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OUR VIEW: Where do residents’ rights fit in landfill debate?

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” William Shakespeare famously wrote in “Hamlet.”

There will likely be a stink in Cloquet, too, at least near the city’s soccer complex at Hilltop Park, should the City Council vote Tuesday to allow SKB Environmental Cloquet Landfill to double the amount of paper sludge it puts in its industrial landfill.

Added organic matter creates methane — which smells and can explode if not managed properly — and that’s why the cap was set at 20 percent when the industrial landfill in the city limits of Cloquet was approved almost six years ago.

Tuesday’s 3-2 vote by the Cloquet Planning Commission to recommend the city double the cap on sludge is understandable from a business perspective — the landfill has a contract with Verso Paper to manage its sludge and will make more money — but puzzling from the viewpoint of residents who live nearby along with those who study, work and play across the street and next door.

Residents are rightly frustrated. Neighbors fought so hard against even allowing the landfill in 2010 and 2011. They lost that fight, but gained ground through strong opposition because they won more conditions than the city was originally going to place on the landfill. One of those conditions was the 20 percent cap.

Those conditions have been eroded since 2011, with the city approving expanded landfill hours more than once, and now there’s the almost certain introduction of gases if more organic material is allowed at the landfill.

Let’s be honest. The landfill was allowed in 2011 because the city had a policy that conditional use permits went with the land “in perpetuity” and there had been a landfill permitted and in place at the site in the past. Dem-Con, the original landfill owner, threatened the city with legal action after the council denied their request and likely would have won because they had found a legal location for their landfill. However, since then, the city code was changed and no new landfills will be allowed within city limits.  

It is confusing. Residents who spoke against the changes at the landfill are wondering out loud why city staff support the changes, and why the landfill paid the city to hire a consultant to do the study, the same consultant who didn’t know methane gas was a risk at industrial landfills in 2010.

Are cities compelled to say yes if they can’t come up with a reason to say no? Is the introduction of possibly explosive and smelly gases into the air of a city neighborhood not reason enough?

Shakespeare wasn’t writing about landfills when he penned his famous line, rather he was writing about the state of politics in the Nordic state.

We hope each city councilor and the mayor Tuesday will clearly explain why he or she votes “yes” or “no” to the landfill requests, because it’s very important that decisions like these be transparent.

~Jana Peterson