While many factors affect operations at a landfill, one of the most impactful and unpredictable is weather. With the winter season here, if you live and work in a region that experiences severe winter weather, you know that snow, ice, and freezing temperatures present some unique challenges in the solid waste industry, particularly for landfill operations. The Lancaster County Solid Waste Management Authority (LCSWMA), located in South Central Pennsylvania, knows well the labor of managing a landfill during variable, and often severe, winter conditions.
LCSWMA operates a fully-integrated system to manage the MSW from two counties, doing so with environmental excellence, fiscal responsibility, and social integrity. Part of LCSWMA’s multifaceted approach includes a county-wide recycling program and household hazardous waste facility to minimize the volume and toxicity of waste. LCSWMA then manages the remaining material with its Transfer Station Complex, two waste-to-energy (WTE) facilities, and the Frey Farm Landfill.
Located in a mainly agricultural area, the Frey Farm Landfill is a 93-acre facility that accepts mostly inorganic waste, which primarily includes ash residue from LCSWMA’s two WTE plants, construction and demotion material, and various industrial materials (ex: foundry sands, municipal sludges, etc.). The site operates five and a half days each week and is permitted to receive a maximum of 3,000 tons daily.
The Frey Farm Landfill holds a stellar environmental record. In fact, it is the only municipal landfill in Pennsylvania to receive zero violations from the Department of Environmental Protection in almost 25 years. Maintaining a perfect environmental compliance record requires considerable investment in staff and resources, for which winter weather adds a layer of operational complexity.
Relying on Experience
Robert Zorbaugh, LCSWMA’s COO, has 25 years in the solid waste industry, nine of which he spent as manager of the Frey Farm Landfill. Zorbaugh and his staff have “seen it all” when it comes to challenging winter conditions. From their perspective, the effort a landfill owner puts into a good winterizing program really pays off. Zorbaugh says planning in advance, attending to safety, continuing excellent customer service, and being a good neighbor are the keys to effective landfill management for LCSWMA—particularly during the winter months.
His experience was put to the test in recent winters, as the landfill operations team faced some extreme conditions and rose to the challenge. “We know how to prepare and how to react to maximize our operations, minimize disruption for our customers and neighbors, and protect for the safety of our workforce,” says Zorbaugh.
Thinking back on the years, Zorbaugh notes the ideal working condition for winter is one where little precipitation occurs and the temperatures stay just below freezing. This means the landfill tipping face remains solid, with fewer problems typically associated with softer working surfaces. However, this weather pattern is rare in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. More often, this area experiences fluctuating temperatures and varying levels of precipitation during winter months. So, preparing ahead is crucial to a successful winter season.
Winterization is of the utmost importance in this area of the United States, and LCSWMA starts this process several months before the season begins. Zorbaugh and his team focus on preparation of key site systems for potential extreme winter, which helps to avoid future problems. For instance, they begin winterizing its fleet and prepare snow plow equipment in late fall, in the event that the first winter storm comes earlier than typically expected. Zorbaugh says the key is to not be caught off-guard by premature winter weather.
For the diesel vehicles, extremely cold weather can make starting large diesel engines difficult. Another temperature-related problem is condensation forming in the fuel lines or in the gas tank. If the temperature of the fuel is below freezing, water will turn to ice in the fuel filter. The diesel equipment and vehicles are prepared by incorporating fuel additives and treatments to protect them from winter extremes and avoid condensation.
Keeping access roads to the landfill open is critical in the winter. To prepare for a blanket of white, the edges of the roads, curbs, and parking lots are marked with snow stakes to guide the plows during snow storms. Road salt and cinders are stockpiled throughout the site for winter readiness. Another tool employed in winter preparations is the installation of temporary litter fences around the landfill site to help deal with blowing litter resulting from more frequent high winds during winter months. But the wind isn’t the only shifting condition.
Operating in the Winter
Like all landfill operations in the Mid-Atlantic region, LCSWMA’s Frey Farm Landfill experiences winter weather that can fluctuate rapidly. For example, combinations of snow and ice present potentially dangerous conditions for heavy equipment and trucks as they struggle to navigate slippery roads.
Additionally, the topography of the Frey Farm Landfill presents some unique challenges. Located on a bluff, overlooking the Susquehanna River, the landfill site often experiences gusty conditions, which present the additional problems of drifting snow and bitter conditions. To lessen the impact on operations, a more sheltered section of the landfill is chosen for tipping activities. This helps to protect employees and customers from the bitter conditions, along with another method to reduce windblown litter on the site.
