier to convert the site into a park, as was promised in 1997 when the landfill was first approved, according to city reports.

It also might lead to a fifth extension, according to a city planning report.

“Depending upon the volume of material coming into the site, and compaction of the fill material, increasing the height could well lead to another request for extension of time, leaving residents to continue to react to what they feel is dust and debris generated from the site,” the city planning report says.

“It has been one mess after another,” said Carol Crabtree, 67, who has lived with her husband in a home near the landfill for 44 years.

She opposed it from the start and said she has complained at just about every opportunity.

“It makes you feel helpless and hopeless,” she said.

Crabtree is also suspicious of the campaign contributions Ron Cornejo and his family members have given council members through the years.

Several members have received $500 donations -the maximum – in each election cycle. In previous articles in The Eagle, Cornejo and other contribu tors have said the donations don’t come with any strings attached.

Crabtree says she has developed asthma because of blowing dust and particle s from the landfill.

And she figures that because she and most of her neighbors are retired, many will be dead before they get what they believe was promised.

Environmental concern

A review of Kansas Department of Health and Environment records shows residents’ complaints have merit.

The state has cited the landfill for environmental violations ranging from contaminated water to burying unauthorized trash, such as caulking tubes and air tanks.

In 2006, it took several days for Wichita firefighters to put out an underground fire there.

The last inspection record available, Jan. 12, showed four violations:

— Two cases of runoff water that flowed over the waste and onto the banks of the river.

— Waste wasn’t covered with dirt fast enough.

— Dust wasn’t controlled well enough.

During that inspection, Cornejo arrived and told inspectors that the environmental checks bring “negative publicity.”

“Never once has an inspector cited a commendable effort for positive publicity of his company’s service,” the Jan. 13 exit briefing reads.

In a recent interview, Cornejo said some violations were “unwarranted.” He said he believes the landfill is now in full compliance.

Cornejo & Sons has challenged KDHE findings several times, and he says high levels of arsenic and nitrates were found at test wells upstream from the landfill, indicating pollution may be coming from elsewhere.

The confluence of Gypsum Creek and the I-135 drainage canal is just north of the landfill. Gypsum Creek borders the landfill to the west and the Arkansas River borders it on the south and southwest.

The state didn’t want to grant the company the initial permit in 1997 because of the site’s proximity to the Arkansas River. But by 1999, it was allowed to proceed.

Cornejo said he still plans to close the dump at the end of 2010. But he doubts it would make a good park.

He said new regulations may ban trees on the landfill because the roots can break the clay that covers the waste.

Officials have also noted people would have to cross a busy railroad to get to the park – the same crossing dump trucks use to get to the landfill.

The company has floated the idea of turning part of the landfill into a transfer station for construction waste. The council has discussed the possibility but has not approved it.

Cornejo acknowledged the upset neighbors, but said his workers pick up trash whenever there are strong winds.

“Nobody likes a landfill anywhere close to them,” he said. “We’ve made a very good effort to try to take care of those conditions.”

District 3 candidates

Charley “Chuck” Dahlem, who is running for the District 3 seat, said the issue should have been addressed years ago.

Now, he said, it’s probably best to leave the trash as high as it is and close the dump.

“Whatever they’re going to do, it doesn’t make much economic sense to tear it down and haul it someplace else,” he said.

Dahlem said he doesn’t necessarily oppose using part of the site as a transfer station.

“Nobody likes trash,” he said. “But they’ve got to do something with it.”

He criticized the city’s staff for how it has described the situation to residents.

He said no one understands the “National Geodetic Vertical Datum” height measurements the city is citing and that everyone at the recent district advisory board meeting appeared confused about what was supposed to happen with the landfill.

Council member Jim Skelton’s frustration with the landfill is clear in his voice.

“The place is in violation,” he said. “It’s already higher than what was agreed upon and that’s upsetting to me.”

But he agrees that stopping it where it’s at is probably the best option because it may be riskier to dig up what’s already there.

“Out of all the negative choices there are, this is probably least negative ,” he said. “There are no positive choices here in my opinion.”

He said a company official told district advisory board members the increased height might make for a better view.

“To me, it’s laughable to have a consultant from Cornejo’s company stand there before my DAB and say there could be a great view on top of this pile of garbage when there’s a proposed transfer station,” he said. “I don’t know what a great view of any dump is supposed to be.”

If a park is ever built there, he said, he doesn’t want his name on the plaque.

“This represents a systematic failure,” he said.

Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or bwistrom@wichitaeagle.com.

Documents at Kansas.com

Read the environmental report that details a history of pollution at the Cornejo landfill. You’ll find it – and other related documents about the project – attached to this story at Kansas.com.

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