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Living on the edge

Residents endure legacy of old Chatham County landfill

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Disposing of the county's waste has been a constant issue for commissioners, county managers and the Solid Waste Advisory Committee. The county's minutes from the past 20 years indicate the primary motivation for constructing the first landfill—and most recently, considering where to build a new landfill—is money: finding the cheapest way of stashing the county's waste. To save money, the county wanted to build a new local landfill, and it considered acreage it had long been eyeing near East Alston Road.

In June 1992, county commissioners held public hearings on a new landfill. Residents in the East Alston neighborhood spoke against the siting of a new landfill at the same location of the old dump. Horace Mann, a dairy farmer and nearest neighbor to the landfill, stated, "It was time for someone else to have the burden of a landfill near them."

In the spring of 1993, Mark Ashness, consulting engineer with Hobbs, Upchurch & Associates, told county officials of their options in light of the federal and state mandates to close unlined landfills: build a new landfill operated by Chatham or construct a joint landfill with Lee County, which could save the county $4 million in initial landfill construction costs.

In August 1993, Ashness advised the commissioners to build a landfill adjacent to the existing dump. At a public hearing, Ernest asked Ashness if the existing landfill was the only site the county had considered. Minutes from that meeting read, "The public works director [Ashness] stated that it was."

Also present at the hearing was Linette Tyson, who asked the public works director why other sites were not being considered. Ashness replied that the main reason was that dirt from excavating the new landfill could be used to cover the dump. "The adjacent site is the most economical place from which to move this dirt," he said, adding, "There are already other facilities in this vicinity; it is centrally located; and the people in the county are used to this site."

Alston spoke up: "It just seems like someone has decided that perhaps this community is immune to this and that any time something is unwanted in the county it is dumped in this community," he said. "The people in this community would like the quality of life equal to others in the county."

While the commissioners were debating where to build a new landfill, none of the meeting minutes show any discussion of how these facilities were affecting the people of East Alston Road.

Eventually, commissioners opted to ship its trash elsewhere. Currently, Chatham contracts with Waste Management Inc. to send its waste to Sampson County.

Then last July, the county hired Dan LaMontagne as director of Solid Waste Management and Raleigh-based consultants Camp Dresser and McKee (CDM) to examine the possibility of building a new landfill in Chatham County. Last September, CDM presented the Chatham County Environmental Review Board with its findings: The county could could save an estimated $148 million to $195 million over 40 years if it sent its waste to a locally owned landfill.

There was a catch: The county needed 400 acres for the landfill so it could potentially receive up to 500 tons of waste per day from other counties. And that land, as Ernest and Ann Alston were shocked to learn last November, was within a one-mile radius of their home.

"I felt like they were just squeezing us in on every side," Ann said.

One of the proposed locations was on East Alston Road, where it dead-ends at homes that are less than 150 feet from the old dump. The new landfill would sandwich the community between new and old waste. Alston said his first thought was that "they [the county] just want to come back here. I felt that they were thinking, 'If we can't get them on one side, we'll get them on the other side.'"

Environmental Review Board member Steve Wing questioned CDM's selection and the absence of sites near U.S. 15-501, just south of Orange County. Sanford said that these sites were too close to schools, protected lands and the county line.

In January, Linette Tyson told the Solid Waste Advisory Committee that "the possibility of another landfill in our community is absolutely unreal."

Thirteen days after that meeting, commissioners voted 3-0 to stop the landfill siting process.

Bock told the Indy following the vote that when the community's situation came to his attention, he supported the board's looking at options that would "alleviate any inconvenience to the neighborhood around the old landfill."

While the Alston Road community was relieved, the fact remains that they still struggle with the contaminants of the old landfill. "I think the county is doing the minimum, if that, of what the state requires," said Ernest Alston.

The responsible thing to do, said Alston, would be for the county to test all private wells within the community. "They need to assure us, and assure all residents, that there isn't contamination in our drinking supplies."

LaMontagne said the county won't test other wells because they are upstream from the landfill and beyond the 500-foot buffer.

However, one UNC health expert says the county should show more concern for the residents.

