Trash Mountain

Landfill laborer piles it on.

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.


Does he worry about germs? “What are you going to do?” he questions, “worry all your life?” Some workers, he said, choose to get hepatitis shots, but personally, he is unconcerned. They all wear heavy boots.

Around the landfill, piles of clean fill lie in waiting. By 3 p.m. each day, when the shift ends, the employees will cover the day’s work with 6 inches of dirt. “You have to keep things packed down,” says supervisor Ward. “But if you use too much dirt, you’re eating up the airspace and blocking sediment drainage.” 

This landfill has five operators. On a rotating basis, two are assigned to the compactors. When the operators start up their machines in the morning, dirt added the night before must first be removed before more trash can be added. Dirt required for such a large operation comes from a variety of sources. “Last summer, the Arboretum was cleaned out, giving up tons upon tons of dirt,” Tiedeman noted, as an example.

Rainy days are the worst, he explains, when mud at the top can cause vehicles to get stuck. To help alleviate that problem, piles of woodchips are kept on hand and spread as needed to help increase traction. 

Talking trash

Landfills exist to provide a place for trash that cannot be recycled in any other way. “It has to go somewhere,” Tiedeman says, happy to work at a landfill that he describes as state of the art. Beneath the mountain, which began in 1986, the base has been sealed with a 5-foot liner of compacted clay and specialized plastic to prevent leaching into area groundwater, something that is monitored regularly. 

Fifty wells have already been installed, connected by a series of pipes that draw methane gas produced by the decomposing trash into five large motors below. The motors turn generators that produce electricity, and the electricity is then sold to Madison Gas & Electric in an arrangement that will not only generate an estimated $3.6 million for the county this year but also will produce enough converted natural gas to fuel converted county vehicles, saving on fuel costs.

When a landfill reaches its capacity, “it’s sealed like a big garbage bag,” Tiedeman explains, capped again with a special liner followed by 4 feet of compacted dirt and topsoil, then seeded with grass. Over the years, decomposition will cause the landfill to shrink. 

At the foot of the mountain, a new, 22,000-sq.-ft. transfer station is being built which will allow construction and demolition materials to be separated from regular trash, resulting in about half the amount of waste making it to the landfill. On a daily basis, between 85 and 110 truckloads of garbage are delivered to the landfill, on average, according to the landfill’s scale operator, with an additional 45 to 60 loads collected from private, or “cash,” customers. It all adds up to between 500 and 700 tons of refuse collected every day. 

The landfill recently gained approval from the DNR to increase its height by another half-percent, but that will buy only about 18 more months of operation, due to capacity limits at the 76-acre site. 

In advance of the anticipated increase, engineers, guided by GPS technology, have poked dozens of wooden grade stakes into the surface, indicating how much higher the trash can be piled at each point. One such flag reads: “Station 149: fill 12.3.” 

“That means that at some point in the future, this spot will be 12.3 feet higher than it is now,” Tiedeman explains. He and Ward have been busy raising pipes and wells to accommodate.

Recently, Tiedeman helped Ward run the first of many pipelines into the top of the mountain through which leachate – liquid from its base – will be re-injected. The process is expected to speed decomposition, Tiedeman explains, but it will also produce more methane, resulting in more monitoring, more electricity sold to MG&E, and as much as $1.5 million more to the county each year.


If approved, a newer plan to spend $10 million to expand the landfill east toward Highway AB would extend the life of the landfill by another 30 years. For obvious reasons, it’s easier to expand a landfill than it is to find another location. “Nobody wants to live next to a landfill,” Tiedeman says, “but you’ve got to have ’em.” 

Tiedeman, a union employee, appreciates the variety of duties and especially the independence his job affords. “I’ll do this ’til I retire,” he says. “I like it here. The bosses are good. You’ve got to like your job. I don’t dread going in to work.” 

Over the years, he’s witnessed police sifting through the trash in search of keys or evidence, and once, several years ago, one young couple frantically searched the landfill looking for a ring that was accidentally discarded. “They knew which truck collected their trash,” Tiedeman recalled, “and they knew what bag they were looking for.

“I never in a million years thought they’d find it, but they did!” 

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