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UPDATED: Commission votes for landfill, council vote Feb. 7

The Cloquet Planning Commission meeting began quietly with the usual call to order and roll call. The election of chairperson and vice chairperson went without discussion. Jesse Berglund was nominated and elected vice chairperson, although he was...

The Cloquet Planning Commission meeting began quietly with the usual call to order and roll call.

The election of chairperson and vice chairperson went without discussion. Jesse Berglund was nominated and elected vice chairperson, although he was not present at the time, and Uriah Wilkinson was re-elected as chairperson.

The meeting flowed into the big issue of the night, two different requests from the SKB Environmental Cloquet Landfill, Inc. - aka Shamrock landfill - a 59-acre industrial landfill located near the Hilltop Park soccer fields and across the street from Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College within the city limits.

SKB requested a conditional use permit (CUP) amendment to increase both the landfill's hours of operation and the condition limiting paper sludge.

The change in hours would allow the landfill to be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week while maintaining the flexibility to expand the hours for specific projects.

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SKB also wants to eliminate the current 20 percent cap on the total annual volume of paper sludge waste and allow the acceptance of this paper sludge on a 24-hour basis. The permit would not allow the use of heavy equipment on the site after 7 p.m. or on Sundays.

The cap on paper sludge volume was part of the original conditional use permit granted to the landfill’s previous owners specifically because the addition of more paper waste would likely produce methane gases, which would require venting to be put in place to avoid possible explosions and odor.

Al Cottingham read the description of the conditional use permit amendments aloud to the commissioners.

The CUP landfill hours of operation were last amended in November 2014.

The city's landfill consultant Fred Doran presented a 21-page presentation to the commissioners.

He had been meeting with Shamrock representatives and working out a few issues, the biggest being a monitoring system for methane gas and hydrogen sulfide that could be a byproduct of increased paper sludge. Shamrock agreed to locations for six monitoring probes and completed a flowchart to outline which solution will be used for which problem.

The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the requested CUP changes last month and numerous frustrated and angry residents spoke against the proposed changes to the commissioners. The residents, who fought long and hard against the landfill in 2010 and 2011, were not happy with the company's requests.

However, their voices went unheeded.

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While commissioner John Sanders shared his opinion passionately to vote against allowing both amendments, his fellow commissioners did not share his opinion.

Sander asked SKB representative Kyle Backstrom why they were applying for an amendment when they were aware of the limitations when they purchased the business.

He answered because the industry has changed in the last two years.

“At the time the permitted hours were standard. Now our competitors have increased their hours and SKB has not,” said Backstrom.

Sanders directed several questions at Doran.

Sanders inquired if the gas could seep into the soil and Doran replied that it could not with the liner in place.

Sanders asked how a playing field could be built on top of the landfill when it’s no longer in use if there are vents releasing gas or a flame into the air. Doran explained the vents are fenced off and can be camouflaged or worked around to make it safe for kids. He added that flames can be on the side to fit the particular plan for the end use of that landfill.

“I worked at landfills that have put in golf courses with active gas collection wells,” Doran said. “You just design activities around those and camouflage them.”

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Sanders cited an incident in 1994 when a woman was seriously burned by a methane gas explosion in North Carolina while playing soccer in a park built over an old landfill. Doran said those situations happen typically at municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills or unlined landfills.

Landfill fires do occur, Doran admitted, adding, “I would venture to say they are at different types of landfills than this landfill.”

Doran reassured commissioners the landfill would be monitored for gas levels and safety.

One of the gases produced will be hydrogen sulphide which smells like rotten eggs.

Doran concurred that as landfill gases are generated there is an odor, but it will be monitored monthly.

“That's going to be difficult for the neighbors to distinguish if the smell is coming from the landfill or the papermill, which we have had an issue with,” Berglund said.

Wilkinson questioned Doran about Sappi’s current waste paper sludge. Doran was not sure as Sappi takes care of their own sludge at their own landfill site.

Berglund asked Backstrom how much waste paper sludge SKB currently takes in and what the planned increase will be.

Backstrom replied they take in about 20 thousand tons annually and it would be doubling. Berglund then asked how flammable the sludge would become and Backstrom said “not at all.”

“So that would not be a risk then?” asked Berglund. Backstrom said, “No.”

When it came time for a vote there was a volley back and forth between Sanders and Berglund with voices escalating in anger and frustration.

“I believe if we were to remove the cap on annual total amount of sludge waste and allow on a 24-hour basis, we would be removing adequate neighborhood protections,” Sanders said.

Sanders proposed that the commissioners vote to deny the increase of hours amendment of SKB but nobody seconded the motion.

Berglund made a motion to pass the amendment and when nobody else seconded that motion, Wilkinson said he would.

Sanders pleaded with the commissioners not to remove the neighborhood’s protection by allowing the landfill expanded hours of operation.

Wilkinson sided with Berglund saying he was satisfied with the 2014 noise study that did not uncover any problems or noise complaints.

There was no more discussion and the vote was taken with Sanders being the only opposing vote.

Sanders made a motion to deny the additional paper sludge and Commissioner Kelly Johnson seconded the motion.

Berglund said he liked the idea of the addition of monitoring at SKB as they are already adding waste paper sludge to their landfill and it would provide a level of safety. Wilkinson agreed, noting that SKB has shown that the monitoring system is safe for the neighborhood and he was satisfied with their information.

Sanders argued that passing the amendment would give SKB the ability to add an unlimited supply of sludge to the landfill.

Commissioner Bryan Bosto offered a compromise. He asked Backstrom if SKB would be happy with a 40 percent cap instead of having it removed all together.

“We would like to remove it all, we don’t enjoy coming here all of the time,” Backstrom said, referring to the fact that the company has to go through the Planning Commission and the City Council to get approval for any changes to the conditional use permit. “We’re not trying to create ill will with the community and our neighbors. Could we live with 40 percent? Sure. I can't guarantee we won't be back in two years.”

Cloquet Development Director Holly Hansen - who was director of planning and zoning as well as community development when the landfill was approved in 2011 - interjected clarifications every so often during the hour-long discussion.

When resident Barb Wyman, a city councilor in 2011, tried to offer a clarification on a point that Hansen was making, Wilkinson ordered her to stop speaking because it was not a public hearing.

When Wyman continued speaking, Cottingham threatened to have her removed from the meeting.

The proposed amendment was amended to a 40 percent cap on the paper sludge waste. It was approved by a 3-2 vote. Berglund, Wilkinson and Bosto voted “yes” while Sanders and Johnson voted “no.”

The Planning Commission vote serves as a recommendation to the Cloquet City Council, which has final approval. The proposal is scheduled to be discussed at the council’s 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, Feb. 7. It is not a public hearing, although residents are always encouraged to attend council meetings. Residents can also contact councilors and Mayor Dave Hallback prior to the meeting.

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