Toxic waste, gusts of ammonia, small explosions and allegations of fraud are just some of the controversies surrounding a landfill next to a small town west of Nashville. Now the town’s residents are turning to the EPA for help.
CAMDEN, Tenn. – The first sign was a stifling ammonia smell that made pets and children sick.
Then, neighbors noticed a dusty residue on their cars. One woman drained her backyard pool after feeling a burning sensation when she swam.
In another incident, sounds of small explosions prompted the chief of police to rush to a scene to investigate a possible shooting or an exploding meth lab. The noise turned out to be the combustion caused by heavy metals mixing with moisture after being dumped at the 42-acre Environmental Waste Solutions landfill.
Local officials say the EWS landfill is a threat to the 3,500 residents of this rural community about 90 miles west of Nashville. But after years of complaints and unsuccessful legal challenges since it opened in 2010, they say they cannot get state regulators to help.
Instead, officials with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation have approved more than a dozen requests for “special wastes” – defined as “either difficult or dangerous to manage” – to be deposited in the landfill that was originally granted a permit to accept shredded tires and demolition waste. With TDEC approval, the landfill has taken in “special waste” from aluminum, coal and railroad industries, along with diesel fuel from a Superfund site.
Environmentalists and city residents say Camden is a prime example of what can go wrong when TDEC approves special wastes without community input or notice.
TDEC in April designated the landfill as a “large quantity generator of hazardous waste,” according to an August TDEC letter sent to Environmental Waste Solutions. Routine tests of the landfill found that special waste deposited at the site had reacted to create a toxic stream that met federal hazardous waste standards.
Camden Mayor Roger Pafford said no one from TDEC informed city officials that their town was now home to a hazardous waste landfill. The omission was particularly galling to city officials because the leachate – or wastewater – pipe carrying hazardous waste from the landfill flows directly above a city drinking water main.
The city has asked the Environmental Protection Agency investigate “permitting abuses” and “fraud” by Tennessee’s environmental regulators.
A TDEC spokesman declined a request for an interview with any TDEC official, saying the landfill dispute has lasted for so long that multiple TDEC individuals had been involved. Bob Martineau has been TDEC’s chief since 2011, but the spokesman also declined a request to interview him.
Residents who live next door to the landfill have little hope that anyone will intercede. Pafford said his message to any community in line for a state approved landfill is “hire a lawyer. Immediately.”
“You think somebody is looking out for you,” said Mike Melton, a long haul truck driver whose property line abuts the landfill. “You think the city is looking out for you, but they don’t have the resources. They don’t realize what they are up against. You think TDEC is looking out for you. You think the EPA is looking out for you. But it turns out that no one is.”
Melton and his wife Sheila have lived in their home for more than 20 years. He bought adjoining lots in the Lockhard Hills subdivision with plans to develop them for a profit. But no one wants to live next door to a landfill, much less one that generates hazardous waste, Melton said.
He has watched property values plummet in his neighborhood. He has limited visits from his grandchildren out of concern for their health. He joined a lawsuit filed by environmental lawyer Elizabeth Murphy in 2011, but the state’s highest court ultimately ruled that courts had no jurisdiction in the matter.
The landfill literally looms over the Melton’s home. One waste mound has grown to become the tallest structure in Camden. State regulators have nicknamed it “Black Mountain.”
It is covered with acres of black tarp tamped down by tires. On one steep side of the mound, landfill operators have placed bright green Astroturf-like material. Dead pine trees line the foot of the mound. The original plan was to grow trees on it to make it a park-like setting. But nothing will grow on it.
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” said Melton, 65. “Some people think I can just get through this in my lifetime, just live with this mound here and get on with my life. But what is it going to be after I’m gone? No one can answer that.”
Melton doesn’t call himself an environmentalist but has since joined the Sierra Club to try to influence the group to focus on local communities like his.
“They’re all worked up about fracking and all of this, but average people are not worried about fracking in Colorado or the gray wolves in Montana,” Melton said. “Those things are important. But what people in Tennessee need to know is that something like this can spring up literally in their backyard.”
Around the corner from Melton’s house, Cindy Wheatley points at the drained pool in her backyard. A few years ago, she climbed into the pool and felt a burning sensation. Her husband, Johnny, took a water sample to a pool company for testing.
