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Trash Mountain

Landfill laborer piles it on.

(page 1 of 3)

Yahara Golf course glistens with morning dew. To the northwest, the city’s skyline and Capitol are brightening with the new day. The views from this perch – rising 130 feet above ground – are incredible. The smell? Not so much.

On this crisp, fall morning, the Dane County Landfill on Highway 12/18 is churning with activity. The stiff wind brings a wind chill factor, but neither the cold nor the smell is of any concern to Doug “Chip” Tiedeman, a skilled laborer and all-around utility guy. “It’s always windy up here,” he shrugs. 

After six years at the landfill, the affable Tiedeman, 50, is a self-described jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none, willing and able to perform any of the duties he’s assigned. On any given day, he might repair vehicles in the site’s machine shop, or mow the grassy hill (required at least once a year), or haul tires to a different recycling site, or form concrete. With a CDL license, he is able to operate any of the large construction vehicles on-site, and later today, he’ll help Supervisor Dave Ward repair a pipe leading to one of dozens of wells that dot the landfill. For now, he’s playing tour guide.

Since about 7 a.m., a steady stream of trucks and personal vehicles have been trekking up the trash mountain. One by one, they circle to the top on an undulating blacktop drive – the result of vehicle weight and years of settling – a normal phenomenon. Twenty-seven years ago, Ward pushed the first load of garbage into the landfill in 1986, and what once was a nondescript landscape has since grown into one of the highest points in Dane County.

Reaching the summit

At the top, the vehicles deposit their loads in a designated location where a driver operating a huge compactor grabs the trash with a hydraulic blade, then pushes and drags it evenly over a relatively small, concentrated area. Meanwhile, hundreds of seagulls and a smattering of turkey vultures engulf the compactor, hoping for tasty snacks. “Seagulls are a real menace,” Tiedeman says, because of the mess they leave on the vehicles. 

“Mess” is a relative term at a landfill, where compactors, powered along by enormous cleated wheels, chug back and forth, squishing, smashing, and grinding tons of new rubbish over older trash left on a different day. Operating a compactor while teetering on the sloping edge of the mountain appears dangerous, but Tiedeman smiles reassuringly. “It’s just like riding a big lawnmower.”

The landfill’s surface is squishy, if not surreal, and even a bit icky. Underfoot, ribbons of plastic bags flutter in the wind and construction waste is exposed. In the immediate area, there’s a knit hat, a sock, half the sole of a shoe, a sandal, bottle caps, sections of hosing, landscape trim, and a glove. A mattress, or at least a part of one, lies in the distance, and just feet away, a flattened, furry stuffed bear lies dejectedly on its stomach – pieces of people’s lives that will soon be buried under more tons of trashed memories. Occasionally, Tiedeman notes, a syringe might poke through the surface.

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