Lessons at a Landfill
Updated: Dec 5, 2018
By AD Olson
On the morning of May 20, 1971, the Mississippi River’s water levels swelled out if its banks near Dubuque, Iowa. At the landfill located on City Island, the river swept away twenty to twenty-five cubic yards of solid waste, the most horrifying of the refuse being various parts of slaughtered animals from the packing plant. Dubuque County Conservation Officer Keith Rowley, upset with the lack of supervision by the landfill’s staff, complained to the media before filing an official complaint with the city. He capped off his statements with a vindictive, “this is not the first time this has happened.” Clearly, a new landfill needed to be built to avoid further environmental degradation, but the journey to this goal proved to be an arduous task for Dubuque.
On a drizzly Friday, the Dubuque Green Iowa AmeriCorps and Sustainable School members visited the Dubuque Metro Landfill. Our guide, Bev Wagner, changed my perception of how a landfill worked over the course of about an hour. While I admit to not thinking much about how they worked, I thought landfills were just holes in the ground where waste got thrown and forgot about. It is much more complicated than just a hole in the ground despite, admittedly, being simply a hole in the ground. My misconception is reflected in the history of the Dubuque landfill itself.
Journalist Dorothy Kincaid in the 1950’s, City Island, formerly known as Hamm Island, referred to the island as “a tangle of marshy ground and branching sloughs… a blight on the doorstep of the city for many years.” This “blight” had a notorious reputation; thick foliage invited inmates to hide out there following escapes and the island even housed an illegal whiskey operation during Prohibition. In the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps set about clearing the island of thick foliage so as to make the area more suitable for industrial development. Following the makeover, an airport was built and a pilot training program established for World War II. Unfortunately, the runways proved unsuitable for the military when a Liberator bomber, weighing nearly 60,000 lbs., landed on the island but could not take off again due to the length of the runways. The plane had to be dismantled and shipped via railcar back to Milwaukee. Following such failed endeavors, the city decided to make City Island a dump due to its close location to the majority of the metro areas population.
The City Island Landfill served as the town’s garbage disposal site for over two decades before environmental issues questioned the ethics of the landfill being located within the floodplain of the Mississippi River. The spillage in May of 1971 caused alarm both locally and nationally, prompting Dubuque Street Commissioner Cletus Allen to go forward with the building of two dikes on either side of the landfill. He tried to assure everyone that, “We will do everything in our power,” to avoid another pollution event. While the spill in 1971 prompted attention, some city officials already understood prior that a new landfill needed to be built and looked for other options. A pilot study for a stopgap dump proposed in 1970 as an, “answer for the county’s plight,” looked into a small 10-acre site that would cost around $16,000 to $22,000 a year. Immediately the plan met opposition from locals, namely farmers, who believed the site had insufficient soil density and feared, “chemicals from the trash to permeate the soil, thus polluting the underground water supply.” The plan quickly met defeat.
Not until a deadline mandated by the state government set a true search for a viable solution to the town’s landfill problem into motion. A 1971 law, Chapter 406, also known as the sanitary disposal project, “required every city, town, and county to provide for the establishment and operation of a sanitary disposal project,” with a set deadline of July 1975. The first full-fledged attempt at establishing a new landfill occurred in 1973 with the proposed purchase of the Smith farm, located several miles from the river. Like the pilot project two years earlier, the proposal faced harsh opposition. One complaint centered around the price set for the city to pay, set at $280,000 for the 206-acre site. Local appraiser Roger Cox thought the property held a value of only $71, 388, a far cry from the set price and an attempt to purchase the property at that price, according to Mr. Cox, would be, “asinine and ridiculous!” Additional opposition centered upon what the county viewed as misconceptions around the reality of having a landfill for a neighbor, the opposition stating that, “a landfill will pollute the water table… a putrid odor will bother… windblown refuse will litter the countryside.” Locals gathered over 1,000 signatures in protest of the Smith Farm dump, submitted by their chairman Mary Jo Schmitt at a council meeting who asked people to have, “some compassion for the farmers out there.” Ultimately, the plan failed.
Over the next few months, the city continued the hunt for more potential sites. Local journalist Bill Knee summed up the situation nicely, “Despite a long campaign aimed at convincing people that ‘a sanitary landfill is not a dump,’ the public still doesn’t want one for a neighbor. A new anti-landfill group formed, identifying themselves as “Dump the Dump” or DTD for short gathered 2,200 signatures prior to a vital meeting that would determine if a site near the County Fairgrounds would become the new site of the landfill. Head of the decision-making council, Ray Scherman, commented a week prior to the vote, “I don’t know what the hell we’ll do.”
Whether justified or not, the city felt that the presence of the DTD crowd at the meeting could cause problems, so two uniformed police officers stationed themselves at the back of the meeting room. Fortunately for all involved, the meeting turned out to be an orderly affair. DTD member Dave Clemens stood and spoke to the committee, “Gentlemen, you’re putting a landfill right in the middle of the growth of Dubuque.” The committee decided to delay their decision until March, a move that those in attendance found surprising and in March the committee scrapped the proposal. Ray Scherman offered insight to the situation, “Just because they got their problem solved in the city on our farm, that doesn’t mean we got our problems solved.”
More months passed without a viable option in sight. Eventually, the 218-acre Jack Gants farm became the preferred option for this round of deliberation. By this point, both sides were exhausted and less than a year remained before the deadline for the establishment of a new dump. The proposal met much less opposition than previous plans and the county condemned the farm. Construction of the dump started early in the Spring but missed the July deadline, but opened soon after. After the precipitous endeavor, Dubuque mayor Allan Thomas described the new site as, “more than a landfill – it’s a new era of cooperation.”
A landfill is more than just a hole in the ground. For the citizens of Dubuque County in the 1970’s, it was a place of vitriolic contention. Nobody wants to be a dumps neighbor, nor do they want dead cow parts floating down the Mississippi. Ultimately, landfills are a monument to the costs of civilization. But landfills should not be seen as inherently negative, apocalyptic spaces of human avarice and gluttony. Landfills, when properly constructed and ran, are our answer to minimizing the impact waste has on the environment and our communities. The Dubuque landfill doesn’t smell, nor has it negatively impacted any surrounding farms. In fact, it’s beautiful in its own way.
Today, the Dubuque landfill fulfills the waste needs of Dubuque. Operators use heavy machinery such as dump trucks and excavators to move the soil and garbage. The landfill is organized into cells that have a clay liner that prevents garbage from seeping into the groundwater. A byproduct of capping the waste is methane gas from the decomposing matter. Piping carries the methane to a flare where it is burned off to prevent damage to the ozone layer. This gas could even be used for fuel if a substantial sum of capital was invested. The capped off cells, while not perfectly natural, do a good job in blending into the landscape. The first cell at the Dubuque Landfill has reached max capacity and sports prairie vegetation and offers a birds-eye view of the property where tourists of the landfill who, like myself, can learn for themselves how landfills operate.
As for City Island? The twenty plus years as Dubuque’s garbage bin ended up benefitting the “blight” of an island. The trash built up the island, raising its elevation and filled in previously unusable boggy terrain. For the city, City Island had found another, new beginning. According to a city spokesperson, the options seemed plentiful as, “200 acres available for development.” Today, City Island is home to a casino, a campground, an ice arena, and a park. Not too bad for a dump.
 John Bulkley, “Many Officials Checking landfill Pollution, But…,” Telegraph Herald, 4/22/1971, pg. 13.
 John Bulkley, “Landfill Waste Pollutes River,” Telegraph Herald, 4/20/1971, pg. 11.
 Dorothy Kincaid, “Lake Peosta Dredging Due to Start Next July,” Telegraph Herald, 5/8/1955, pg. 21
 “10-Acre Pilot Landfill Project Unveiled for County,” Telegraph Herald, 2/26/1970, pg. 5.
 Jim Miller, “15 Farmers Voice Opposition to County Landfill Proposal,” Telegraph Herald, 3/18/1971, pg. 7.
 Bill Knee, “A Waste of Waste,” Telegraph Herald, 1/13/1974, pg. 3.
 David Fyften, “Hesitant Council Ok for Landfill Site Option, Telegraph Herald, 3/12/1973, pg. 10.
 “City Answers Landfill Rumors,” Telegraph Herald, 3/25/1973, pg.18.
 Bill Knee, “Petition Protests Landfill Site Near Peosta,” Telegraph Herald, 4/1/1973, pg. 25.
 Bill Knee, “A Waste of Waste,” Telegraph Herald, 1/13/1974, pg. 3.
 Bill Knee, “Dump Unit Rallies Against Farm Site, Telegraph Herald, 2/21/1974, pg. 13.
 Bill Knee, “Dump Unite Rallies.”
 Bill Knee, “Landfill Decision Expected after March 14,” Telegraph Herald, 2/26/1974, pg. 7.
 Bill Knee, “County Rejects Farm as Landfill Site, Telegraph Herald, 3/5/1974, pg. 15.
 David Fyten, “City Landfill Site Agreed On,” Telegraph Herald, 9/4/1974, pg. 1.
 Stephen Good, “Many Development Options for Vacated Landfill,” Telegraph Herald, 8/29/1976, pg. 27.