Schmidt handles what others don?t want

Rollin Schmidt may have the most cumbersome and off-putting job title in county government history.

Try telling folks you?re the director of the noxious weed office and household hazardous waste facility, and manager of the Marion County transfer station.

?It?s too involved and when you explain it to people, they don?t hear what you?re saying,? Schmidt admitted.

That?s why he prefers the simple title: ?a department head.?

Schmidt?s preference is probably better than the suggested alternative: ?director of all things yucky.?

Even though the vast majority of materials Schmidt and his crew work with during an average week are outlawed, dangerous or unwanted, Schmidt said he enjoys his job.

?First, I?d have to know what an average week is,? Schmidt said with a smile. ?That?s one thing I like about this job and government work in general: It?s always an adventure, at least for the departments I?m in.

?You never know what you?ll run into and you never know what?s going to hit that trash floor.?

Noxious weeds

Schmidt got his start with the county when he accepted the position in the noxious weed department.

?There is a weed law in Kansas that a lot of people aren?t aware of, especially city folk,? Schmidt said. ?There are 12 plants on that (noxious weed) list, and we are required by state law to eradicate them.

?I hate it that it?s in the law, because we can?t eradicate them,? he added. ?But that?s what the law says.?

Of the 12 noxious weeds, Schmidt said he is aware of only four in Marion County: musk thistle, field bindweed, sericea lespedeza and Johnson grass.

?That?s basically what we do in noxious weed?we enforce that law,? Schmidt said.

?Then also it?s my duty to see that all county property is eradicated of noxious weeds. So we spray ditches, the old landfill, the courthouse lawn?any county property?to make sure it?s noxious-weed free.?

Of the four weeds his department addresses, musk thistle is the ?emotional? weed.

?Ask any producer or farmer who has a neighbor with it in the pasture and you?ll understand what I?m saying, because it will blow into his pasture,? Schmidt said.

?When I get complaints on that, then they?re very adamant: ?Please do something.??

Ironically, musk thistle is the easiest weed of the four to kill.

?If farmers would just adopt a program and get started, they?d get rid of it,? Schmidt said. ?The other three I?m not so sure. I?ve been spraying them for over 30 years and we still have them.?

Hazardous waste

Schmidt calls overseeing the handling and disposal of hazardous wastes ?one of the most enjoyable things I?ve ever done.?

?It?s very interesting because you don?t know what people will have, and the people are kind of apprehensive about it,? he said.

People who buy old farmsteads are a common client.

?They run into all these jars of stuff, so they call me and ask, ?What do I have to do??? Schmidt said. ?I find that very interesting?what we?ll find and what it is. I?ve been trained to do tests on certain things to find out what they?ve got.?

In almost all cases, Schmidt will ask the client to bring the questionable materials to his office in Marion.

?I used to go out to them, but (the Kansas Department of Health and Environment) kind of frowns on that, because at that point you kind of become a remediation person?you?re cleaning up, and we really don?t want to get involved in that.

?So, sad to say, I kind of require them to bring it to me. But I can talk them through the right procedure to do that.?

Another component of the job is pulling a trailer to most communities in the county to pick up potentially hazardous materials on site.

?We try to hit every community in the spring and fall, if they want it,? Schmidt said. ?There are some smaller communities where once a year is enough.?

He said most residents don?t realize he?s coming to town until he parks the trailer in a conspicuous spot.

?You can advertise to death, but if the trailer is setting on Main Street in town, they see it,? he said. ?And I try to be parked close to the post office because that?s where everybody goes. So they see it and go, ?Oh yeah. I?ve got stuff.??

Schmidt said people often ask what he and his staff do with the contaminants.

His favorite response, offered in jest, is: ?We put it in the potholes on county roads and it always disappears.?

Actually, the process varies from product to product. For poisons and acids, a company called Clean Harbors comes to his office and takes care of it.

Oiled-based paints and all flammable and combustible liquids are put into 55-gallon drums, then turned over to a contractor who uses it as fuel to burn pesticides.

Latex paint is the most common waste the department collects. Because it?s non-toxic, Schmidt and his crew put it in 55-gallon drums, dump it out on an asphalt pad at the transfer station, let it dry, then haul it to the landfill.

The office also serves as a resource for people needing products that department collects.

?Most people don?t know this, but if something comes here?unless it?s a pesticide container that?s been opened?any other product can go back out to somebody who can use it,? Schmidt said.

?We have a shelf where the public can come and pick from that free of charge and re-use it.?

The county also accepts used oil, which the road and bridge department can re-use for road projects. Schmidt?s department also welcomes old batteries for recycling.

?Sometimes employees look at me and say, ?You?re an idiot, but I try to re-use or recycle as much as possible,? Schmidt said. ?Why landfill, or why pay for disposal if we can use it??

Transfer station

Schmidt said his work with the transfer station is easy to summarize: ?I just make sure the trash leaves the county.?

He credits his crew with doing the actual work.

?We have a super crew,? Schmidt said. ?They do the hands-on and get ?er done. It?s basically simple: Trash comes to the transfer station, hits the tipping floor, our guys put it in semitrailers and haul it to Butler County to a landfill.?

Two staff members work the floor, and a third drives the truck to the landfill. Jan. 1 marks the start of the third year the county itself has been hauling the solid waste.

County-wide recycling

As part of his role, Schmidt has become the administrative advocate for county-wide recycling.

?Commissioner (Dan) Holub and I worked very, very hard at it,? he said. ?It was something I was adamant about because everyone is doing it around us and here we sit. And it?s something I?personally believe in.?

It?s not an easy fix, he added.

?The economics of it is against us,? Schmidt said. ?There?s just no money in recycling, so it?s a hard sell. We do have a program, although it?s not the program I would like to have. But that just means there?s more work to be done.?

The county?s plan essentially is offering recycling services at the transfer station.

?We set up what I would call a permanent facility, where people can bring stuff. That?s where we bale cardboard and the processing of all the recyclables,? he said.

The service has a mobile dimension, too.

?We have a trailer we are leasing from Dickinson County, where we go to the communities on Saturday,? Schmidt said. ?The trailer picks stuff up and brings it back to the facility.

?All communities are involved, with the exception of Hillsboro and Peabody, which, of course, have their own programs. We don?t want to get in the way of those. They?re happy with them.?

Schmidt?s dream is to have a single-stream recycling program, where people don?t have to separate the various items.

?I think that is the way to go, but how to go about that I?m not quite sure,? he said. ?Stats show that people do it if you can single stream.?

Challenged by challenges

Schmidt?s tasks with the county have accumulated over the three decades he?s been a department head. Though the job comes with it?s share of headaches, he?s still enthused about his work.

Why has he stayed with it so long?

?I?m not really sure, but I do enjoy the challenge: Can I get this accomplished?? he said.

?There?s something about me that loves to win the war, to fight the battle. I am a competitive person. When we send a notice to make a farmer spray (for a noxious weed) and he doesn?t want to, to me that is a challenge.?

That said, helping people is his No. 1 motivator.

?If I can help someone with a neighbor who has a bad weed, and he?s happy, then I?ve done good,? he said. ?That feels good at the end of the day.?

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