Fires, trash and stench: Kansas landfill sparks dispute between rural neighbors and owner
County commissioner: ‘It’s an unfolding environmental disaster … and so far KDHE has refused to take this seriously’
A Leavenworth County landfill caught fire last year, sending smoke into the air around Easton. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)
A Leavenworth County landfill caught fire last year, sending smoke into the air around Easton. (Allison Kite/Kansas Reflector)
EASTON — Residents had complained to their local officials for months before Kansas environmental regulators investigated a trash mountain forming in a Leavenworth County landfill that is only permitted to take construction debris.
By the time staffers inspected the facility, the situation was so severe a fire ripped through the landfill a few days later, sending foul-smelling smoke into the air around Easton.
The landfill continued to smolder for months. Sharon Wagner, who lives across the street, said the smell was “unbelievable.”
“This summer, we couldn’t go out and sit on our deck and enjoy our grandkids coming over because the smell was so strong,” she said. “And then you don’t know what you’re breathing.”
Despite the cause for concern, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment didn’t test the air quality. Instead, Wagner said, the state’s environmental agency suggested the neighbors pay to see if their air was safe. Nobody tested the air around the landfill until February — almost a year after the fire.
“It’s an unfolding environmental disaster here in the state of Kansas, and so far KDHE has refused to take this seriously,” Leavenworth County Commissioner Mike Stieben told members of a Kansas House committee earlier this year.
When the fire ignited in February 2022, neighbors’ frustration with the landfill’s stench, traffic from semi trucks arriving to dump loads of waste and the trash mountain visible from their quiet rural homes boiled over into ongoing strife with the landfill’s owners, Flat Land Excavating. Some Easton residents — and several Kansas legislators — think KDHE hasn’t done enough.
KDHE has issued several citations and a more than $6,000 fine, but the landfill’s operator, Shawn Britz, claims the acrimony about his facility comes primarily from “Crook Hill” — the ridge across the road from his landfill where members of the influential Crook family live and raise cattle on 240 acres. The rest, he argues, is from county commissioners who regret selling the landfill to his predecessor and are trying to sabotage him.
“We’re not trying to be bad people,” Britz said in an interview at his landfill. “We’re not. This was my kids’ future.”
Britz — whose wife, Christy, owns the landfill — said the two put “everything we had” into buying the business.
“Do you think we would want to screw it up?” he said.
On an afternoon in February, Wagner — whose last name was Crook before she married — flips through pages of research about the state’s environmental regulations and photos of the mound of trash piled at Flat Land a year ago.
She and her brother Howard Crook and sister-in-law Karen Crook — married not to Howard but another of Wagner’s brothers — all live in the vicinity of the landfill and gathered at Wagner’s kitchen table to go over their concerns about the facility.
They’re tired of the stench from the year-old fire and of getting little information out of state regulators.
“We’re not trying to be problem-makers,” Howard Crook said. “What we’re worried about is our grandkids and this farm that was left to us as a family heirloom.”
Wagner and Crook’s grandfather bought their family farm after World War II and gave each grandchild a few acres to build a home on as they got married.
While the odor wasn’t wafting their way that afternoon, the Crooks and Wagner said it can still be terrible depending on the weather and time of day. It wasn’t always like this.
“It’s always been a rock quarry-slash-kind-of-dump, but we have never had an issue ever on this side of the hill with what happened over there,” Howard Crook said.
The landfill has a special use permit from Leavenworth County to operate close to homes. Under the previous owner, who purchased it from the county, they say it wasn’t so busy. But that changed, Crook said, when Flat Land bought it in 2019.
“It was shortly after that that the semis started rolling,” he said.
From Wagner’s front yard, the top of the dirt pile at the landfill is visible. At one time, that was all trash, Crook said. Relatives couldn’t stand to be outside.
Wagner said KDHE didn’t act on neighbors’ complaints for 18 months. She said that is why the pile became so large and was able to ignite and burn so intensely.
Leavenworth County issued Flat Land a cease and desist letter on Feb. 9, 2022, saying the landfill had created a “significant public nuisance.”
KDHE came out to inspect the next day and found five violations. They found two more violations by the end of 2022. Early this year, the agency issued the landfill a $6,250 fine, which it has paid.
“I don’t know how many infractions you have to have before KDHE says this is enough,” Crook said.
KDHE’s spokesman, Matt Lara, said in a statement that standard protocols for citing facilities and requiring them to fix violations were followed in the case of the landfill. He said the unauthorized waste violation is common.
