A landfill operator tried to abandon an environmental disaster. Now a small town is fighting back.

Anita Wadhwani
A landfill operator tried to abandon an environmental disaster. Now a small town is fighting back.

Looming at the dead end of "Landfill Lane" in the small western Tennessee community of Bath Springs sits a vast mound of dirt-covered waste generating a toxic ooze.

The constant flow of contaminated liquid, known as leachate, simmers at the heart of a long-running legal battle between local officials and Waste Industries, a North Carolina corporation that agreed in 1999 to take over day-to-day operations of the Decatur County Landfill. 

When the county operated the landfill, it served as the local dump for small towns and rural communities in Decatur County. 

But under new management, Waste Industries' subsidiary Waste Services of Decatur, the landfill began accepting "special wastes" – defined as "difficult or dangerous" to manage.

The industrial waste comes with higher "tipping fees" for the landfill company than household trash, making the landfill more profitable.

That special waste, accumulated over the years, created a costly toxic challenge: Mixed with rainfall, hundreds of gallons of harmful leachate must be hauled from the site for treatment.

Waste Industries claims it costs them $1 million each year to treat the leachate. 

A worker passes by a stained covering of the county

'A lot of the damage has already been done'

For the past two years, the company has tried to walk away from the landfill, claiming it is no longer their responsibility. In a lawsuit against the county, they sought about $8 million. The county's annual budget is $12 million.

A federal judge ruled against them. And, in March, the judge ruled the county can go forward with a lawsuit against the company that claims it violated federal environmental rules.

The dispute could prove a harbinger for other communities that have, on their own or through outsourced landfill operators, accepted special waste.  

Altogether, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) has approved 3,885 permits for special waste to be deposited in 85 Tennessee landfills in the past three years.

They include contaminated soils from acid leaks, nuclear plant auxiliary building basement sump water, asbestos floor tiles and coal ash that combine with garbage hauled from local households.

In Decatur County, Waste Industries accepted approximately 640,000 tons of smelting waste from aluminum companies seeking to dispose of industrial byproducts, according to legal filings.

The aluminum waste can create toxic levels of ammonia on contact with moisture that poses danger to air and water quality.

Decatur County Mayor Mike Creasy stands in an area

Those in the community feel taken advantage of, county mayor Mike Creasy said. Privatizing the landfill seemed like an easy decision in the 1990s, leaving public officials to focus on other responsibilities while placing the landfill in experienced hands.

"The county hired Waste Industries in good faith," Creasy said. "I hope we get some type of justice done here. But a lot of the damage has already been done."

Joel Eckert, an attorney with the Nashville-based law firm Bradley said Waste Services of Decatur County disputes the claims by the county. 

“Waste Services of Decatur LLC is proud of its 20-plus year operating history with Decatur County, where we’ve worked hard not only to be responsible landfill operators but also to be good corporate citizens," Eckert said. 

"We dispute the claims Decatur County has made against us and remain confident that our operations are in compliance with regulatory requirements, as well as with our contractual obligations to the citizens of Decatur County.” 

It's known as 'landfill juice'

Decatur County is mostly rural, located 100 miles from Nashville along the Tennessee River with about 12,000 residents and limited industry. Its largest employer, beside the county, is an industrial freezer manufacturer.

Two decades ago, county officials sought out a private company to manage its local dump, which was taking in trash from local residents. 

The deal struck between the county and Waste Industries spelled out that two local wastewater treatment plants within the county would treat the leachate, known in the industry as "landfill juice." In return, Waste Industries would manage the landfill through its subsidiary. 

Soil cracks where runoff from the county landfill is

At the time, the landfill was generating limited amounts of leachate because it was largely accepting household garbage and the occasional drop-offs by local residents of items too big to fit in a trash can.

But the company changed the landfill's business model, opening its doors to private industry across Tennessee seeking to rid itself of industrial waste.

In 2003, the treatment plant in Parsons suffered a "major interruption" when its insect population was killed by high levels of ammonia and heavy metals in the landfill leachate, according to the county's landfill filings. 

Both treatment plants in the county refused to accept any further leachate.

The landfill company disputed the facilities' decision for more than a decade, while it hired trucks to haul the leachate to other treatment facilities.

But the cost of leachate disposal grew to $1 million annually. The company sued the county, accusing it of breaching its contract and asking a judge to release the company from the contract, turning over the landfill back to the county.

The county, which has an operating budget of about $7.5 million, asked the judge to dismiss the lawsuit. After the judge ruled in favor of the county, lawyers for the county with the Nashville firm Sherrard, Roe, Voight & Harbison filed a federal lawsuit alleging violations of federal clean air and water acts. That lawsuit is ongoing.

So far, the lawsuit has cost the county nearly half a million dollars in legal bills, Creasy said.

'My eyes were burning'

Last month, the county's 911 system got an unusual call. 

A resident complained of an intense, foul odor three to four miles from the landfill. 

"The landfill has a smell, but this was something that alarmed people," said Creasy, who got in his car to drive to the landfill. 

As he approached, "my eyes were burning," he said. "It was a methane-type odor."

The county is setting up a hotline for residents to report any health-related problems they are experiencing because of the landfill.

Workers try to contain runoff and divert it to a leachate

The Decatur County landfill is not alone in its dispute with a for-profit company seeking to walk away from costly landfill cleanup work after accepting special waste.

In Camden, about 35 miles from the Decatur landfill, landfill operator Environmental Waste Solutions similarly accepted thousands of tons of aluminum special wastes – then filed for bankruptcy and abandoned the property.

Neighbors of the landfill reported foul odors that made children and pets sick.

Local officials and residents sought help from TDEC and criticized the agency for failing to regulate the landfill. TDEC is now overseeing its closure, a multi-year and multi-million dollar process.

TDEC is the regulator of all Tennessee landfills and responsible for approving all applications for special waste. The applications come from industries seeking to offload industrial waste. 

"TDEC works closely with landfills across the state to identify and manage special wastes appropriately to ensure the protection of human health and the environment," said Eric Ward, a TDEC spokesman. 

A tanker truck driver fills his tanker with waster

The agency does not track the amount of approved special waste accepted at each landfill, Ward said. That's up to the landfill.

Creasy, the mayor, said state regulators were long aware of environmental problems at the landfill, and that he is not sure why they did not intervene to protect the landfill. The landfill sits next to a nearby stream that flows into the Tennessee River, the source of the community's drinking water

"You want the state agency to kind of protect the county and the people, but it's like TDEC has another job to do. I'm trying to be nice here ...," Creasy said.

"They just don't want to be involved."

Follow The Tennessean's Anita Wadhwani on Twitter: @AnitaWadhwani

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: A landfill operator tried to abandon an environmental disaster. Now a small town is fighting back.