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Don't Trash Chatham's Future with Regional Landfills

By Roland McReynolds
Posted Friday, July 2, 2004

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What's at Stake on July 20?

Waste management companies, dangling the prospect of a Triangle landfill for Chatham County, are trying to convince our elected officials to sell out our health and the health of our children, our prospects for high-quality jobs, our property values and our quality of life, in exchange for unfounded promises about short-term profits. The irony is that Chatham County produces less waste per capita than any other county in the Triangle, and has actually decreased its per capita trash production, according to a November 2002 survey in the Raleigh News & Observer. We should not accept being the dumping ground for communities that can’t manage their waste such as Chapel Hill, Cary, Durham and Raleigh.

Our elected officials appear to be listening to the waste industry.

Sadly, our elected officials appear to be listening to the waste industry, despite widespread citizen opposition. In 2002 Bunkey Morgan ran on a promise to oppose a regional landfill in Chatham, yet now he and the majority of the Board of Commissioners are inviting a proposal for just such a privately owned mega-dump. A private construction company also has plans for a Construction & Demolition landfill in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Siler City, and citizens there expect the owner of the prospective site to file an application any day.

Commissioner candidates Mike Cross and Patrick Barnes know that these privately-owned landfills are bad ideas. Unlike candidates Mary Wallace, Ron Singleton, and Uva Holland, Cross and Barnes have consistently and unequivocally opposed such ventures. Any new landfill in Chatham should be “county-owned, county-operated and county-only,” insists Barnes. “It doesn’t matter how much money the county might make in the short run,” says Cross, “the long-term damage to our health and our economy aren’t worth it.”

Cross should know. He co-founded the Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Council, a grassroots citizen organization that grew out of the fight to block the first attempt to place a massive regional dump in Moncure in 2001. That group learned first hand about the health and economic threats posed by regional landfills, including:

• Depressed property values for surrounding residential and agricultural properties.
• Contamination of ground water. The site proposed by Waste Management, Inc., in Moncure, and still owned by a successor company to WMI, sits atop a huge underground aquifer.
• Fumes from diesel trucks making 700 trips in and out of the dump per day. These fumes would add to the asthma and other breathing problems experienced by so many Moncure-area residents—and area that already has the worst air quality in the country.
• Sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions.
• A magnet effect: once such a large waste site is built, applications for permits for other undesirable industries follow and are more likely to be approved.
• Expansion: once such a large waste site is built, regulators are under a great deal of pressure to approve any request to expand the site.

The health risks posed by Construction & Demolition landfills are equally alarming. Siler City residents, too, have formed a grassroots organization, Citizens Against Airport Road Landfill, to fight off the threat of such a dump. Judy Cannaday, CAARL’s President, points out that a long list of known carcinogens are permitted in C&D dumps, including PCBs, dioxins, formaldehyde, asbestos, creosote, fiberglass and varnishes, as well as mercury and lead paint from buildings constructed before it was banned in 1978.

The 2003 Chatham County Solid Waste Feasibility Study commissioned by the Public Works Department concluded that the county does not produce enough C&D waste to need a C&D landfill. So again, any such dump in Chatham would be used primarily for waste from surrounding counties. And like the proposed location in Moncure, the Airport Road site is directly over a major aquifer, so pollutants leaking from the dump could contaminate hundreds of millions of gallons of water.

Even waste industry research suggests that preventive measures cannot contain the health risks associated with large landfills, and the industry has known these risks for a long time. A study published in the industry trade magazine Waste Age showed that “from a biological and geophysical point of view” the bonding periods imposed on landfills to cover maintenance are “totally inadequate.” The researchers found that the soil caps used to cover landfills when they are at capacity, supposedly to prevent pollution, in fact do not work.

When these caps and the liners used to block leaching of waste into the soil breakdown, the bond paid by the private company has expired, leaving local government with the liability for cleaning up the mess.

For these reasons, Chatham County’s own Solid Waste Advisory Committee has repeatedly rejected the idea of a privately owned regional landfill. As recently as March, SWAC reviewed options for a new landfill to meet Chatham’s needs, options including a privately-owned regional dump, a county-owned regional dump, and a county-only landfill. The Committee’s conclusion: county-owned, county-run, county-only. This option has the “least environmental impact, most county control, an acceptable economic impact, and is most socially acceptable,” SWAC reported. The Committee also indicated that while it would take several years to recoup the county’s investment in constructing such a facility, eventually it would be cost-effective.

It should be no surprise that Johnston County, another rural county on the suburban fringe of the Triangle, several years ago went with a county-owned, county only landfill.

Yet, the current Board of Commissioners fails to see the wisdom of that approach. In June, the Board ignored the SWAC report and requested proposals for construction of a private regional landfill, as well as county-owned options.

Both Ron Singleton and Mary Wallace have shown they would consider a regional waste dump. In answers to the Chatham Coalition’s candidate questionnaire, Wallace stated that “Whether or not it’s affordable to have a county owned, county only landfill I do not know without researching the financial feasibility.” Both SWAC and the 2003 Public Works Dept. study showed it would in fact be feasible, so Wallace’s response raises more questions than it answers.

In his questionnaire response, Singleton insisted that “if done right, hosting a regional landfill could be the most lucrative thing Chatham County could do right now to prop up the tax base.” The SWAC report makes clear that the chance of a private regional dump being done wrong are too great to chance it.

That is why it is so crucial to put Cross and Barnes on the Board this election: We need commissioners who will be unwavering in their support for citizens’ desire not to become the Triangle’s dumping ground.

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