"Given the uncertainties in understanding their [toxic groundwater materials] chronic effects on people, it's important for the exposed population to have some say in what is done," said Steve Wing, professor of epidemiology at UNC. "It seems that most of the time decisions are made entirely by authorities who don't have to live with the exposures."

On March 21, Brian Bock, chairman of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, proposed that the county pick up the cost for the filtration systems. The motion carried 3-1 with Commissioner Sally Kost opposing. She told the board that testing the wells was not enough. "We need to determine what needs to be done to clean up the old landfill site and do it," she said.

Residents agree. It's going to take more than bags of Solar Salt to ease the community's mind. Not only do they live with liquid waste leaching underground but there is another concern—highly explosive methane gas.

The state requires landfill operators to conduct quarterly monitoring of methane gas at closed landfills. In April 2009, DENR informed Chatham County officials they needed to implement a methane monitoring plan by June. In turn, the county installed 17 gas monitoring probes.

In August 2010, Richardson Smith Gardner & Associates, the engineering firm that is conducting the county's methane probes tests, issued its first report on readings from the landfill's 17 monitoring probes. The report revealed that five of the monitoring probes exhibited concentrations "equal to or exceeding the lower explosive limit." These levels were to be expected, the firm noted, because of the proximity to the waste.

Two months later, the firm did additional testing and found three of the monitoring probes registered at 100 percent levels for methane gas and another probe was at 42 percent.

The methane probes were tested on Feb. 12 of this year, and four of the monitoring probes were at the 100 percent level, and again on March 3, with three monitoring probes continuing to test at 100 percent levels.

Like groundwater, methane moves beneath the surface, and monitoring is required to ensure the methane does not migrate from the landfill to nearby residences. And to make matters worse, while the potentially explosive methane percolates beneath the landfill cap, two years ago the Chatham County Sheriff's Department installed a firing range at the eastern corner of the dump.

"Every night you got the sound of them shooting stuff up out there," Raymond says. "It seems like it's been one thing after another. You start to think it's all over, but then they built that firing range and you have a war going on outside your bedroom window at night."

So who's responsible for ensuring the public health and safety of East Alston Road residents? The EPA says that as long as state officials determine the county is complying with federal regulations, the landfill is beyond the EPA's jurisdiction.

Dawn Harris-Young, spokesperson for EPA's Region 4, which oversees North Carolina, says that "in dealing with landfills, DENR is delegated to do that work, and the EPA does not get involved before the state examines an issue."

DENR says the county is up-to-date on its semiannual groundwater monitoring, but these tests are conducted on the landfill's wells, not private drinking wells. In addition to the gas monitoring plan, the state has placed land-use restrictions on nine parcels of buffer properties. "Placing these land-use restrictions prevents future exposure to contamination. No wells can be installed with these restrictions in place," says Ervin Lane, DENR compliance hydrogeologist.

As for the county, four years ago, commissioners discussed running county water to East Alston Road for an estimated $56,880 to run about a mile of pipe. Concerned about the costs, the commissioners chose to install the filtration systems on residents' contaminated drinking wells and shelved the waterline option.

Meanwhile, the county did extend a water line from N.C. 902—southwest of Pittsboro—to serve the southwest water district. When commissioners approved extending the pipeline along U.S. 64 and west to Siler City, County Manager Charlie Horne said the logical direction was to head west from Alex Cockman Road. That road is across U.S. 64 from East Alston Road, but no water line was run to that neighborhood.

Horne says that at the time, the commissioners didn't feel that a water line was necessary since the residents whose wells were contaminated were relocated. "The investment in a line serving 10 or so residences—assuming all wanted to connect—is large," Horne said, "in the $300,000-plus range. Those residents would then have a monthly water bill to add to their expenses."

Some residents, such as Tyson, were upset that the county could come so close with a water line and not service their community. Bock said the current board of commissioners considered providing county water to East Alston Road, but "after speaking with some of the residents I found that having county water was not what they wanted."

Ernest agreed. "We do not want county water as long as our wells are safe," he said.

That's a big if.

John is contemplating moving from East Alston Road. "It gets to be too much," he says. "This is our family, and this is all we have, and it's already destroyed, you can't drink the water. And if you do drink that water, it's going to be a slow death."

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