“The pH was so high he couldn’t register it,” she said.
Like many of her neighbors, Wheatley, a digital designer, has become a self-educated expert on aluminum dross, cadmium and the toxic properties of other heavy metals approved by TDEC to be put in the landfill. Tanks containing 123,000 gallons of hazardous waste are located just 250 yards from her bedroom window.
“I should have had a letter in my mailbox telling me what is going in there,” she said. “This is pretty serious. As far as I’m concerned, TDEC is of zero value. They are not looking out for us.”
Internally, TDEC officials go through an eight-step process once an application for special waste is received, spokesman Eric Ward explained in an email. Regional office staff review applications and assess the waste being deposited to ensure it is not hazardous. Hazardous waste cannot be legally disposed of in Tennessee landfills, he said. Evaluations include dangerous-to-manage determinations and radioactive waste restrictions as well as whether special conditions or restrictions apply.
“TDEC’s special waste application process was implemented to ensure that unusual, difficult to manage, or problematic wastes are managed in an environmentally safe and responsible manner,” he wrote. Ward said he could not respond to a request for how often special waste permits are denied, because the agency’s record management system cannot produce that data, but that waste applications are sometimes denied before an application is formally submitted after applicants consult with TDEC’s technical staff.
City officials are awaiting a response from the EPA about their request for an investigation, while attorneys negotiate with EWS to potentially relocate the city’s water line. EWS officials asked the city to move the line, but the estimated cost is more than $600,000. The city doesn’t have that kind of money, the mayor said.
In addition to challenging TDEC’s approval for wastes deposited at the landfill, the letter to the EPA alleges a conflict of interest and collusion between TDEC officials and landfill operators. Environmental Waste Solutions purchased the landfill from a former TDEC regulator, who stayed on as a consultant for the company. EWS hired as counsel Michael Stagg with the law firm Waller. TDEC chief Bob Martineau previously worked with Stagg as an environmental lawyer representing industry.
Ward called those allegations “meritless” and noted that a sworn affidavit from a TDEC supervisor and Court of Appeals decision show the permit was reviewed by technical experts like all other permits and Martineau is not involved in day-to-day oversight of EWS. TDEC has sent violation notices and fines to EWS during Martineau’s tenure, he noted.
“While it is unfortunate the City of Camden has these concerns, the facts speak for themselves,” Ward said via email.
On Wednesday, TDEC issued a notice to EWS that it had found 14 violations at the site, including failure to ensure hazardous waste was properly labeled, monitored and transported and that no contingency plans were submitted to local police, fire and hospitals. TDEC is fining the landfill $37,650.
TDEC is moving forward with efforts to speed up the special waste approval process. TDEC officials last month told members of the Underground Storage Tank and Solid Waste Disposal Control Board – the oversight board of members appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam – they were creating an online submission portal that will allow TDEC officials to approve requests for disposal. Haslam four years ago reconstituted the board to remove consumer representatives.
“Often, the waste is ready to go … in barrels and they’re looking for quick and prompt approval,” a TDEC attorney told the board. “What we want to do is speed up the process.”
Ward noted that wastes sometimes require prompt approval because they often involved transportation-related petroleum spill clean-ups.
Environmental advocacy groups have thus far been unsuccessful in requiring TDEC to give public notice of all wastes deposited in Tennessee landfills. A bill supported by the Sierra Club that would have required such notice failed to advance this year. Conservation Program Coordinator Scott Banbury said his group plans to organize a listening tour with lawmakers next summer about TDEC’s waste policies. Other states require public notice or more analysis before approving special wastes. Pennsylvania, as one example requires local cities and counties to be notified of any special waste slated for a local landfill.
When Camden’s attorney Andrew Frazier demanded to be informed of any special waste requests for the landfill, TDEC responded that he did not have the authority.
“As you are no doubt aware, cities are created by law and are subordinate to state law,” TDEC responded. “They have no regulatory authority over the state and cannot require state departments to take actions or provide services that they are not otherwise required to take or provide.”
“Counties and city governments have no way of knowing what is being put in a landfill they originally thought was taking household garbage,” Banbury said. “But they are the ones who will be stuck with the long-term consequences.”
Reach Anita Wadhwani at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-259-8092 or on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.