Since the Fighting Creek Landfill opened in 1993, most of what has been lodged in the soil has little use left.
But Kootenai County and Kootenai Electric Cooperative revealed on Wednesday that they are no longer letting all that waste go to waste.
The two entities welcomed the public all day to tour a new multi-million dollar energy plant at the landfill, where gas emitted from garbage is channeled to produce electricity for nearby homes.
"We had a renewable energy source that was going to waste. That's what it boils down to," said county Solid Waste Director Roger Saterfiel. "Now it's not being wasted."
Several years in the planning, the brick plant humming faintly on Wednesday is the product of a partnership between the county and the utility.
Kootenai County has contracted to lease KEC the land for the facility, and to sell the utility methane gas produced by organic material from the landfill. KEC then uses the emissions to create electricity at the plant, currently powering 900 homes.
It will light up 1,800, once the second of the plant's two engines is running.
"As soon as they fired it up, it's revenue for the county," Saterfiel said, adding that the county expects to bring in $4.5 million over the next 20 years by selling the gas.
The two entities will also bring in dollars by selling renewable energy credits they receive for providing a renewable energy source. Other energy producers purchase the credits to meet clean energy standards.
The facility is a milestone for KEC, said General Manager Doug Elliott.
The utility funded the $6.5 million plant with Clean Renewable Energy Bonds, he said, which basically provide interest-free loans for energy projects.
"This is the first generator facility we've constructed and operated," Elliott said. "It's been a steep learning curve, but a valuable one."
The production of electricity at the plant, running since March, is a beautiful dance of garbage and physics.
The landfill's part is easy. The junk goes about its usual cycle of decomposition, rotting and releasing methane gas. That methane, potentially a harmful greenhouse gas, is sucked into a pipeline system.
Solid Waste has long used the gas to fuel the evaporation of leachate, or garbage water. Excess methane was burned off in flares.
Now, the leftover gas is recycled, piped to the energy plant to power one of the engines for the electricity generator.
Both engines will run eventually, Saterfiel said, when the county finds an alternative to evaporating leachate and sells all of its methane to KEC.
"In seven to eight years, we'll be talking about a third engine," Saterfiel said.
Members of the public were allowed to peer up close at the engine roaring inside the facility, as well as outdoor pipelines that smelled of the sulfur-like methane.
Joyce Torgerson, who lives south of the Mica Grange, was intrigued to learn she could help by throwing away organic material like food scraps.
"It's something everyone can think about and start doing," Torgerson said.
She was impressed, she said, that the project "puts things people throw away into good use, to further our resources and help the resources of the land."
Commissioner Jai Nelson, who wielded the oversized scissors at Wednesday morning's ribbon cutting ceremony, said she is proud of the project.
"We're getting some power on the grid, and some revenue back to Kootenai County," she said.
Former commissioner Rick Currie, who had been in office when the county signed the contract with KEC, was smiling after he toured the facility.
"There are so many positives," Currie said. "This came to being because of the staff at Kootenai County Solid Waste. They can take full responsibility."
SHAWN GUST/Press Dave Nussear, with the Coeur d'Alene Commodores, listens to a description of the workings of Fighting Creek's methane-to-energy facility.