Pike County’s landfill is filling up fast, and there’s no money set aside to expand

Workers used heavy equipment to compact and store solid waste at the Pike County landfill on Dec. 18, 2018.
Workers used heavy equipment to compact and store solid waste at the Pike County landfill on Dec. 18, 2018.

Pike County’s landfill is filling up fast, officials warn, and the county has not set aside any of the millions of dollars needed to expand it or build a new one when it reaches capacity.

The landfill covers a large mountainside in the Meta community of Pike County, just above Johns Creek Elementary School. At the top, workers use heavy-duty, specialized equipment to compact and store the 140 to 170 tons of trash that are hauled there every day.

A survey performed in February estimated the landfill has about 7 years before it fills up, but officials said that’s likely an optimistic figure.

“By eyeball, it doesn’t look like there’s seven years left,” said Bobby Mullins, Pike County’s commissioner of solid waste. “It’s like a bottle — you can just put so much water in it before it’s full. Well, that’s what our landfill is coming to.”

Mullins said the county needs to come up with $5.5 to $6 million in the next five years to expand the landfill, or use that money to start designing and constructing a new one. The expansion option would add another eight years to the landfill’s life expectancy, he said.

“That’s not a long time for a county that has no credit rating,” said Ray Jones, Pike County’s incoming judge-executive. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

In June, the credit rating agency S&P Global withdrew the county’s credit rating after a scathing report from the Kentucky state auditor’s office, making it “nearly impossible” for the county to borrow money.

Failure to find that $5.5 to $6 million would likely mean the county must haul trash to landfills in other counties. That would require raising resident’s garbage bills from $17.50 a month to $50 or $60 a month, Mullins said.

Pike County, like many Eastern Kentucky counties, has suffered from a continuous decline in tax revenue from the coal industry and a dwindling population — since 1990, Pike County has lost about one third of its residents. That means fewer ratepayers to support the county’s solid waste department.

In an area with too few well-paying jobs, raising taxes to bring in additional revenue could force more people out of the region, Jones said.

“The problem is you’ve got fewer customers, and there’s been not one penny set aside (for the landfill),” Jones said. “One of the purposes of coal severance (taxes) was to prepare for the time when coal wasn’t the economic driver of the region, and a lot of counties didn’t do that.”

Workers used heavy equipment to compact and store solid waste at the Pike County landfill on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. Will Wright

In addition to the millions needed to expand the landfill or begin the process of constructing a new one, the county will need to spend $200,000 next year to build three new wells to remove water from the landfill. If those wells aren’t constructed next year, Mullins said, the county could incur penalties from the state.

Without the wells, the landfill would pose a serious risk for landslides, he said.

One landslide in February led to the county declaring a local state of emergency, according to the Appalachian News-Express.

“It’s an urgent thing that we need to do,” Mullins said. “If you didn’t, you would end up with huge problems.”

Mullins said the county has not yet set aside any money for those wells. Ultimately, it will need to spend about $800,000 over the next five years to build a total of 12 wells, along with $4 million over the next five years to replace and repair aging equipment.

The Appalachian News-Express reported in December that the county has about $3.9 million set aside to close the landfill.

None of the money, though, could be used for expansion, equipment or wells, Mullins said.

H.D. Fraley, the solid waste supervisor of Pike County’s Belcher district, said many of the trucks his crew uses to collect garbage break down so often that, in his two years as supervisor, he hasn’t had a single week with a full fleet of trucks.

That’s forced Fraley and his team to use a pickup truck to collect trash about three days a week, which means more trips to and from homes, more overtime for employees, and often means the crew is not able to collect all trash on schedule.

Pike County garbage.jpg
Many of Pike County’s garbage trucks, like this one, break down on a nearly weekly basis. That leads to delays in trash pickup, and forces crews to use a pickup truck to compensate. Will Wright

The county’s solid waste department has already experienced landslides and regulatory compliance issues that have strained its budget, Mullins said.

“You’re looking at several million dollars that the new administration’s going to have to come up with,” Mullins said.

Previous administrations should have been setting money aside gradually, but “this new administration has a view of not kicking the can down the road or waiting ‘til the last minute, which I think is a wise decision.”

Jones said the county will have to make steep cuts to its budget, including removing county-sponsored vehicles for commissioners and the judge-executive, and possibly rescinding a 5 percent pay raise passed earlier this year for all county employees.

“We’re going to make sure that every penny that’s spent is on something that’s necessary,” Jones said.

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program made possible in rural Appalachia with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright.