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A small army of workers from a Missoula temporary job service and Opportunity Resources is struggling this week with an imposing task on a cut above Interstate 90.

They’ve been enlisted by Republic Services to clean up a mess of trash strewn by last week’s winds from the Missoula landfill.

“We’re just going to stay out there until it’s all gone,” Glenda Bradshaw, Republic’s general manager, said Monday.

State regulations require landfill operators to cover waste with 6 inches of earthen material at the end of each operating day “to control disease vectors, fires, odors, blowing litter and scavenging.”

But the harsh cold this winter has made that problematic with frozen cover soil that won’t stay put. Giant compactors usually serve to tamp the refuse and its earthen cover into the ground.

“We used those the day before but right now the topsoil is frozen down to 40 inches,” Bradshaw said. “There’s just no place for the trash to go.”

The strong winds made Republic’s other measures, an enormous tarp to cover the heaps, all but impossible to safely apply.

“There was a single day last week at the landfill when we had 15-20 mph winds, and there are, like, 7-foot drifts of snow up there on the west side. It just picked up everything, primarily plastic bags, and scattered it everywhere,” Bradshaw said.

Interstate travelers last week and over the weekend got an eyeful. Refuse of all colors covers the side hill and median for upwards of a quarter-mile. It flutters from barbed wire and trees and is piled up against the chain link interstate fences.

“I went and drove it this weekend,” Bradshaw said. “It was distressing to see.”

Plastic bags are notoriously hard to keep a lid on, even in moderate winds, if they’re not buried. But this was something special.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen this kind of explosive wind event,” Bradshaw said. “I’ve got people who’ve been here for 25 years who said it’s completely unprecedented.

“We really pride ourselves in maintaining a really clean landfill, and typically you can hardly see the landfill,” she added. “We seed it with grass and hope it looks like part of the North Hills. So we take something like this very seriously.”

She said Republic notified the city and the city-county health department of the pending trash-aster, and the company has kept them abreast of what it’s doing about it. Calls to the health department Monday were not returned.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality fielded a complaint on Friday.

“We have referred it to our solid waste section, which will be following up on it,” said Karen Ogden, the department’s public information officer, who added it’s too soon to talk about fines or sanctions.

“I’d hate to speculate on that, since we haven’t had a chance to investigate it. We don’t know at this point where the litter is coming from.”

Republic has been proactive about what is “sort of an act of God,” Bradshaw said.

“They could fine me if I’d done something wrong and not been diligent in starting the cleanup,” she said. “They could fine if I just said I don’t care. But we do care and we are cleaning it up.”

If nothing else, the mess on I-90 points to the American public's over-reliance on plastic shopping bags. Republic's recycling program doesn't accept them, in part because most of them can gum up the processing equipment.

"But I can't think of one store in town that doesn't take those back," Bradshaw said. Republic fully supports zero waste plans such as the Zero By Fifty program the City of Missoula adopted last summer. 

"I always say when faced with a choice of plastic or anything else, choose the anything else," she said. 

Republic could spend up to $10,000 in wages if the cleanup takes all week. By all appearances, it might take that long. And if the wind blows again, it could be even longer.

The Opportunity Resources crew started on the task Friday. Hires from a local temporary job service will be on daily duty.

They’re picking up trash between the freeway and Republic’s property line, and the Montana Department of Transportation has posted a caution sign for westbound traffic in the area. 

The company has rented a small excavator to scoop snow and trash away from the fence inside the landfill and haul it away in dump trucks.

“We apologize,” Bradshaw said. “It bugs us as much as it bugs anybody. It’s been just an incredibly and unusually challenging winter with the winds.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian