The Role of Consultants in Solid Waste Management

Page Break Line

The solid waste division of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, headquartered in Palmer Alaska is modestly sized. Its landfill accepts just 185 tpd, and it doesn’t have such niceties as curbside collection. Even so, the borough’s solid waste division manager, Greg Goodale, uses not one but three separate consultants to help in his operations.

Intrigued by that fact, we wondered just how widely had consultants penetrated the solid waste business. So we decided to ask other solid waste managers at small-to-medium districts around the country if they used consultants and if so what functions these consultants performed.

Our first call, selected at random, was to Sara Bixby, who is director of the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency in Tracy, IA. It was a fortunate beginning, because Sara Bixby is one very organized lady who not only directs the South Central’s operations, but who also serves as a member of the board of the Iowa Society of Solid Waste Operations. We were doubly fortunate because the South Central had just completed, via a competitive RFP process, selecting “an engineering/consulting firm to provide strategic and tactical expertise for the design, operations, regulatory compliance, and management of the agency’s facilities and programs for the next five-year period.”

When we asked what tasks the winning consultant would be asked to perform, she whipped out a page of the RFP entitled “Anticipated Service Requirements” which read:

The Agency’s anticipated service requirements during the next five years may include but are not limited to:

  • Hydrologic monitoring, including water level and leachate head level measurements
  • Landfill and transfer station site inspections
  • Preparation of required reports
  • Development of annual engineer’s estimates of closure and post-closure costs for the landfill and transfer station
  • Calculation of airspace used and remaining in active fill areas
  • Determination of in-place waste density and cover soil use
  • Assessment of soil availability and suitability for use in liner and cover systems
  • Development of permit documents for both facilities
  • Responses to DNR correspondence
  • MSW and C&D debris cell design, development, expansion and closure
  • QA/QC and CQA for all relevant projects
  • Landfill gas system evaluation, design, and implementation
  • Landfill and transfer station operations consulting
  • Expanded design and implementation of efforts to address stormwater, surface water, sediment, and erosion issues related to old mining operations
  • Changes in approaches to maintaining and monitoring the closed Marion County Landfill
  • Building upgrades including floor repair; heating and fire suppression systems evaluations
  • Strategic planning processes
  • Involvement in comprehensive solid waste management plan update preparation
  • Evaluation of market opportunities
  • Presentations to the Agency Board
  • Other services as required.

We were surprised and impressed by the sheer magnitude and thoroughness of this task list, particularly when it included “other services as required,” followed by this remarkable paragraph:

“Your proposal should include a brief description of no more than five one-time or innovative projects you believe may be appropriate for Agency consideration in the next five-year period. Explain your rationale for including them. Each description should provide an overview of the project effort, summary of potential benefits, a probable cost range, and risks associated with completion of the project.”

This was certainly far-sighted planning for any solid waste operation, and we were flabbergasted that an operation that had only one transfer station and a 165 tpd landfill was seeking a consultant of this breadth and depth. Bixby explained: “It’s even more important for an agency of our size to have ‘a consultant of this breadth and depth.’ Large agencies typically have more staff with a broader range of skills; we have a small staff and so need to hire that additional cross-functional expertise. The relationship between the agency and consultant is critical to our success.”

As a result of this new view, we decided to talk to a random selection of other small-to-medium–sized municipal or county solid waste operations to determine if South Central Iowa’s approach was an anomaly and to determine if and how they used consultants. Including South Central Iowa, we interviewed directors of seven such operations. We learned that every one of them used a consultant or consultants, but that every one of them did so uniquely in order to meet its unique operational requirements.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough, AK
We started in Alaska, with the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Solid Waste Division, which had intrigued us from the outset. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough is unique because of its huge size—an area roughly equivalent to that of the entire state of West Virginia. Because of its dimension, its single landfill is served by 11 different transfer stations, some of which are 300 miles away. (The division also has four closed landfills that must be monitored.) As a result, Goodale’s staff is stretched thin just to keep the division’s operations running smoothly, and consultants are needed to efficiently augment this staff.

The three primary tasks that Goodale uses consultants for are:

  • Engineering services
  • Water and landfill gas monitoring
  • Surveying services

Goodale decided to use a different specialized consultant for each of these tasks rather than use a single consultant with a sufficiently broad engineering capability. Using the RFP procurement process for each of these tasks, the division selected the Englewood, CO-based CH2M Hill for the engineering services (with a concentration on new cell design and landfill sequencing projects). The environmental consulting firm of Shannon & Wilson Inc., with headquarters in Seattle, was selected to perform the water and landfill gas monitoring at the five landfills. And Alaska Rim Engineering was selected to perform baseline surveys for new sites.

