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A local Wake County battle over a landfill has a familiar ring; that’s because the similar battles over landfills have played out around North Carolina for decades.

By Thomas Goldsmith

UPDATE: The Wake County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Monday to refuse Shotwell Landfill’s request to expand the amount of waste it accepts annually and to add more counties to its service area.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the panel’s vote was scheduled for Tuesday

A decade ago, a group of scientists wanted to know if landfills were more likely to be located in North Carolina communities of color and in places where people have low incomes.

Steve Wing, a professor of epidemiology at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo credit: Gabe Rivin

Indeed, the scientists, including environmental expert Steve Wing of the University at North Carolina, found in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that odds were nearly three times greater that a solid-waste landfill would be located in a census block where more than half the residents were people of color. In a block where the median house cost less than $60,000, the odds were 1.5 times greater than in a neighborhood where they cost $100,000 or more.

“In the absence of action to promote environmental justice, the continued need for new facilities could exacerbate this environmental injustice,” the authors wrote.

The study confirmed what many North Carolinians and people across the country had long known: Landfills land in places where residents typically have more trouble fighting back.

At 2 p.m. Monday the Wake County Board of Commissioners will hear an attempt to expand yet another landfill that’s drawn opposition from neighbors in a mostly rural, historically African-American area that’s also seen suburban growth.

As some North Carolina regions boom, there’s increased demand for out-of-the-way places to unload construction debris, as well as the remains of houses and buildings scraped off to create new sites.

“There is a case to be made that the general public benefits by having plenty of landfill capacity,” said Allen Hardison, a lobbyist for Coastal Environmental Partnership in Eastern North Carolina. “That doesn’t help the guy that lives down the road.”

Environmental justice cases cited

The roots of the environmental justice movement in the 20th century are often traced to Warren County, where activists waged a fierce battle over a PCB landfill. The U.S. Department of Justice’s own website recounts the history:

“In 1982, a small, predominately African-American community was designated to host a hazardous waste landfill. This landfill would accept PCB-contaminated soil that resulted from illegal dumping of toxic waste along roadways. After removing the contaminated soil, the state of North Carolina considered a number of potential sites to host the landfill, but ultimately settled on this small African-American community.”

N.C. Active Permitted Landfills Map. Image courtesy: NC DEQ

Triangle activist David Caldwell took part in battles in Chapel Hill over the town’s location of landfills in the outlying, predominantly African-American Rogers-Eubanks neighborhood beginning in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Caldwell said, the town broke promises that new amenities would come along with the dumps, a situation he said has occurred in other communities across North Carolina.

Some of these small communities have successfully fought back. In Halifax County, citizens in Tillery won a landmark case in 1999 against giant hog farms that caused odor and water pollution.

“I worked with landfills across the state and they all wind up in minority areas or communities of color,” Caldwell said.

More recently, Caldwell said, rural communities such as Royal Oak in Brunswick County successfully fended off efforts to locate new landfills in a historically black neighborhood. The UNC Center for Civil Rights and others brought a lawsuit against Brunswick County that resulted in a 2014 settlement — and a new school instead of a landfill for the neighborhood.

A new day of fighting in Wake

This latest community-versus-landfill conflict took place Sept. 6 before the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

Shotwell Landfill, which accepts construction and demolition waste from Wake and Johnston counties, wants to quadruple the amount of material it can accept, and to add Durham, Franklin, Granville, Harnett, Lee, Nash and Orange counties to its service area.

Neighbors in the Shotwell area, which combines centuries-old farms, growing suburbs and mostly untouched natural areas in Southeastern Wake, strongly opposed its efforts.

A waste-hauling semi emerges from Shotwell Landfill onto the narrow, two-lane road that carries traffic by the construction and demolition facility.
The landfill is seeking permission to quadruple the amount of waste it accepts each year and to add more counties to its service area. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith

“If you live there, you’ll see it is an endangerment,” George Kahdy, a Raleigh veterinarian whose family has lived in the Shotwell community for decades, told county commissioners.

More than two dozen neighbors spoke during a public hearing on the issue, all but a few standing in opposition. They cited dangerous encounters with waste-hauling trucks on two-lane Smithfield Road, toxic fluids leaching from the dump, and a pervasive odor they said comes from methane arising from the landfill.

“There is a stench that is there that is more and more frequent,” said neighboring homeowner Crystal Kane. “If I wanted to sell, I would have to disclose that under real estate law.”

Keith Johnson, a Raleigh attorney representing Shotwell, said past environmental concerns have been addressed. He noted that three other landfills were operating in similar Wake County locations with higher capacity limits than Shotwell.

“Landfill operations can be very contentious land uses, and Shotwell is no exception,” Johnson wrote in his application to the commission.

Threats to legacy, environment argued

In the Shotwell hearing, several African-American families alluded to their long residence in the area. Census data show the Shotwell community population is about 32 percent African-American, more than 50 percent higher than the figure for all of Wake County.

Don Mial said he has deep concern for the area although he no longer lives there.

“My family’s been a member of this community since the early 1800s,” Mial said.

Activist Betty Brandt Williamson, right, and others who own land near Wake County’s Shotwell landfill attend a Sept. 6 Wake County Commission meeting to oppose its request to expand capacity. Photo credit: Thomas Goldsmith.

Betty Brandt Williamson, a Raleigh resident whose family has owned property near the landfill for 250 years, has assembled masses of court documents and regulatory reports on the landfill and its ownership.

“From July 29, 2013 until April 4, 2014, a period of nine months, Shotwell was in violation of the Clean Water Act by ignoring leachate seeps that resulted in chronic contamination of surface water,” Williamson told commissioners, citing regulatory records.

And although opposition to the Shotwell expansion comes largely from neighbors, they argued problems with the facility affect a wider area.

Streams that cross the landfill connect with other bodies of water that lead into the Neuse River. Leigh Ann Hammerbacher, associate director of conservation and stewardship of the nonprofit Triangle Land Conservancy, noted the Neuse provides water for 75,000 people downstream.

“I think it’s critically important that we think of our downstream neighbors,” Hammerbacher said.

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Thomas Goldsmith

Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...

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