By | September 15, 2020

By , NC POLICY WATCH

– in Top Story
An aerial view of the proposed landfill site. The squiggly line in the lower part of the photo is Long’s Creek, habitat for freshwater mussels, gar and other fish. (Photo: Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper)

In testimony, the facts didn’t always add up to the truth

Kenneth Harrison III slouched in a hard wooden bench in a Vance County meeting room, the posture of a man who might have spent the day in the cab of a dump truck. He wore a mask bearing a print of the American flag.  

His lawyer, Tom Terrell of Greensboro, well-known in North Carolina for representing mining companies, landfill operators and other industrial pariahs, looked fresh and spiffy in a dark suit and red tie, his silver hair curled over the white collar at the nape of his neck.

The occasion was a meeting of the Vance County Board of Adjustment, which despite its tedious rules and procedures, has the power to make or break a neighborhood.

The neighborhood in question on that Thursday evening was Egypt Mountain Road in rural Kittrell, about 15 miles south of Henderson, off US 1. Harrison and Terrell were asking the Board of Adjustment to approve a conditional use permit to build an unlined Land Clearing and Inert Debris (LCID) landfill, sometimes misleadingly referred to as a “stump dump,” on 83 forested, hilly acres. The landfill, which would be in a “natural bowl,” is veined by Longs Creek  a tributary of the Tar River, home to two species of threatened freshwater mussels.

When the Vance County Attorney announced that this would be a quasi-judicial hearing, that the board would consider only sworn testimony by experts — not hearsay nor opinion nor anecdote, the social currency of tight-knit neighborhoods — opponents of the landfill looked at one another, their eyebrows raised and behind their masks, jaws dropped.

Experts, we didn’t know we needed to bring experts.

But over the next three-plus hours, the neighbors of Egypt Mountain Road discovered they were experts. Maybe not like those presumably paid by Harrison and Terrell — the licensed traffic and landfill engineers, the real estate appraiser, the retired planner from Asheboro — all of whom testified that the landfill, which would accept millions of tons of dirt, trees, brick, concrete and unpainted wood five days a week, nine-and-a-half hours a day, over the next 20 years — would be as benign as a freckle.

But among the friends and neighbors of Egypt Mountain Road were a soil conservationist who knows how dirt misbehaves when displaced, how Longs Creek could seep beneath the landfill and undermine its stability.

A tree farmer and a retired forester who understand that destructive Southern Pine Beetles and Emerald Ash Borers can easily hitchhike on trees hauled in from outside Vance County and devastate their livelihoods.

And the neighbors, many of whom have lived there 30, 40, or 50 years on land that’s been in their families for generations, have other hard-earned wisdom. Despite the traffic engineer’s contention that Egypt Mountain Road is under-traveled and there is no risk in giant dump trucks pulling onto a two-lane byway, the neighbors know for example, that if you take your off eyes off Egypt Mountain Road, perhaps distracted by a deer, and steer into the curve wrong, you’ll wind up in a deep ditch. 

They know who among them has fallen on hard times and may have only recently gotten around to tearing down a dilapidated trailer, but that people here are proud of their homes and gardens and small farms, and they don’t want a landfill here.

Angie Garrett, who’s lived on Egypt Mountain Road for 31 years, told the board, “They’re handing you a pile of crap and telling you it’s a cupcake.”

*****

Harrison, who, according to county records, lives on family land in Wake Forest near Falls Lake, bought the 83 acres in 2017 from the family of a dead man. Shortly afterward, Harrison began dumping trees, soil and other land-clearing debris. “I thought since I owned the property I could put things on it,” he told the board. 

But Garrett, who tailed the dump trucks from the site to Franklin County, reported the activity to state environmental regulators. The state told Harrison that the dumping was illegal without a permit. “I had to haul out whatever I hauled in,” Harrison said.

So in June 2019, Terrell and Harrison, under his company name K&K Organics, successfully petitioned the Vance County Planning Board to amend the zoning ordinance. It now allows large LCID landfills to be built on property with certain zoning designations, including agricultural, as long as the landfill owner receives a Conditional Use Permit.

The proposed landfill would be on the north side of Egypt Mountain Road, west of US 1, in rural Kittrell.

According to Secretary of State corporation records, four months after the planning board approved the change, Harrison teamed up with a Franklin County businessman to form Pearces Road, LLC, a “land development” company based in Youngsville, which could also haul material to the LCID.

“My number one goal is to be a good neighbor,” Harrison said. “I don’t want neighbors to know I’m there.”

That could be difficult, considering the traffic engineer testified that during peak times trucks would enter or leave the landfill every five minutes. It would operate from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Lisa Todd, who has lived on Egypt Mountain Road for 51 years, the fourth generation to do so, said she’s concerned about the effects on her private drinking water well; there is no public water available to the neighborhood. “Dump in your own county,” she said.

