The only time anyone living on the Wasatch Front gives a second thought to their trash is the morning they drag the garbage cans to the curb in time for the weekly pickup.
But disposing of household trash is about to become a whole lot more complicated in rural Utah, where literally hundreds of small-town dumps are about to be closed and rural residents forced to transport their garbage 50 miles or more.A new Bureau of Land Management policy mandates the closure of all landfills on BLM lands. And in rural Utah, virtually all landfills are on federal land.
"We're reluctant to just close them down," said Arthur Tait, Beaver River Resource Area manager for the BLM. "We close them down and what then? We're afraid it will spread the trash problem all over the countryside. We'd rather have one unsightly area than a million small ones."
The landfill problem in rural Utah is two-fold: Many communities have appropriated federal lands for unauthorized dumps, while most others are dumping in BLM-authorized landfills that do not meet state health standards.
The BLM policy would close both kinds of landfills. But where are rural Utahns supposed to dump their daily trash?
"We don't have any answers," said Verlin Smith, manager of the Kanab Resource Area. "What we fear is the new policy will result in indiscriminate dumping wherever it might be convenient."
The new BLM policy is bound to be a tremendous burden on rural Utah. Few BLM officials expect rural residents to haul their trash 50 or more miles to dispose of it at a state-approved landfill. And most rural residents, accustomed to disposing of their trash without fees or inconvenience, are likely to balk at the $10 to $20 a month it will likely cost to belong to a countywide service district.
That's when the closest ravine becomes a de facto landfill, regardless of BLM policy.
"We are going to face a much bigger problem when people start dumping wherever they feel like it. Or they start burning their trash," Smith said. "We could end up with a problem a whole lot worse than illegal dumps."
The BLM has, over the years, issued hundreds of leases to rural municipalities to dispose of trash, all under conditions established by the Recreation and Public Purposes Act. Among those conditions are that communities comply with state landfill standards.
Among the state standards not being met include requirements that trash be covered with dirt every day. Virtually none of the hundreds of small landfills around the state do that.
"These towns can't afford to spend $150,000 for a piece of equipment to cover the trash, nor can they afford to hire someone full-time to log-in everything that is dumped. Yet that is what is required (under state law)," Tait said.
The BLM is backing out of its agreements with the municipalities due - in large - to court decisions in Arizona and Nevada that held the federal government responsible for contamination of soils and underground water supplies directly related to a landfill leased to a local community.
Since that time, the BLM issued a mandate to terminate the leases and then sell appropriate landfill properties to local governments. But most small towns are in no position to buy the property, let alone meet state waste-disposal standards.
And who will be held responsible for the cleanup of unauthorized dumps? The reclamation costs could total hundreds of thousands of dollars, making it unlikely small local communities can afford the cost for which the BLM says they are responsible.
"Waste disposal is an issue everyone is hiding from, us included," Tait said.
The BLM has sent letters to Utah's rural communities with landfills on federal land, informing them the dumps will eventually have to be closed. And BLM officials are encouraging rural communities to band together to create landfills that meet state standards.
Leases with the rural communities will be continued on a year-to-year basis until they can acquire their own landfills or create a countywide service district. But the BLM says it won't wait forever. "The BLM policy is to work with the communities. But the sites will be closed down," Tait said.
Trashing rural Utah
Rural dumps rarely meet government standards, and recent court decisions have boosted enforcement efforts leaving many residents with the prospect of driving 50 miles or more to put out the trash.
The following communities are closing town dumps in favor of a countywide service district:
Unauthorized dumps on federal lands that are now being closed with no local alternative:
- Big Water