Once projected to reach capacity by 2022, recent years have been kind to the city of Superior landfill.

Pummeling the waste under steel-studded wheels of a loader-compactor team has had the effect of making a ceiling of regulated airspace seem farther and farther away.

"We're piling garbage higher and higher, which basically squishes the garbage underneath - making more room for more garbage," said Darienne McNamara, environmental regulatory manager for the city. "The higher you go, the more the weight of the pile affects projections for closure."

Colonies of seagulls breached the airspace overhead as the News Tribune toured the landfill on a blowing day in November. Located off the South Shore of Lake Superior on Moccasin Mike Road, the landfill receives 12 semi-trailer deliveries of waste per day and is home to most of the garbage generated in the Twin Ports.

The landfill is currently operating out of the fifth cell since it opened in the early 1980s. Dug out like multi-acre bathtubs into the earth, cells are lined with manmade containment membranes and natural layers of clay and drainage materials. Once full, a cell is capped with topsoil and other natural layers.

"We reassess the timeline every year by surveying how much waste we have in place versus how much we're allowed to accept before we reach capacity," McNamara said. "Over the past several years, that timeline has moved outward from 2022 to 2027."

The life-extension is a good thing, sources agreed, but it hasn't prevented the city from exploring the topic of a sunsetting landfill. Committing to a sixth cell and beyond would be costly and require new reviews on the impact to surrounding wetlands, sources said. Additionally, disposal regulations have tightened for municipalities, and expanding the landfill's footprint on the wooded and city-owned 200 acres would require new discussions with neighboring landowners.

The Superior landfill is already a "postage stamp," McNamara said, compared to the incineration outfits that are rising in popularity and the super-landfills being opened by commercial industry goliaths.

Extended life for the landfill is allowing city leaders to more slowly address the landfill's long-term future. But preliminary work and understandings already point to this being the beginning of the end. While the ultimate decision will belong to the mayor and city council, councilors referred the News Tribune to Jean Vito, the city's finance director.

"We're a small fish trying to remain competitive and keep a revenue stream," Vito said. "We're coming to a decision that we may want to get out of that business."

Future in doubt

Since striking an agreement with the city of Superior in 2006, the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District pays about $3.5 million annually to take its garbage to the nearby landfill. That's all the garbage from Duluth and its immediate surrounding communities south to Wrenshall. "A major revenue stream," Vito said.

Of the 95,000 tons of waste being processed at the landfill annually, only 10,000 belong to the host city, which operates its own garbage collection service - five trucks matriculating about the city at the enviable cost to the individual homeowner of $7.75 per month.

"Between that and the contract with the district, we cover all the costs of landfill operations," Vito said. "We've moved from a landfill that was not financially balanced to one that has sufficient revenue to cover all costs."

A heavy equipment operator uses a landfill compactor to move and compress garbage at the Superior landfill. Steve Kuchera / DNT
A heavy equipment operator uses a landfill compactor to move and compress garbage at the Superior landfill. Steve Kuchera / DNT

But even rosy bookkeeping seems unlikely to keep the landfill active beyond 10 years from now. Future costs are daunting. Building the roughly 12-acre fifth cell more than five years ago was north of $9 million. The city already has estimates that show capping the fifth cell once it is full will cost in the range of $3 million to $7 million.

Then there's long-term care. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources requires 40 years worth of attention be paid to a cell after it closes - including air and surface and groundwater monitoring. Superior is already fortunate to be financially able to cap the fifth cell and take care of the landfill well into the 2060s, Vito said.

WLSSD has little to offer on the matter at this time, said spokeswoman Karen Anderson - given that the added life of the landfill allows the district to keep its options open.

"Our partnership with the city of Superior's Moccasin Mike Landfill has been beneficial to all the residents in the region since 2006," Anderson said in an emailed statement. "The landfill is state-of-the-art and the closest landfill in the region (therefore the shortest hauling distance), so it's been a very environmentally sound disposal choice. It's also been the most cost-effective choice. We are certainly happy to learn that we are not in a position to have to make a change soon."

But there's no guarantee WLSSD will settle another contract with Superior after the end of the current arrangement, which runs through mid-2022.

"It's become more and more competitive to get that waste," Vito said. "We're competing with giants like Waste Management," which operates other landfills in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

So for the city, publicly held discussions about the future of the landfill are nearing - and could be coming as soon as the new year.

"It sounds far away," Vito said of the 2027 projection, "but it really isn't."

A semi trailer empties its load of garbage at the Superior landfill recently. Steve Kuchera / DNT
A semi trailer empties its load of garbage at the Superior landfill recently. Steve Kuchera / DNT

Landfill lessons

McNamara said she enjoys giving the occasional tour of the Superior landfill. It gives her a chance to make a point: "It's good for people to know that it doesn't all just disappear," she said.

Past tours have included university classrooms, younger student groups and even curious single families.

Stopping at points around the circumference of the landfill, McNamara explained the site's history and other things such as the underground piping that collects the byproducts of squishing trash together - the garbage liquid, or leachate, and the potent methane gas that is burned off in a constant flare located on the property.

The six-days-a-week operation of compacting the garbage crawled along as McNamara spoke, never exceeding 3 mph.

"A cell is like lasagna - layer upon layer compacted daily," she said.

The open landfill requires an hour-plus at the end of each 10-hour day to cover with both tarps and loader buckets full of sand. The cover dissuades critters from rooting around overnight and mitigates the number of plastic bags blowing away.

The amount of garbage in a region tracks with the economy, McNamara said - with more waste during boom times. At its peak, the Superior landfill was taking in 125,000 tons of waste per year. Less waste coming into the landfill now is a credit to the effectiveness of a recycling culture.

Should there come a day the landfill closes, the city and WLSSD will be forced to haul their garbage elsewhere. They'd move on by submitting requests for proposals to find new waste disposal endpoints.

"There could definitely be a situation where we still have city operations to collect our garbage," Vito said, "and we just need to find a place to put it."