This story is the first in an occasional series on how Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the western half of North Texas are confronting growing demands on waste services, limited landfill capacity and rapid population growth.
The first fact Brandon Bennett learned after inheriting Fort Worth’s solid waste department in 2010 was straightforward enough: If the Southeast Landfill accepted similar amounts of waste as it did in 2009, the facility could stay open for somewhere between 50 and 60 more years.
In the dozen years since, that calculation has shifted beyond recognition.
The amount of commercial waste headed to Fort Worth’s dump, located in Kennedale, rose by 694% between 2009 and 2021, according to an August informal city manager’s report to City Council. Last year, 925,587 tons of trash entered the facility – a whopping 274% increase since 2009. Population growth also drove a 77% increase in residential waste over that period.
The result? Fort Worth now expects the Southeast Landfill, built in the 1970s, to close in less than 15 years. Without the construction of new landfills, the eight counties encompassing the western half of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex are set to run out of space by 2036, according to estimates from the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
“We don’t see this as a Fort Worth problem,” Bennett, the city’s code compliance director, said. “We see this as a Metroplex problem that all of us are facing, even those that still have a lot of landfill space left. That’s going to go away fairly quickly without these other landfills.”
The North Central Texas Council of Governments estimates the process to purchase land, permit, construct and operate a new landfill takes at least 15 years and an upfront investment of between $1.1 to $1.7 million, according to 2014 EPA estimates.
That means local officials would need to start identifying potential sites now – and the clock is ticking.
Government leaders across Tarrant, Erath, Hood, Johnson, Palo Pinto, Parker, Somervell and Wise counties must choose a path for addressing the looming waste crisis, whether by developing a regional waste management agency, building their own landfills, or letting the private sector take the lead, said Edith Marvin, the director of environment and development at the council of governments.
“In the end, if none of this gets resolved and they come to no conclusions and no actions are taken, what happens is that the cost of shipping that solid waste goes up,” Marvin said. “Ultimately, if the public sector doesn’t come together and formulate some solutions, the result of that is increased costs for solid waste management. And that turns probably to the private sector to manage that if nothing is done.”
Since the closure of Weatherford’s landfill last year, only three landfills accepting municipal solid waste remain open across the eight counties. All three are located in the eastern part of the region: Turkey Creek Landfill in Johnson County, along with the Arlington and Fort Worth landfills in Tarrant County.
Arlington has the longest remaining capacity left, with an estimated 37 years, according to a June council of governments presentation. The council of governments puts Fort Worth’s capacity at a maximum of 22 years, and Turkey Creek is expected to close in five years.
The closure of Fort Worth’s landfill will not cause a “crisis,” Bennett said, because there are other landfills in Denton and Arlington where the city could send residential and commercial waste.
“It will just be farther away. It costs more money,” he said. “Our goal is to work with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, with our current contractor and others, to try to extend our landfill life a little bit longer and to make sure that we have workable solutions.”
Weatherford’s pending closure prompted the council of governments to convene western leaders in mid-2020 and consider commissioning a study to identify potential solutions.
That study was published in July 2021, and the Western Region Solid Waste Capacity Policy Advisory Group was formalized in March to consider implementing the study’s recommendations. Regional leaders, including representatives from the Tarrant County cities of Fort Worth, Mansfield, Arlington, Haltom City and Keller, last met in September.
“All of those perspectives and differences ultimately lead to an ideal solution,” Marvin said. “The fact that we have all those different perspectives together and talking helps us explore all of the alternatives that were presented in the study and leads to a more diverse discussion about what the options are.”
Fort Worth has no plans to expand or build new landfill
The eight-county region that includes Tarrant County is expected to generate 69.6 million tons of waste between 2022 and 2042 if population growth continues as anticipated, according to the July 2021 report, authored by Michael Carleton with the engineering firm Arredondo, Zepeda & Brunz LLC.
The western region’s population is expected to balloon by 46% between 2020 and 2050, according to Elena Berg, an environment and development planner for the council of governments. To address the growth, Carleton and his firm identified nine “alternatives” for government representatives to consider.
Carleton’s recommendation with the most impact – and likely most controversy – addresses the need to increase landfill capacity, whether by expanding existing landfills in Tarrant County or building new ones in the region.
Fort Worth must determine if the city will expand the Southeast Landfill, identify a new site for long-term needs, help establish a regional agency to handle solid waste disposal, or “take no action and rely on the private sector to address its disposal needs,” Carleton wrote.