All three firms are located nearby. Alaska Rim is right in Palmer, and both CH2M Hill and Shannon & Wilson have offices in Anchorage, just 50 miles away. It isn’t that Goodale regards distance as a drawback, however. Occasionally, he will use Matrix Consulting in Palo Alto, CA, for economic evaluations, and the process of transferring data back and forth worked as well, as if Matrix Consulting were there in Palmer. In this case, at least, there proved to be no need to have a consultant located in Alaska.

Goodale doesn’t have the staff to do design work, but he does have a contract administrator to oversee the consultants’ work and review it down to the task level. “The use of consultants works out very well for us here,” Goodale says. “CH2M Hill in particular serves as an extension of our team that provides design support whenever we need it. In the case of Shannon & Wilson, we certainly don’t have the staff to physically do the water and landfill gas monitoring, and we don’t want to assume the liability of mistakenly sending erroneous data to the regulators. With his trained people, the consultant can afford to take on that responsibility as part of its contract so we are relived of any liability. In every case, our selection and use of consultants augments our total team capability and fit in where we are lacking.”

City of Denton, TX
The Solid Waste Department of Denton, TX, is the only other one of the seven solid waste operators that routinely uses multiple consultants. Denton’s solid waste operation is somewhat larger than that of Matanuska-Susitna, as it handles about 500 tpd of MSW with curbside collection and a single landfill. However, Denton’s solid waste director, Vance Kemler, says that he has six consulting firms currently under contract to provide engineering services to the city. “HDR Engineering has been providing engineering services for us since 1984,” Kemler says. “Currently, the firm’s Austin office is working on our landfill operating plan as well as some other smaller projects. We competed the engineering services contract last year and R.W. Beck’s Minneapolis operation was selected. One of the reasons we re-competed the contract at this time is the fact that we have decided to move into bioreactor technology, and Beck seemed to be the best fit for our changing needs.

“Beck won’t do all the work itself, though. Beck has teamed with (1) Chang, Patel & Yerby, of Dallas, for permit modifications and some civil work, (2) Kleinfelder [based in San Diego] … for slope stability work, and (3) with the Chicago firm of John Baker Environmental Services for bioreactor planning and design. Thus, we have a team of specialists working together to cover all seven of the primary engineering tasks involved in our Phase III Statement of Work covering the bioreactor program:

  • Plan Amendments to landfill
  • Plan Modifications to landfill
  • Design a Type 1 cell meeting the criteria of a bioreactor cell
  • Engineer the retrofit of existing two cells to convert them to bioreactor cells
  • Perform slope analysis
  • Design the landfill gas collection system for the bioreactor cells
  • Establish a system for beneficial use of landfill gas

“Beck is the prime contractor for this engineering project, but the other three firms will work closely with and through Beck in the individual areas of expertise they bring to the team. At the same time, we have HDR and Weaver-Boos [based in Chicago] doing consulting work on tasks not related to the bioreactor project. It may seem unwieldy to have so many consultants, but we prefer to use specialists to perform complex tasks. We looked closely at the credentials of these firms and are convinced that they can and will work together as a team to give us a superior job.”

Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District
Steve Christman, executive director of the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District in Ashley, IN, holds a completely opposite view. He believes in using a single consultant, the very best possible, for the entire range of engineering services. What’s more, he believes he has found such a consultant in J. Spear Consultants of Milwaukee. “We work with the principal, J.W. Spear, and he has become an essential part of our program,” he says.

Of course, the Northeast Indiana Solid Waste Management District does not own or operate a landfill. Instead, it delivers its 800 tpd of MSW to three transfer stations owned and operated by Fort Lauderdale, FL-based Republic Services Inc. and a local hauler. The district does have both a curbside recycling program and a SWANA-award winning drop-off operation, but it does not have the regulatory requirements and headaches of a landfill that require specialized talents and experience.

Indeed, for a long time, the district didn’t feel it needed to use consultants. But finally, in 2000, the demands became too great for its five-person staff, and Christman turned to J.W. Spear and selected the firm for an engineering services contract. The two organizations have been working closely together ever since. Working on a task order basis, Spear has been instrumental in such diverse tasks as design engineering for the compost facility, development of a storm water management plan, and conducting workshops at board meetings to ensure that board members know the reason for and importance of various projects.