“Ordering a facility to cease operations is a significant action that the agency would only consider if all other options to correct violations have been ineffective or, in extreme circumstances, when an imminent threat to public health or the environment can be proved,” he said.
Action and reaction
KDHE had previously inspected the landfill and found complaints unsubstantiated.
When department staff returned following Leavenworth County’s cease and desist order, they found trash piled 50 feet high, uncovered and not compacted. They saw more than 100 containers that weren’t allowed in a construction and demolition landfill and a half-dozen tires.
The inspectors’ report says the landfill wasn’t screening its waste.
Construction and debris landfills are required to screen waste and keep out tires, garbage and other debris that isn’t allowed.
When first contacted by Kansas Reflector, Britz denied the accusations of unapproved waste, even though KDHE had cited him for it.
“No, there never has been,” he said over the phone.
During an interview at the landfill, he acknowledged the violation. He said all of his equipment was broken that week, which he attributes to sabotage.
Britz also said in the months leading up to the violation, he was extremely sick with COVID-19, resulting in a hospital stay. Some of his employees were out, too.
Britz responded to the violations and state regulators restored his compliance, but the county kept the landfill shut down. Facing the possibility of that becoming permanent, Flat Land sued. In the lawsuit, filed in March 2022, the company suspected conspiracy.
“Flat Land has also suffered various instances of sabotage, threats, coercion and unexplained fires that are too coincidental to be unrelated to (the county’s) actions,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit cites an incident when Flat Land staff found a bulldozer that had more than five gallons of water in the fuel tank.
Britz pointed out the vehicle on a tour of the landfill in March. He said it is only a year old but on its third engine and has had water in its gas twice. The first time, he thought it was an error by one of his employees, but not the second.
“That time, we knew that it was vandalism,” Britz said.
Britz points to a truck tipper that he said had a part broken in pieces one day.
“They can catastrophic fail, but it was way too convenient,” he said. “Everything here broke within a week.”
Over the course of 2022, the Leavenworth County Sheriff’s Office responded to nine calls about trespassing at the landfill, including one involving a member of the Crook family. The sheriff’s department said “none of the criminal complaints ever had a suspect associated with the event.”
In 2021, the landfill reported thousands of dollars of equipment had been stolen or vandalized, including portable buildings, power tools and security cameras.
Britz said some of his cameras were stolen again last month.
Last year’s lawsuit implies the county, which owned the landfill before Britz’s predecessor, is trying to shut down the landfill because it regrets having sold it.
“This is all highly suspicious behavior suggesting a self-interested government takeover or insider dealing for political gain,” the company said in its lawsuit.
The county settled the lawsuit and paid Flat Land $200,000.
Under a memorandum of understanding, Flat Land is to keep the road cleaned up, stay inside its operating hours and only accept approved waste. The landfill and county are both hiring engineers to create a report about Flat Land’s compliance with KDHE regulations.
Against that background of strife, the landfill caught fire.
Up in flames
The fire that started at Flat Land in late February 2022 may never be explained.
A few days later, a different part of the landfill ignited.
Britz said the fire wrapped quickly around what now appears to be a dirt pile. Clean fill dirt covers the compacted waste. At that time, it was the pile of trash for which KDHE cited the landfill.
“We kept it put out, but it was staying ahead of us,” he said.
Photos show a thick white smoke, and according to a report filed with KDHE, the fire burned between 20,000 and 25,000 cubic yards of waste over about nine hours.
Flareups continued, and KDHE cited the facility in September for using poor firefighting methods to combat the months-long smolder. KDHE ordered the facility to come up with a fire mitigation plan in October, almost eight months after the massive fire.
Britz said hotspots continued to appear for some time after the fire, but he hadn’t seen one lately.
The neighbors say they still see smoke from the landfill periodically.
KDHE last received a fire report, which landfill owners are required to submit once a fire is extinguished, in July.
Despite the outcry from neighbors and county commissioners, KDHE didn’t test the air quality around the landfill and suggested neighbors pay for it themselves, Wagner said.
Lara, the KDHE spokesman, said in an email that KDHE staff smelled an odor like hydrogen sulfide gas — which, in small doses, causes irritation of the eyes, nose and throat — in November 2022, nine months after the fire. Large doses of the gas can be fatal.
Another three months later, Lara said, staff returned with consultants for Flat Land to test for the gas. Results “showed no excedances of landfill gas action levels,” Lara said. He said additional testing is planned.