If Fort Worth decides on the last option, “the loss of capacity in the western region will certainly increase the cost of disposal throughout the region, as well as place a strain on existing facilities in the NCTCOG region,” Carleton wrote. “It is strongly recommended that the city find ways to develop new capacity either as a city endeavor or as part of a newly formed (agency).”
Fort Worth doesn’t envision building a new landfill for residential customers, Bennett said. The city also considered expanding the Southeast Landfill’s footprint, but decided against it because the time, effort and money would not be worth the extra few years of capacity, Bennett said.
“When our landfill fills up, Waste Management is our contract provider and they will have to find a place to dispose of the waste, and we’ll incorporate that into the rates,” he said. “That’s how many cities actually do it – they’re not in the landfilling business. They simply have a contract, they pay the contractor to pick it up and it’s just their responsibility on where to dispose.”
City officials didn’t think they would have to consider such a large investment so soon. But, in 2010, Fort Worth settled a lawsuit with Republic Services, a solid waste services company that operates Fort Worth and Arlington’s landfills.
Republic argued that the city’s rules for accepting commercial waste were so restrictive the company was not earning a return on its investment, Bennett said.
The resulting settlement allowed Republic Services to accept hundreds of thousands more tons of commercial waste at the Southeast Landfill. In 2009, residential waste made up 68% of waste headed to the landfill. Twelve years later, 68% of waste came from commercial sources, according to the August informal report.
Why does it take so long to permit a landfill?
Engineering firm Arredondo, Zepeda & Brunz LLC provided the following time estimates for creating a new landfill:
- Two years for site selection
- Two years for land procurement
- Four years for permitting, including public hearing
- Five years for construction
- Four years of operations before landfill is fully completed
“The good news for the commercial enterprises in Fort Worth is that they have had a closer place to take their garbage,” Bennett said. “It was anticipated that the additional commercial waste would eat away at the landfill life. What wasn’t anticipated was to the degree that it would eat away at the landfill life.”
Carleton’s report acknowledges the difficulties of meeting environmental requirements and overcoming public opposition to a new landfill site.
“The selection of a location for a future disposal site is becoming increasingly more difficult due to continued population growth and the role social media has in organizing opposition,” Carleton wrote. “While an unpopular decision, the city or (regional agency) will need to push forward with permitting in order to provide an essential environmental facility that meets the western region’s future solid waste management needs.”
Fort Worth will work to find ways to encourage the private sector to build landfills and transfer stations to move waste to long-haul trucks in a way that is still affordable to haulers in the city, Bennett said.
If all cities agreed on the approach to let the private sector handle the public hearing and permitting process for landfills, the 2021 study would not have been necessary, Marvin said.
“I think if they were all in sync, and saying we just don’t want to deal with this, we need to push it away and let somebody else handle this, then they wouldn’t have asked us to do this study, because they would have already had their preferred collective solution,” she said. “I don’t think that was the case.”
Western region considers creating new agency, looking for more engagement
Among recommendations such as increasing the number of dropoff waste collection stations and improving composting capabilities – which Fort Worth is already pursuing – Carleton’s report also recommends that western regional leaders consider creating a Western Region Solid Waste Management Agency.
That agency would be similar in structure to the North Texas Municipal Water District, which provides solid waste disposal services to Collin County cities, and Brazos Valley Solid Waste Management Agency, which operates a public landfill for seven counties near Bryan and College Station.
Forming a regional agency would “reduce municipal and county debt” for constructing projects and aggregate city services to provide more efficient services throughout the western part of DFW, according to Carleton’s report. However, cities would lose some control over design and operations of landfills or other sites, he wrote.
So far, the policy advisory group has adopted bylaws and elected officers, but members have not evaluated implementing Carleton’s recommendations.
One of the key challenges the policy group has run into is attracting the attention of county commissioners and City Council members on this crucial issue, Marvin said. Most meetings included staff-level employees who are local experts on the subject – not the elected officials who would need to carry landfill and other project proposals to the finish line.
“Getting the attention of the right people to come to the table and have those discussions has been and will continue to be a struggle,” Marvin said. “You can’t do it all at a staff level. You have to have buy-in, and landfills are not simple. They’re controversial.”
Members of the policy advisory group have proposed in-person visits and lunch-and-learns with elected leaders to educate them about the problem and the 2021 report, Marvin said. The group will gather next Dec. 14.
Bennett suspects that because the landfill closure date is more than a decade away, city leaders feel as if the issue is not yet critical.
“The closer you get to these landfills filling up, the easier it will be for cities to talk about landfilling options because then it’s more of a crisis,” Bennett said. “We’re still 15 to 20 years out. It’s not a short enough period of time for people to say that we’ve got to have a more intimate, difficult conversation.”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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