submitted by Ken Steinken
As the branches disappeared from the curbs around town and the mountains of chipped wood grew at Fitzgerald Field, the Central States Fairgrounds and the civic center overflow parking lot, I began to wonder – What next? Where are all those ground-up tree parts going to end up?
When Ted Johnson of Rapid City's engineering department was first given the task of overseeing the post-blizzard clean-up and recovery operations, he didn't have time to think about that important detail.
He was busy putting together the necessary legal documents to get bids from contractors who could help with the clean-up. And then he needed to get the word out to those who had the capability to handle such widespread damage and start as soon as possible.
Once contractors were selected and the pickup of downed limbs and trees began, Johnson could turn his attention to how to dispose of the swelling mounds of tree remnants.
But before he came up with a solution he got word that GCC Dacotah cement plant had contacted the city to offer to take all the blizzard biowaste at no cost to the city.
"We knew that GCC could probably offer some assistance to dispose of wood chips and the waste from the blizzard," said GCC production manager Clark Wismer. "We just wanted to help out and do something that we thought the city could take advantage of."
"I talked to plant manager Steve Post and quarry manager Tom Oliver," said Johnson. "We had some discussions and worked out an agreement between the city and GCC to accept all the wood chips."
By this time Johnson realized that getting rid of the wood chips was not the only problem, but GCC offered a solution to the second dilemma as well.
"They let us haul tree branches out there and grind some of it onsite just because we didn't have enough space," said Johnson.
I had no idea how much space GCC has until plant manager Post invited me to get into his pickup to go see where the wood chips were being dumped and the tree waste was being ground up.
I could tell you that it's 580 acres, but unless you're a rancher, that might not mean much. Let me put it like this. It's so big, they have been mining limestone, the main ingredient of cement, from that location for 90 years.
Or maybe this will help put it in perspective for you. Johnson estimates that the contractors have collected and ground enough tree branches for the wood chips to cover four football fields ten feet deep. And they're still collecting.
Plus Rapid City citizens hauled enough branches to disposal sites to create another two to three football fields worth of chips. GCC has enough room to pile all those chips and not have it get in the way of their normal operations.
"They've got a large site," said Johnson. "It's well maintained and controlled.
"GCC Dacotah is a licensed solid waste disposal site through Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the state of South Dakota. So they are approved to accept waste material."
For Johnson and Rapid City taxpayers this is a "huge advantage" because to be eligible to get reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency all material disposal must comply with strict requirements outlined by the agency.
How much will the blizzard clean-up cost? "$3 million is a reasonable wild guess," said Johnson. "From meeting with different people and FEMA that's what we've pulled together for possible cost."
Looking at the vast heaps of chips that the quarry-size front end loader worked continuously to arrange while I watched, my next thought was – What's next for all those chips?
GCC uses the wood chips in its reclamation program. (photo by Ken Steinken)
"We're able to use the wood chips to reclaim different parts of the mine," said GCC production manager Wismer about the limestone quarry. "We can spread the woods chips out and use it as compost to grow grass and reclaim the land after it's been mined."
Most of the blizzard waste was being processed on land quite a distance from the active quarry. But some of the chips had already been stockpiled not far from where a loader filled a quarry-size dump truck so it would be on hand when reclamation began at that location.
"Reclamation is part of our plan for any area we disturb for our raw materials," said Wismer. "We operate under quite a few different DENR permits and some of them have to do with the reclamation after we mine."
GCC Dacotah is part of the U.S. division of Grupo Cementos de Chihuahua, the Mexican company that bought the cement plant in 2001 from the state of South Dakota, which had run it since it was built in 1924. GCC of America's vision statement says, "Our business practices constitute an example of sustainable development, social responsibility and good corporate government."