State wildlife officials have hit a roadblock in their plan to slow the spread of chronic wasting disease by collecting deer carcasses in targeted regions of Minnesota.
Less than two weeks before the start of firearms deer season, the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is “scrambling” to find a way to dispose of potentially biohazardous deer remains.
The DNR had an appropriation from the Legislature to park special dumpsters for the dead deer in parts of southeast and central Minnesota where chronic wasting disease (CWD) has been detected. That offered a new disposal option to hunters, who can take the meat but cannot take carcasses out of targeted areas until they are tested for the disease. The dumpsters allow the agency to ensure that remains are landfilled or incinerated, rather than left in the woods where the disease could spread.
But the company that was expected to provide most of the dumpsters, Waste Management, told the state recently that it won’t offer the service and will remove dumpsters it had installed for the archery season. And a public landfill that was supposed to dispose of a large share of the waste says it can no longer take deer carcasses unless they have tested negative for the disease.
“We’re now seeing the consequences of CWD on a practical management level … and it’s going to affect lots of people,” said Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul and chair of the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance committee, which held a hearing on the issue Tuesday. “Here we are relatively few days before the hunting season, and we’ve got a problem.”
CWD is a fatal brain disease affecting deer that’s transmitted primarily through saliva, feces and urine. There have been just over 50 confirmed cases in Minnesota, but the disease has already become widespread in Wisconsin. Controlling its spread is complicated by the disease’s pathogens, known as “prions,” which are not easily destroyed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there have been no documented cases of CWD infecting humans, but studies of primates “raise concerns” about a potential risk.
Some landfill operators have expressed concern about accepting the carcasses because the prions could end up in the water that’s collected and pumped out of the facilities, known as leachate. That water often ends up at water treatment plants that aren’t equipped to eliminate prions.
Julie Ketchum, a spokeswoman for Texas-based Waste Management, said liability concerns about leachate initially spurred the firm to stop accepting deer carcasses at its three Minnesota landfills. Olmsted County’s landfill, which had been taking carcasses from the dumpster program, then also stopped accepting them recently after hearing similar leachate concerns from Rochester’s water treatment plant.
“With other disposal locations not being willing to accept the material, we have made the decision that we will not serve as the transporter,” Ketchum said, adding that the carcasses should ideally be incinerated.
Tony Hill, Olmsted County’s director of environmental resources, said the county is exploring alternatives such as holding the carcasses in containers until test results come back. Remains that test positive could then be taken to the University of Minnesota’s alkaline digester.
“We’re working through this with the [Minnesota Pollution Control Agency] and DNR on how to solve this problem,” Hill said. DNR officials say that given the limited number of appropriate incinerators in the state, landfills are the next best option.
Michelle Carstensen, the DNR’s wildlife health group leader, contends that research shows clay landfill liners keep prions out of the leachate. “It’s still the best place for it to be, compared to the landscape,” she said.
Bryan Lueth, who is managing the dumpster program for the DNR, said the agency had hoped to install 26 dumpsters in the southeast and central CWD management areas. Without Waste Management’s services, they have secured roughly 10 dumpsters and are searching for other vendors.
“They are walking away from the purchase orders, and we’re scrambling to come up with another solution,” Lueth told lawmakers on Tuesday.
Most of the carcasses from the central Minnesota dumpsters will be taken to the Crow Wing County landfill, which is using a DNR incinerator to dispose of them, Lueth said. Most of the remaining carcasses will be taken to a landfill in La Crosse, Wis.
“We’re reaching out … to networks of waste haulers to see if anybody might be interested,” Lueth said in an interview. “We’re exploring … ways of us doing it ourselves by using dump trucks or renting dump trailers that would allow us to collect them and then bring them to a landfill like Crow Wing County.”
Hunters in the CWD “management zones” are not required to put their carcasses in dumpsters.