Currently, the district is getting ready to issue an RFP for the construction of a MRF/transfer station facility, and Spear’s tasks are broadening to include planning the bid package and preparing the bid documents. He will help also with the contract negotiations and oversee the construction of the facility. The question arose: Will this single consultant be able to handle this additional workload from his office in Milwaukee?

Emphatically, “Yes,” is Christman’s response. “He really knows this business, and he has a highly developed ability to communicate with our staff, our board, and regulators in an understandable and persuasive way. And he is always accessible.

“I believe that if you don’t have the necessary resources in-house, you can often get them from the outside at less cost than hiring and paying for the benefits of a design engineer to be on our staff. Our board doesn’t like to spend money unnecessarily. Our budget in 1992 was $1 million and we had 14 employees. Today, our budget is $1.2 million and our staff consists of five employees—plus J.W. Spear. I don’t believe we could have achieved this without the services of this single consultant who had the ideal background to function as such an important member of our team while at the same time functioning as sort of a third-party auditor to assess and help us achieve our goals. My definition of a good consultant is one who can recognize what a client really needs and can take the necessary steps to make that client more successful.”

Ponca City, OK
Of course a solid waste manager can’t always immediately get that sort of consultant even with the most rigorous RFP process. In Oklahoma, the Ponca City Solid Waste Division encountered that problem when it first contracted with a consultant the city had used for a number of years. The selection seemed reasonable: a local consultant that would be readily accessible. But the relationship stopped working after a while. It wasn’t that the consultant was incompetent; rather it was a matter of inadequate capacity. The consultancy consisted of just one man, and the firm became overloaded with assignments from the solid waste division and other city departments as well as other clients in the Ponca City area. “He simply couldn’t keep up with our needs,” recalls Ponca City Solid Waste Division Superintendent David Horinek.

Then, last year, facing a landfill expansion approved by the city, Horinek decided to start looking for a consulting organization that could reliably handle Ponca City’s landfill cell expansion and other solid waste engineering needs. This time, the city took no chances. A carefully prepared RFP for engineering services was sent to national as well as local firms. “Because our operation is so small (140 tpd), I was surprised when we got back a number of responses, some of them from national firms,” Horinek says. “We reviewed them all for capacity and for experience and qualifications in the areas of landfill design, construction, and regulatory experience. In addition to all the normal housekeeping tasks like water and landfill gas monitoring and reporting, we were looking for someone who could help with landfill regulatory requirements concerning such things as stormwater and landfill gas.”

A national firm, SCS Engineering (Kansas City office), was selected for its expertise and for the experience it had gained in the engineering of lined landfill cells in the Midwest area. Also, the firm had experience dealing with the regulators from several different state environmental agencies that oversee Subtitle D landfill expansions. Horinek has been delighted with the selection. “It’s great to work with professionals like these,” he says. “Whatever task I throw at them, they handle promptly and expertly. While their major job has been the engineering and contracting for the new cell, they’ve also done such unrelated tasks as landfill height permitting and updating of our stormwater management plan. For small tasks, I just phone or e-mail a request to SCS, and they respond with a letter of understanding or short proposal that lays out scope, schedule, and budget. Then the task gets done.

“We work together as a team, and I have learned that a consulting firm with this capacity and expertise can readily handle many of our current requirements. I have learned a lot from this experience and will learn more as we work more projects. When we have to re-compete the engineering services contract or if we see a need for a specialized consultant for a specialized requirement, I will be much better prepared to assess and select the best consultant to integrate with our team to meet the project’s requirements.”

Deschutes County, OR
The Deschutes County Solid Waste Department uses just one consulting firm, but it’s a big one. The San Francisco-based URS Corp. is one of the very largest engineering firms in the world, with 29,000 employees in a network of more than 300 offices and contract-specific job sites in 20 countries. Still, Operations Manager Chad Centola, who works with consultants based at the URS office in Portland, OR, claimed he had no idea that the URS Corp. was that big, because he had been working with the same small group of URS engineers from Portland for the past five years. (URS just won its second consecutive 5-year General Engineering Services contract with Deschutes County.)

“We’re just a medium-size 750 tpd operation with a single landfill, but we have access to URS consultants whenever we need them,” Centola says. “And they work very well with our in-house staff. For example, URS designed a landfill gas collection system to control migration and designed it in such a way that when they turned it over to us, we could operate it with our own people. With the backbone of that system in place, we have been able to expand, maintain, modify, and monitor the system ourselves.”

