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Composting site in Cranberry could pose problems

Tony LaRussa
| Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015, 2:27 p.m.
Rob Kurneck vacuums up leaves along Springhouse Lane  in Fox Chapel while Roger Simonetti with the Fox Chapel public works department drives the truck Tuesday morning Nov. 3, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Rob Kurneck vacuums up leaves along Springhouse Lane in Fox Chapel while Roger Simonetti with the Fox Chapel public works department drives the truck Tuesday morning Nov. 3, 2015.
Rob Kurneck of the Fox Chapel public works department vacuums leaves along Springhouse Lane  in Fox Chapel on Tuesday morning Nov. 3, 2015.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Rob Kurneck of the Fox Chapel public works department vacuums leaves along Springhouse Lane in Fox Chapel on Tuesday morning Nov. 3, 2015.

Every week between April and mid-December, the company Cranberry uses to pick up household trash and items for recycling collects leaves and other yard waste and hauls it to a composting pile near the landfill where the other refuse is processed.

But state environmental officials think there's a better place for all that dying vegetation to go — right in town.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection this year began encouraging larger communities to set up their own drop-off composting sites, which they say make better use of degraded leaves and yard waste.

“We are strongly advising communities that this is the way to do it,” said DEP spokesman John Poister. “We have been working to eliminate the amount of leaves that go into landfills (where) space is now at a premium.”

While Cranberry's Environmental Programs Coordinator Lorin Meeder believes in the benefits of composting yard waste, setting up a local site in which to do it poses some challenges.

“It's a good idea, but a local drop off site would have to be supervised to prevent things like electronics and other prohibited items from being dumped there,” Meeder said, adding that such a facility would require the municipality to pay for permits and adhere to environmental regulations that address things such as water run-off from the pile.

A proper composting site also would require an investment in equipment and manpower to “turn the pile” of debris so the natural chemical process can take place for it to decompose.

“If the public works employees are out collecting leaves and working at the compost site, it takes them away from other duties such as filling pot holes,” Meeder said.

Yard waste collection is included in the regular trash collection fee Cranberry residents pay.

The cost to customers is based on the size of the container the township supplies for household waste. Separate containers for recycling and yard waste are supplied at no additional charge.

Yard waste that doesn't fit into the supplied “green top” container must be placed in biodegradable paper bags for pickup.

Residents also have the option of setting up a compost pile on their own properties, mulching yard waste or simply leaving it on the ground to deteriorate over time, Meeder said.

But he cautions residents who want to do their own composting to be mindful of the nuisance of leaves blowing onto neighbors' properties and the odor created when vegetation breaks down.

Disposal of yard waste is a big issue everywhere, says James Wheeler, director of environmental affairs for the Pennsylvania Association of Township Managers.

In some communities, collecting yard waste is a pricey practice because of the way it is done.

For example, in Fox Chapel, four vacuum trucks the borough uses traverse about 50 miles of roads several times each year. The cost to run the trucks last year totaled $103,000 for labor and another $8,600 for fuel. And once the leaves are picked up, the borough has to pay to send the waste out for composting.

Fox Chapel officials say they would like to reduce vacuum leaf collections, a state-of-the-art practice 40 years ago but one that is outmoded and costly, said Gary Kohler, borough manager.

“This was the way to remove leaves in the '70s and '80s,” he said. “But it's really not an environmentally practical way to do it.” The borough is encouraging people to compost leaves on their own or blow them into wooded areas, where they will decompose.

The high price of buying and maintaining vacuum trucks along with the cost of employees to operate them prompted Cranberry officials to avoid them altogether.

“We've never used them because it's extraordinarily expensive,” Meeder said.

In some communities, including Butler Township, residents are still permitted to dispose of leaves by burning them.

Although the practice is not outlawed by the state, it is prohibited in Cranberry because it is considered a fire danger. Officials also are concerned about the smoke emissions, which creates an environmental and health hazard.

Wheeler of the township manager's association said the move by some counties, such as Allegheny, to ban leaf burning is often the result of “citizen push back.”

Like Cranberry, Butler Township collects bagged leaves at the curb side. But it also allows residents to burn them — with certain restrictions on hours.

“There have been discussions over the years about banning it,” said manager Ed Kirkwood. “We conducted public hearings and took input. People with respiratory problems can't stand it, so the ordinance is a compromise.”

Jamin Bogi, policy outreach coordinator for the Group Against Smog and Pollution, said there is good reason to ban, or at least limit, the practice of burning leaves.

“Leaf burning is similar to burning wood,” he said. “There's lots of carbon monoxide and the more wet the leaves are, the worse of a burn. It harms our health, when there is value in composting.”

Tony LaRussa is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at Staff writer Rick Wills contributed to this report.

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