I believe the city of Waco is doing a decent job of planning for a new landfill on a site close to the existing one. What the city could do better is to communicate with concerned citizens.

I wrote a lengthy piece for the Tribune-Herald a few months back proposing that the current landfill’s life could be doubled via aggressive recycling. This will cost money. But look at the numbers: The city has no commercial recycling program (about one-third of current trash); less than 40 percent of households have recycling bins; and construction and demolition debris, about 15 percent of trash, is not recycled. Add another 15 percent for food waste that could be composted but is now land-filled.

Clearly a lot of material could be diverted from the landfill to give it more of a lifespan than the seven years reportedly allotted. But, yes, this costs money.

The city could potentially mine and reclaim the existing landfill, via a bioreactor, as is being done right now at two landfills in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But again this costs money. We don’t really know what the costs are for enhanced recycling and/or a bioreactor because no one has shared the numbers, if they even exist.

I have toured the current landfill with managers and engaged in extensive technical conversations. I have spoken with various elected officials about the proposed landfill. Despite my not being a native Texan (big negative!), they understand that I have studied solid waste projects and might have a worthwhile contribution. These officials have been uniformly polite and listened carefully, which I appreciate.

In turn I have done my homework, reading many technical city documents, and I am respectful and appreciative of the city staff’s hard work. For what it’s worth, I do not live anywhere near the landfill, so I would not be directly affected by any expansion. Still, these are my tax dollars too, so I think offering knowledge and ideas is worthwhile.

I certainly think the city could better communicate with citizens on this issue. Currently much animosity and distrust exist. This is not how government should serve its citizens. Granted, citizens should pay attention to what government is doing. The landfill discussion has been duly discussed by the city for some years, perhaps a few decades, and only now are some people appearing to protest. Where were they years ago?

So now we are in a quagmire. What can the city do to help those of us who would like to see a different direction pursued?

I offer a suggestion that is proven to work.

In the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon signed numerous environmental protection laws, including clean water and air statutes. Among these is the National Environmental Protection Act, or NEPA, which covers federal decisions. Subsequently some 20 states and territories have adopted laws similar to NEPA that cover state decisions. These laws have several facets, all with the goal of informing citizens and elected officials.

Broadly speaking, any such discretionary project decision taken by an agency or elected officials must undergo a review by scientists and technical experts for its potential environmental impact. The public is sought out and engaged from the start. Usually technical experts preparing these documents do not work for the agency and have no stake in the outcome. The resulting reports are generically called “environmental impact statements.”

Using the outline for a NEPA report, the city of Waco could prepare an environmental impact statement that provides the following in one concise package:

  • Discussion of purpose and need.
  • Description of the affected environment.
  • A range of alternatives — all described in equal detail so that they can be compared fairly. In this area the public can provide ideas.
  • For each alternative, impacts to air and water quality, endangered species, cultural and historic sites, social and economic impacts such as property values, traffic, housing stock, noise.
  • Provide a cost analysis for each alternative, including the cost and effectiveness of mitigation for negative impacts.
  • A detailed financial plan for the preferred alternative.
  • A comprehensive environmental mitigation plan including monitoring agencies and penalties for failure to perform.

How has this process worked at the state and federal levels? Generally it has provided citizens with necessary information and informed decision-making. It has saved millions or perhaps billions of dollars over the past four decades. And those dollars saved are taxpayer dollars, mind you. But the process can also fail when government officials choose the cheapest route without proper analysis.

One classic case of a huge government mistake occurred this past winter. The Oroville Dam, at 770 feet high, is the highest earthen dam in the United States. Under heavy winter rains, the California dam’s main and emergency spillways were significantly damaged, causing the evacuation of a reported 188,000 people downstream because of a potential 30-foot flood in cities downstream.

During the re-licensing of the dam in 2005, three environmental groups filed suit claiming the dam’s spillways were unsafe and could fail in a major rain event. These claims were based on technical reports that said a second spillway was needed. But water agencies did not want to pay for the second spillway, so it wasn’t built.

Well, guess what? Twelve years later, the environmental groups were proven right, though thankfully the dam did not fail completely. It was close for a while. And how much did those 188,000 taxpaying citizens spend for emergency relocation for several days and lost work? At even $100 per person, that’s a big number — a lot more than a second spillway would have cost, for sure.

Waco city officials should not ignore citizen groups out of hand. And they should not always choose the least present cost alternative. The lesson is that a complete analysis, properly shared with citizens in timely fashion, can help identify the best alternative, avoid substantial future mitigation costs and restore citizen faith in government.

Dave Morrow has worked at landfills, transfer stations and bioreactors. He is a retired professor in civil and environmental engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. He lives in Waco.