URS does a wide range of work for the operation. Only recently, Centola pointed out, URS completed the design and bid package for a new $10 million MRF/scale house facility. Moreover, there are also less routine tasks we have them perform. For example, they had been doing routine ground water monitoring for us every six months. At one of these, they discovered levels of chromium in a monitoring well that exceeded permissible state levels, raising concern that the landfill leachate was impacting the ground water. URS was contracted to investigate the problem. According to the task order summary report, the consultant first examined historic values for the landfill and found that the exceedance had begun abruptly in 1998, when the county installed piston pumps as replacements for the prior method of bailer sampling. Landfill employees told them that the pumps were hard to operate, and the URS consultants speculated that abrasion of stainless steel parts in the pump might be causing metal particles to accumulate in the pumps and wells, thereby potentially affecting groundwater sampling integrity.

To test this theory, URS took a series of sequential samples from water that was standing in the pump riser pipe and found this water high in chromium and nickel. In addition, scanning electron microscopy performed on a sample of sediment obtained from the bottom of the well casing identified the presence of stainless steel and brass fragments there. Based on this data, URS determined that the chromium and nickel of the stainless steel fragments was artificially elevating the concentration of these elements in the groundwater monitoring analysis. They concluded, therefore, that there was no evidence that the landfill leachate had impacted groundwater or that there was a problem with excessive chromium in wells surrounding the site. Working with URS and the pump manufacturer, Centola’s landfill staff were able to make the needed modifications to the pump system.

Clearly, this investigation was a more complex task than could normally be assigned to an engineer on a solid waste superintendent’s staff or to many consultants that are perfectly adequate to perform run-of-the-mill general engineering services for solid waste operations. Perhaps for this reason, the Deschutes County Solid Waste Department preferred working with a firm that has a full spectrum of capability.

“This doesn’t mean that we offload all engineering tasks to our consultant,” Centola said. “We look at the level of effort and the skills needed to do a project and assess whether we can do it in-house without negatively impacting other in-house projects. Often, the required expertise and level of effort needed will cause us to assign the project to our consultant, but not always. For example, David Evans and Associates Inc., the [Portland] firm that preceded URS as our general engineering services consultant, had been doing the landfill gas monitoring at our active landfill and our three closed landfills. We determined that we could do it ourselves at a lesser cost, so we hired and trained a technician and bought the needed monitoring equipment. This works very well for us and ensures that we get out to investigate the closed landfills on a regular basis.”

It would be fair to say that larger projects (dollarwise) may go out for competitive proposals rather than through task orders with URS on their general engineering services contract. For example, the county did solicit proposals for the $10 million facilities project, and URS got the job. Just recently, Centola solicited proposals for the liner project and another firm, Kleinfelder, is doing the work. So while URS still performs a wide range of tasks under the general engineering services contract, this second consulting firm will be responsible for the liner program.

La Crosse County, WI
In Wisconsin, the La Crosse County Solid Waste Department is wrestling with the question of how to determine whether to use in-house personnel or consultant personnel for a given project or task. For the current project under consideration, the answer is decidedly mixed. As described by Solid Waste Director Brian Tippetts, “In one of our closed landfills, the leachate penetrated the liner and was contaminating the groundwater. One question was: ‘Should we hire county employees to dig up the landfill?’ Our answer was ‘No.’ Instead, we decided to use contract employees under the supervision of our general engineering services consultant to do the cleanup until it is completed [by the winter of 2007]. That raised the second question, ‘Should we use an employee to replace the consultant’s technician for the leachate system monitoring?’ This time, because the task appeared to be a permanent one and because landfill gas monitoring had to be done at that landfill too, the answer was ‘yes’ because it makes economic sense for one of our employees to do all the monitoring.”

The La Crosse County Solid Waste Department is a fairly small operation, with a staff of just seven employees and the requirement to “manage” just 150,000 tpy of waste. (The department operates both a landfill and a waste-to-energy plant, each of which accepts 75,000 tpy. However, part of the waste that the landfill accepts is ash from the waste-to-energy plant.) The county does not collect either MSW or recyclables, and it does not have a transfer station. However, it does have some unusual operations, such as accepting petroleum-contaminated soil, treating it biologically, and using it for daily cover. In fact, this is just part of an award-winning hazmat program that features a drop-off center and a mobile hazmat trailer for pickup from a wide area including other states. The county recycles and reuses the hazardous materials it accepts; for example, it pours the liquid latex paint onto wood chips prior to using them for daily cover. In all, the county only has to bury or incinerate 10% of the hazardous materials it accepts. The program earned SWANA’s Bronze Communication Award for 2006.