The condition of the waste as it arrives at the landfill also presents some difficulties throughout the winter season. In the Mid-Atlantic region, the area frequently experiences cold, rainy weather. When this occurs, roll-off containers get wet and then freeze, resulting in trucks arriving with frozen loads. To deal with this challenge, LCSWMA arranges for an employee to dig out the frozen loads with a backhoe or small excavator, within a specific staging area. While this means extra labor costs, the Authority absorbs this expense: “We believe this provides extra value to our customers—one they greatly appreciate,” says Zorbaugh.
However, when it comes to ash residue from LCSWMA’s two WTE facilities—where it’s used at the Frey Farm Landfill as daily cover—this material offers some advantages. For example, many landfills may struggle with the effects of winter weather on different types of landfill cover. Large tarps will freeze to the ground, making it difficult or impossible to remove in the morning without damaging them. And while dirt may offer a better choice in winter weather as a nightly cover, it’s challenging to work with during a snow or ice storm. LCSWMA avoids this problem altogether, as WTE ash residue does not freeze and remains relatively consistent to work with throughout the changing seasons.
When it comes to equipment and vehicle maintenance, even with winterizing in advance, diesel machines require extra attention in winter conditions. An additional 15 minutes of warm-up time is taken in bouts of extreme cold, which requires landfill management to schedule extra time in the operations workflow. Additionally, equipment is connected to block heaters if the temperature drops to 20°F or below.
Facing the Biggest Challenge
Among all the trials of winter, the most challenging is a storm that brings heavy, wet snow, followed by a quick warm-up in temperatures. When storms dump this type of snowfall on the site, plowing is slow and requires extra efforts to keep roads open. Heavy snowfall creates other issues, like roads becoming impassible or even difficult to find altogether.
Additionally, this type of snow can build up quickly on the roofs of site buildings, which at times requires employees to remove the snow to lessen the weight. Back when he was the landfill manager, Zorbaugh remembers personally shoveling the site office after receiving an initial 25 inches of accumulation, followed quickly by a second storm that dumped 10 inches. He says, “Our team worked together to ensure the buildings were safe and no roofs collapsed from the weight of the snow.”
When a heavy snow storm is followed by quick, rising temperatures, the issues of mud and flooding become problematic. LCSWMA uses extra caution when planning for snow melt to ensure that these conditions don’t impede traffic flow on the working face. In addition, any flooding from melting snow, which can create overflow problems with storm water retention basins at the site, is closely monitored. There is a real potential for basins to be damaged during extreme flood events. This requires quick mobilization for maintenance and repairs.
Enduring the Storm
When the forecast calls for extreme winter conditions in the Mid-Atlantic region, the management team keeps an eye on impending storms, which can quickly change in severity. Zorbaugh believes communication with customers is key to managing safe and efficient landfill operations. If the forecast calls for severe storm conditions, LCSWMA coordinates with customers (i.e., collection haulers) to assess if site closure is warranted. Whenever possible, hours of operation at the landfill are adjusted, instead of closing, to accommodate the needs of its customers. If the landfill does need to close, extended hours are offered once the weather conditions improved.
“We try to stay open unless extreme conditions pose a safety threat to our personnel and customers, or in the unlikely situation where the state orders a moratorium on travel due to life-threatening conditions. We take pride in being open,” says Zorbaugh. “It is very rare for LCSWMA to suspend landfill operations due to weather issues. This might happen, at most, once every three years.”
Focusing on Safety
Concern for the safety of its employees and customers is of utmost importance. Keeping workers healthy on the job and protected from winter conditions is critical. For most people, being exposed to cold temperatures, snow, and foul weather for extended periods has a negative effect on their health. Employees are provided with cold-weather garments and winter safety gear, as well as limiting their exposure to harsh elements by instituting shorter shift rotations.
Concern for traffic safety is also a focus at the Frey Farm Landfill. “Winter equals mud, which is a big challenge,” says Zorbaugh. Muddy conditions frequently impact the landfill during the winter season, with vehicles often losing traction when unloading on the tipping face. To deal with this issue, extra stone and wood chips are employed to prevent vehicles from getting stuck. Additionally, because of the availability of WTE ash at the landfill, LCSWMA can utilize some of the ash as road fill on surfaces within the landfill. The ash hardens to make a solid landing area. This is a cost-effective alternative and saves on the expense of extra stone while accomplishing the same goal.
Supporting the Community
In addition to maintaining excellent customer service during the winter season, LCSWMA also prides itself on being a good neighbor to adjacent property owners and to the host township. Employees regularly assist landfill neighbors by shoveling and plowing snow at their homes. It also supports the host municipality by loaning snow removal equipment and staff time—all at no cost—to help open the roads near the landfill. “If we are expecting 18 inches of snow and it’s windy and drifting, we know they will need our help,” reflects Zorbaugh. This is part of a year-round “good neighbor” approach and philosophy.
Planning, preparation, and taking the opportunity to “rethink” operational practices and procedures ensure that LCSWMA is ready to face whatever the winter season brings.