Lara did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with KDHE experts and did not explain why it took a year after the fire to conduct the tests.
Zack Pistora, a lobbyist for the Kansas chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group, said it was a shame the neighbors had to wait so long to get officials’ attention.
“A lot of harm … could have been avoided had our state agency been more proactive,” Pistora said. “We expect a standard of environmental protections for our wellbeing here in Kansas, and when that’s compromised, then communities and Kansans have every right to be upset about all that.”
A report from Flat Land’s environmental consultant, obtained from KDHE through a Kansas Open Records Act request, shows that in February of this year, there were five vents in the main body of the landfill emitting hydrogen sulfide and methane.
One vent was emitting a level of hydrogen sulfide 15 times the limit set out in Kansas regulations. But, the report says, that was only at the ground level. At 18 or 24 inches above the surface, the gasses couldn’t be detected.
An investigation by the Kansas State Fire Marshal’s Office was unable to determine the cause of the fire.
In a phone interview with Kansas Reflector, Britz said he thought the fire was arson.
“Watch the county commissioner meeting the previous week and see what’s said in that meeting,” Britz said, implying a connection between the commissioners and the fire.
During the Feb. 16, 2022, meeting, Commissioner Jeff Culbertson updated the commission on the state of the landfill and announced the county had issued a cease and desist. Commissioner Doug Smith lamented the county’s decision to sell the landfill.
The fire investigators’ report found no evidence to support arson, but it also didn’t exclude it.
In an interview at the landfill, Britz said he thought the fire began in the same spot where a bulldozer threw sparks when workers tried to start the machine after it had been tipped on its side.
Britz told fire investigators a third version of events.
According to the fire marshal’s report, which said the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined, Britz said he uncovered an area of the landfill that was smoldering a day before the fire. He told investigators he thought it had spread from the earlier fire in another area of the landfill.
Asked about his varying theories on the fire, Britz said he couldn’t prove it, but he thought it was arson.
Britz’s attorneys, in a presentation to the county’s planning commission, produced text messages between Culbertson and another individual in which Culbertson theorizes that the landfill’s owners used the fire to cover up evidence of the facility’s unlawful trash.
“Best way to get rid of evidence is an accidental fire,” Culbertson said in a text.
In another text, Culbertson said the bad news was the trash would likely burn for a few days. But the good news was he may be able to get the landfill shut down permanently.
Culbertson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Environmental regulators’ response caught the attention of the Kansas Legislature this year.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Budget Committee heard testimony about the landfill from Sharon Wagner and Leavenworth County commissioners Mike Steiben and Jeff Culbertson and later brought in Leo Henning, one of KDHE’s top-ranking officials.
Henning said the department had been on site at the landfill a dozen times in the past year and requested air testing results from the ownership company after hearing concerns from citizens. He didn’t address why that took a year.
Henning said the results from tests conducted in February showed that when testers were placed at ground level above a vent, they found “typical landfill gasses.” Those are hydrogen sulfide, methane and carbon monoxide.
“So when they put the detector right at ground level where that vent is, they detected some of those gasses,” he told the committee in late February. “When they then detected 18 inches above that vent, it was non-detect.”
Two lawmakers who testified before the committee took almost opposite positions on the situation.
Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, whose district is close to the landfill, said it’s a huge problem. Pittman said KDHE has procedures where it can require the landfill to be bulldozed to ensure the fire is out, and “that’s just not being done.”
“People complain about going by there on their bicycles maybe five miles away and they smell that trash,” Pittman said.
Rep. Lance Neelly, R-Tonganoxie, was emphatic that there was no smoke and the odor was far from “unbearable.” He said he drove around the site with Britz and called the area around the dump “beautiful.”
“I would imagine that when an actual fire is going that’s going to exacerbate that considerably, but to say that it was unbearable is just simply not so,” Neelly said. “We had our windows down and drove around for hours.”
Neelly said both that there was no fire and that an underground fire has been burning since the 1990s.
He called the Leavenworth County Commission’s handling of the situation “egregious,” pointing out the county settled the lawsuit for $200,000 for “persecution, harassment and shutting down the landfill illegally.”
Henning said even though the vent holes in the landfill aren’t releasing much air at this point, the state agency would stay on top of the situation. He hopes the landfill will be fully covered to smother the heat by this summer.
“We will stay there until the fire is out,” he said.
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