Taking a Look at Old Landfill Sites in Western Wisconsin

By: Katie Heinz Email
By: Katie Heinz Email

Did you know we each make about four-and-a-half pounds of trash every day? That's the estimate from the U.S. Department of Energy.

That doesn't include what we recycle or big items we can't throw away. However, some of these trash-reducing laws are relatively new, within the last 25 years.

And now, as Newscenter 13's Katie Heinz found out, some of the trash our parents and grandparents threw out, could come back to haunt us.

There are around 2,000 old landfill sites in the State of Wisconsin.

And with many of the old sites, the DNR says it's anyone's guess, what's buried below.

Sally Gavin moved to Altoona a little more than a year ago.

"This is a great area," Gavin said.

But she says she didn't know one year ago her new home, in this new area, sits just down the road from an old landfill.

"I heard about a landfill that used to be up in that area, but I didn't think anything more about it or what had been put in the landfill," Gavin said.

The federal government shut down this old landfill and hundreds of others years ago, because before 1990, the ground was free game.

"They were holes in the ground, the trash was dumped in, it was burned, then they came in and dressed them up a bit, put in some clean soil on a monthly basis," said DNR Solid Waste Specialist Dave Lundberg.

On top of that, DNR Representative Dave Lundberg says it's difficult to know exactly what people dumped into this dirt.

"Everything from tires to plastic and paper to even some hazardous waste was burned, so air quality, groundwater, surface water, some of these sites near streams and lakes, there was contamination of those bodies of water, really no regard for or concerns at all," Lundberg said.

"They were not lined, they were not properly set up," said UW-Eau Claire Environmental Science Professor Crispin Pierce.

Professor Crispin Pierce says the state's 43 licensed landfills are required to have plastic lining the bottom and top, to prevent rainwater from making its way through the garbage.

These are the layers in a landfill: soil, a four-foot thick layer of clay, the garbage, a plastic liner, another layer of clay and pipes that pump out the runoff.

"When this gets wet, it swells," Pierce said. "It reduces the infiltration of precipitation getting into the landfill."

Pierce says most of the old sites didn't have any monitoring systems to determine if the trash below is contaminating groundwater.

It's up to the town you live in to check old landfill sites, to make sure they're not causing any problems.

"A few have come back to haunt us," Lundberg said.

Pierce says some old landfills have caused problems, from releasing methane gas near homes to polluting the groundwater.

"The kinds of things we're concerned about include cyanide, heavy metals, such as mercury, as well as chemicals, vinyl fluoride, which can be a human carcinogen, we have dioxins that appear as a result of landfills," Pierce said.

And as more and more rural areas in Western Wisconsin get
developed, more people rely on private wells for their water, which has the Department of Health and Human Services and environmentalists concerned.

"Years back, you couldn't exactly determine where the edge was, records were lost, buildings were getting built really close to them," said Waukesha County Environmental Action League Waste Issues Representative Charlene Lemoine.

There is some protection in place. State law says well drillers can't dig a well within 1,200 feet of an old or current landfill, unless the DNR ok's it. And real estate disclosure laws require sellers to let the homebuyers know they're moving in near a landfill.

"If there's a landfill a mile down the road, that's another story," Lundberg said.

Sally Gavin says she's happy living in her new Altoona neighborhood, but she does think about the old landfill down the street.

"Certainly as a resident, I would like to find out more about it, and if there is some danger with the groundwater and gases that might be escaping," Gavin said.

The DNR says for the most part old landfills are not causing too many problems, but they want to keep tabs on them to make sure.

Coming up next Monday on NewsCenter 13 at Ten, we'll take a look at where all the trash in our landfills is coming from. You might be surprised.

A lot of the laws regulating landfills have changed over the years.

If you'd like to see a timeline of these laws, click on "Featured Links" on this Web site. If you'd like to see a list of old landfills, Click Here.

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  • by Gary Location: aniwa wis on Mar 22, 2012 at 10:12 AM
    I have sold clay for landfil sites for 20 years. and im always looking at how i can help.some of the old landfil site are in bad shape now, but the cost to fix it is to much for some townships to do.I have a old township dump site 5 mile from my home and I have seen dead birds in the water, and trash flaoting on top, you dont have to think to much about this to see its bad,but it is geting harder and harder for me keep a clay site open because the permiting cost are becoming to high.
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