With such unusual operations, La Crosse County makes extensive use of consultants. In the past, the county has used such firms as Ayres Associates Inc. of Eau Claire, WI, and HDR Engineering, but currently it has contracted with the Green Bay, WI, firm of Foth & Van Dyke and Associates Inc. for all of its engineering services.

Tibbetts defends this sole-source decision vigorously. “We have many integrated programs that are small but can be complex,” he explains. “If we make a change in any one of them, say our landfill operation, that change can affect other programs, such as our waste-to-energy plant, or our hazmat reuse programs. So we think that hiring the ‘best’ consultant for each function can be counter-productive. Instead, we believe it is imperative to have just one consultant with great breadth of experience and skills in a wide range of solid waste management issues. We select our general engineering services consultants with great care, and we build a tight working relationship with the firm we select. Ayres Associates filled that role for six years, and then, after an open RFP process, we switched to Foth & Van Dyke. They have been our engineering services consultant for the past eight years, and we just renewed their contract.Page Break Line

“We call on Foth & Van Dyke to do nonengineering services, too. Right now, we are in the midst of the largest waste allocation project ever in Wisconsin: digging up that leaking landfill and putting the waste into a Subtitle D-approved landfill. It will be an important improvement for us, but it threatened to be a major NIMBY problem. When you expand a landfill in Wisconsin, you have to adhere to the same rules as you would to open a new landfill—including extensive public hearings, Just to complicate things, we were already in the news. We were in the process of renewing our waste-to-energy contract that included a $10.9 million upgrade.

“Fortunately, Foth & Van Dyke had extensive public relations experience dealing with just this kind of problem. Together, we designed and carried out a proactive public communications program consisting of periodic newsletters, annual reports, open houses, and full discussions to explain to the public in general and our stakeholders in particular what we were planning to do and why it was important. This communications program proved to be very successful. When the final public hearing was scheduled to hear public comments, only five letters were received, all supporting the landfill expansion. The campaign that Foth & Van Dyke had designed had completely defused the NIMBY objections.”

South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency
La Crosse County is not the only solid waste management operation that relies on Foth & Van Dyke. Last year, the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency selected Foth & Van Dyke as its engineering services consulting firm, replacing Fox Engineering, of Ames, IA, which had held that position since the agency was founded in 1994. The selection of Foth & Van Dyke was the result of that meticulous RFP evaluation described earlier with the application of the following weighted criteria:

  • Approach to developing /maintaining working relationship—10 pts
  • Philosophy of regulatory compliance—5 pts
  • Approach to enhancing cost-effectiveness of operations—5 pts
  • Understanding of project and scope of services, including innovative project descriptions for Agency consideration—25 pts
  • Project management approach, including billable expenses and mark-up—15 pts
  • Project team, including subcontractor availability, experience, billing rates—20 pts
  • Qualifications—15 pts
  • Exceptions and changes to the draft contract—5 pts

“The process works,” says Sara Bixby, manager of the South Central Iowa Solid Waste Agency. “Foth & Van Dyke have brought new approaches to the design and permitting processes that are more in line with my expectations about our new requirements. For one thing, the state of Iowa is in the process of rewriting its landfill rules to comply with an EPA deadline to make all remaining landfills Subtitle D-compliant. Every landfill has to comply with the new rules or close by next fall.

“One of the benefits of working with a firm like Foth & Van Dyke is that we can tie the strategic planning in with the practical design and permitting operations, and we can tie business planning with engineering. We can pull in other specialized firms if they are needed for specialized tasks, but for the bulk of our tasks and our planning, we prefer a single multiple-capability firm that we can work with on a team basis.”

While the particulars in how to use a consultant or consultants varied widely among our seven solid waste management organizations, one theme seems to be shared by all. Rather than hire a consultant as sort of a hired gun, they all seek to establish a team relationship that can extend to many of their operations and their planning. They are willing to recompete their engineering services contracts every five years or so if required by statute, but when they evaluate other bidders, they again seem to be primarily seeking firms with which they can effectively work with on a team basis to build a total and long-term capability.

While they probably had that relationship with their former consultant, they have learned that with a rigorous selection process they can find other consultants with which they can work equally well. Msw Bug Web

More in Collection