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Landfill vote delayed again

A landfill employee makes sure the bed of this side-dumping truck is empty. Trucks just like this have carried thousands of loads of contaminated soil from a Superfund site in Wisconsin to the industrial landfill in Cloquet over the past several months. Tyler Northey/Pine Journal

A Cloquet City Council vote on conditional use permit changes for the local industrial landfill has been delayed ... again. Set for Tuesday, Sept. 19, the council will now consider the conditional use permit (CUP) amendment requests at its Oct. 3 meeting at Cloquet City Hall instead.

This marks the third time this particular CUP amendment request has been scheduled for a council vote and pulled from the agenda. SKB Environmental Cloquet landfill made its original request for two CUP changes — longer hours and unlimited paper sludge content — almost 10 months ago.

City Planning and Zoning Administrator Al Cottingham said the delay will benefit the city, because staff needed more time to process new information.

"[SKB] sent the city additional information on paper sludge waste at about 4 p.m. Wednesday, and that didn't give our consultant a lot of time to review it before the council packets went out," he explained, adding that the agenda item was pulled at 2 p.m. Thursday.

Specifically, the industrial landfill is requesting longer hours, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week, and removal of the 20 percent cap on the total allowed volume of paper sludge waste, predominantly generated by the Duluth Verso paper mill. The 59-acre industrial landfill is located in a large pit near the Hilltop Park soccer fields and across the street from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.

Although the Oct. 3 Cloquet City Council meeting is open to the public, the landfill request is not part of a public hearing — that was held by the Cloquet Planning Commission in December 2016. A month after the public hearing, planning commissioners voted 3-2 (in a non-binding vote) to recommend the City Council approve the paper sludge amendment, but suggested changing the 20 percent cap to 40 percent as a compromise.

In a separate vote at the same meeting, the Planning Commission voted 4-1 to approve adjusting the hours of operation to seven days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with no heavy equipment operating on Sundays.

Neighbors — who fought the landfill, then fought to get strict conditions into the CUP in 2010-11 — were unhappy with the Planning Commission vote. Landfill officials say the changes will help them stay competitive in the local market, as other similar landfills have longer hours and no limits to paper sludge.

In the intervening months since the Planning Commission meeting, things have gotten even more complicated as the council closed what it saw as an loophole in the 2011 landfill CUP and the landfill, in turn, threatened legal action.

In May, the Cloquet City Council passed an ordinance that defined a "special event" in the city's zoning regulations as "a unique or unforeseen event of limited duration" within the city of Cloquet or within 30 miles. Not coincidentally, the change came about after the landfill requested approval of extended hours (from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday rather than 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) for a "special event" — allowing trucks to haul in contaminated sediment dredged from a Superfund site near Ashland, Wis.

In August, at a meeting between the landfill company and city officials, SKB attorney Michael Drysdale pointed out that the company's legal concerns with the new definition were twofold: that the SKB industrial landfill is the only facility in the city that contains a special-event clause in its CUP, and that the terms of the new law were arbitrary.

Drysdale also alleged in a letter that the new ordinance discriminated against the landfill and was "the result of naked public agitation and pressure, which is an unlawful basis to restrict a valid land use." It also could interfere with the "free flow of commerce," which could be a violation of the U.S. Constitution, he said — noting that SKB could challenge the ordinance in court.

However, during the meeting, Drysdale told city officials that the threatened lawsuit would not be necessary if the council approved the requested changes to the conditional use permit because the issue with extended hours would be moot.

City councilors also toured the landfill and nearby Hilltop soccer fields Aug. 15.

Following the tour, at the soccer fields, Mayor Dave Hallback told SKB officials that he found it "kind of offensive" when they brought their attorneys to the August work session. SKB Vice President John Domke responded that "in 32 years, he'd never had to bring an attorney to a council meeting."

"You did two weeks ago," Hallback replied, wondering if the company would simply come back in another couple of months with more requests.

Domke pointed out that the company's other landfills don't operate under both a CUP from the city and a permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (PCA).

"We have a CUP with all these conditions, so we have to come to council every time we want to deviate," Domke said. "Let us operate under the PCA permit and we won't be back."

Cloquet Community Development Director Holly Hansen noted during the tour that the city didn't want the state agencies to have sole oversight of the landfill, and the CUP gives the city greater control than it otherwise would have over the industrial landfill.

Take paper pulp sludge waste, for example. The 20 percent cap on paper sludge volume was part of the original 2011 conditional use permit granted to the landfill's previous owners because the addition of more than 20 percent total paper waste would be significantly more likely to generate landfill gases, which can result in possible explosions and/or odor. The PCA does not restrict for percentage of paper sludge, Domke asserted and Hansen confirmed.

"It's our job to be proactive," Hansen told the Pine Journal, explaining that in 2011 the city chose to cap the amount of paper sludge waste to control the potential generation of landfill gas because the landfill was designed without a gas collection system. Hansen confirmed the paper sludge cap stemmed from citizen complaints and issues that had previously been experienced at the Waste Management landfill in Canyon, Minn.

As part of its most recent proposal to again revise the CUP, SKB has agreed to install a monitoring system if the paper sludge cap is removed, and a collection and venting system if it is deemed necessary.

Hansen said the city's landfill consultant will provide guidance to the council on the technical strengths and weaknesses of this proposal by SKB.

RESIDENTS COMPLAIN ABOUT ODORS

A number of residents have complained of a mothball-like smell when the wind is coming from the local industrial landfill, and city officials are investigating.

Cloquet city councilors told City Planning and Zoning Administrator Al Cottingham to spend up to $4,000 to have the city's landfill consultant, Fred Doran of Burns McDonald, conduct air tests in three different locations over two days in the near future.

The smell likely comes from contaminated sediment that the SKB Environmental Cloquet Landfill has been trucking from a Superfund site near Ashland, Wis. The cleanup aims to restore land and lake bottom sediment contaminated by a manufactured gas plant that operated near the site until the mid-1940s. According to the Ashland Daily Press, during an informational meeting near the 16-acre Chequamegon Bay site last summer, several area residents spoke about a mothball-like odor coming from the wet dredge site. The smell was identified as naphthalene, a constituent of the coal tar waste (and mothballs) that forms the pollutant material at the site.

According to an Environmental Protection Agency worksheet on naphthalene, acute (short-term) exposure of humans to [a high concentration of] naphthalene by inhalation, ingestion and skin contact is associated with a type of anemia, damage to the liver and neurological damage. It is also considered a possible human carcinogen at high levels.

The city also has received calls about a strong odor that was found to be coming from an asphalt plant being operated near the soccer fields.

On Sept. 6, officials from, the Minnesota PCA office in Duluth conducted an unannounced inspection of the SKB Environmental Cloquet Landfill and found it to be in compliance with its permit, according to a letter from the MPCA to the city.

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