South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Expansion of towering mega dump near acclaimed nature preserve sparks dispute
April 17th, 2015

BY SAMMY FRETWELL

DORCHESTER It has been difficult for Uly Delee to enjoy the night air since a landfill opened near his house decades ago.

The mega-dump smells so bad it causes Delee to turn up his nose in disgust when the wind blows toward his home. “I can smell it at night; it’s garbage,’’ Delee, 87, said. “You don’t get used to that.’’

Delee’s distaste for the site is shared by plenty of people, who oppose plans to expand one of South Carolina’s largest landfills in a state that’s increasingly sensitive to mega trash dumps.

The issue — which played out in a Columbia courtroom this past week — has pitted efforts to provide garbage service for several Lowcountry counties against the impact a major expansion could have on the Dorchester community and on an ecologically rich region of swamps that has drawn international acclaim.

The area, a 90-minute drive south of Columbia, includes the Audubon Society’s Francis Beidler Forest and woodlands that, in places, have remained largely unchanged for centuries.

“This landfill expansion is simply not needed,’’ said dump opponent Amy Armstrong, an attorney who heads the nonprofit S.C. Environmental Law project legal service.

Dorchester’s dustup is the latest in South Carolina’s continuing war over big landfills. Many residents are particularly sensitive to new or expanded landfills because of the state’s legacy of taking the nation’s nuclear waste, hazardous garbage, medical refuse and household trash.

While a 2009 law sharply curtailed plans for new mega-dumps that import waste from other states, it didn’t stop expansions.

Dorchester’s trash dump, estimated at 200 feet tall, is among eight landfills that have sought permission to expand in South Carolina since 2009, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. Those include landfills in Richland, Horry and Spartanburg counties.

At issue in Dorchester is a proposal to roughly double the acreage of South Carolina’s third-largest landfill so that the site won’t have to close in the next five years. The extra space would allow the Waste Management Inc. landfill to remain open another 20 years, which in turn would allow OakRidge to bring in an extra 17 million tons of garbage to the site.

The site’s operators have buried 10 million tons at Oakridge, which is permitted as a garbage dump. Under the expansion plan, the company could dispose of a total of about 30 million tons at the site over the next two decades.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has approved the expansion, saying it’s justified to meet the area’s trash disposal needs. But the S.C. Coastal Conservation League appealed the decision that was heard in the state’s Administrative Law Court this past week. The court isn’t expected to rule for at least several months.

In addition to powerful odors that bother Delee and his neighbors — who are not part of the legal challenge — environmentalists involved in the case say an expanded landfill could hurt water quality and wildlife on land owned by Audubon’s Francis Beidler Forest, recognized in 2008 as a Ramsar wetland of international importance. The landfill is within five miles of the preserve and upstream from creeks that drain toward the Edisto River, the longest undammed blackwater river in the country.

Waste Management lawyers said the more than 100-acre OakRidge landfill would fill 14 acres of wetlands as part of the expansion, which would increase its size to about 200 acres. The wetlands to be lost connect a protected swamp system upstream with a tributary of the Edisto River.

Critics also question whether the expanded landfill would one day lead Waste Management to import garbage from other states.

Waste Management insists it won’t import any more than the small amount of out-of-state waste it now accepts at OakRidge. The company says it isn’t seeking to increase the amount of garbage it brings into the dump each year.

“The expansion is needed to continue what we’ve always been doing,’’Waste Management spokesman Russ Hightower said

The OakRidge landfill, established by Chambers Development in 1991 at the site of an older and smaller dump, doesn’t have enough room for its customers’ garbage, even though it is allowed to haul in more than 1 million tons of garbage each year for disposal, officials say. Only the Lee landfill in Bishopville, run by Republic Services, and Waste Management’s Palmetto Landfill in Spartanburg are larger in approved capacity, according to a 2013 DHEC report.

Unusual on the landscape around here, the OakRidge site piles garbage on top of the ground, then covers the trash with dirt. Parts of the trash pile have risen above the tree line through the years, creating an unusual feature in an area of the state that has no mountains and few hills.

At lunchtime on a rainy day last week, trash trucks roared into the landfill every few minutes.

The odor of rotting trash wasn’t hard to pick up in the breeze. Buzzards circled above the pile of trash, occasionally landing on the big mound. The landfill is surrounded by a chain-link fence and is just down Delee Circle from a drag strip. The area near the landfill contains small clusters of modest houses and mobile homes.

Among those houses is the one where Uly Delee lives. Delee, who said his home is served by a well, said the landfill’s operators have been nice to him through the years. But he’s not interested in seeing the site expand.

“The bigger it is, the more smell you’re going to get,” Delee said, explaining that the odor has at times prompted him to consider moving.

Area residents have voiced concern that their property values are being affected, but “they didn’t know what to do,’’ said Pete Weathers, a St. George resident concerned about the site.

Hightower said he’s unaware of any odor complaints.

Waste Management insists the landfill has been a good neighbor. And it says without OakRidge, Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties might have to ship waste to distant landfills, including the Lee County landfill in central South Carolina — more than 70 miles away from metropolitan Charleston.

“This landfill serves as a regional landfill,” said Mary Shahid, a Charleston lawyer representing Waste Management. “Its primary customers are the three fastest-growing (counties in South Carolina) in terms of population. Logically, if your population grows, your solid waste disposal need will also grow.’’

Waste Management officials said the expansion plan isn’t a threat to the Audubon preserve.

“We do have wetlands impacts, but this is not going to have a great impact on Four Hole Swamp or Beidler because the drainage is not in that direction,” Hightower said.

Armstrong, who is representing the Coastal Conservation League, said the expanded area will affect sensitive undeveloped areas downstream that include pockets of property acquired by Beidler for protection — as well as other lands that are being looked at by Audubon for future preservation.

She urged the court to overturn DHEC’s decision to approve the OakRidge expansion for a simple reason: Waste Management’s plan to fill 14 acres of wetlands for a landfill isn’t allowed under state law.

Armstrong said South Carolina’s coastal law discourages landfills in wetlands. State coastal management rules say landfills “will not be approved’’ in wetlands unless no other alternative exists or there is overwhelming public need.

Armstrong told the court there are many other landfills in South Carolina that could handle the Charleston-area waste. Landfill lawyers disputed that.

Waste Management “wants to maximize profit and if it can expand the landfill, then it can continue accepting waste,’’ Armstrong said. “Otherwise (the landfill) would have to close. But the question has never been asked in the context of whether there is a public need, an overwhelming public need, for a landfill expansion in wetlands.’’

Norman Brunswig, the recently retired director of the Beidler Forest, said the Audubon Society nature preserve and adjacent lands are too valuable to jeopardize with a landfill expansion. The area has more than 20,000 acres of protected forest and swamps, including the 17,000-acre Beidler Forest.

During testimony this past week, Brunswig said many of its trees are virgin hardwoods that are centuries old because humans have done so little to the landscape. And the area is a “treasure trove of wildlife,’’ Brunswig said.

“It is among the most productive songbird areas, our particular forest is,’’ he said. “It’s a bird factory. We have lots of reptiles and amphibians, some of which are, at least, species of concern.’’

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