Tree farmer Preston Floyd and retired forester Howard Gillis were both concerned about the possibility that destructive beetles could escape from trucks and the landfill, then spread to their farms. “I don’t oppose business but I don’t want it in my county,” said Gillis, who planted  230 acres of trees himself. “I’m two miles away but the trucks come right by me.”

Terrell spent most of his presentation inundating the board with information, much of it contained in 100-plus-page notebooks he distributed to the members. But as is common among lawyers, Terrell presented factual information that failed to capture the full scope of the truth.

Terrell claimed that his firm held a conference call for neighbors to learn about the project, “but no one took advantage of that.” Then he acknowledged that the first letter he sent listed the wrong phone number and he “sent a second letter immediately.” But Charlotte Herring, whose property is 100 feet from the proposed LCID, said she got the letter on the afternoon of the second call. “I got an alert from the post office, but I couldn’t leave work to go two counties away to get my mail.”

He highlighted the concessions and conditions K&K Organics would be willing to comply with in order to get the permit: a 50-foot buffer would separate the LCID from Long’s Creek; the 100 feet (which he changed to 150 feet on the fly) between the landfill and the nearest property. “We’re giving you the handcuffs,” he told the board.

What he didn’t say was that the 50-foot buffer  between the waste boundary and surface waters is a minimum, required by state law. The minimum from the disposal area to property lines, wells and other buildings is 100 feet.

Terrell downplayed the type of material that would be deposited in the LCID: “Leaves, limbs stumps, dirt, concrete, wood and bricks that have not been painted,” he told the board. “All of that is in my yard and my children played there.” However, it’s doubtful that Terrell’s yard contains millions of tons of debris for his children to play in.

Vance Moore, a landfill design engineer hired by Terrell, called LCIDs “innocuous.”

“It’s in nobody’s interest to put anything illegal in there,” Moore told the board. “The landfill owner is controlling what’s brought in. It’s easy to identify illegal waste.”

That’s not true. Earlier this summer, Chemours hauled 38 loads of trees, soil and other land-clearing debris from an area near its plant known to be contaminated with GenX and other toxic compounds to an LCID in Cumberland County. The NC Department of Environmental Quality forced Chemours to retrieve the material, and the company took it to a lined municipal waste landfill, where the per-ton disposal fees are higher than at an LCID.

Terrell also asked Moore to compare an LCID with a cluster of junk cars parked a property near US 1 and Egypt Mountain Road. “The impact of a junkyard would be greater,” Moore said. While it’s true that abandoned cars can leak gasoline and antifreeze into the soil, the property that Terrell referred to is not a junkyard. There are roughly a half-dozen cars on the lot.

Molly Chisolm, a licensed real estate appraiser, testified that she had collected sales data statewide that showed the sale prices of homes were unaffected by their proximity to near landfills, including LCIDs. But Angie Garrett countered, saying that sale prices alone don’t show the impact of these facilities. “Those houses aren’t even looked at,” Garrett said. “I know because I’ve bypassed property with a dump beside it.”

*****

There are 62 permitted LCID landfills in North Carolina, according to state records, including four in Wake County. Vance County is among the 64 counties that have none.

Eighty percent of North Carolina’s LCIDs are in communities of color or low-income neighborhoods, according to DEQ’s Community Mapping System. Land is usually cheaper in these areas, and the neighborhoods don’t often have the political, economic or social power to fight them.

The Egypt Mountain Road neighborhood is one such community, with 38% of residents in the census block identifying as Black or Latinx, and 42% as low-income, according to census data. Both figures are well above the state average.

The state’s solid waste rules require DEQ to conduct an “environmental justice” analysis for proposed landfills, and where the population in the surrounding area significantly exceeds state averages for either low-income or minority residents as is the case with Egypt Mountain Road, allows for a recommendation that approval for the facility be denied. Ultimately, however, such a review offers no guarantee; such facilities from being sited in these “environmental justice” neighborhoods.

But on Thursday, Egypt Mountain Road residents organized, pleading with the board to either deny or delay the vote. Meanwhile, Terrell urged the board to vote to approve the conditional use permit, and to discount the neighbors’ anxieties about these potential impacts. “Generalized fear is not evidence,” he said.

Yet the board was clearly uneasy about the hard sell. Several members were concerned about the risks to the Tar River and other environmental issues, as well as the deluge of information they needed to digest.

The board didn’t vote. Instead, it continued the public hearing for 60 days to allow the board to study the issue and for opponents to hire their own attorney and additional experts. But board member Ruxton Bobbitt Jr. might have tipped his hand: “I can’t think of a worse place in the county to put this,” he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lisa SorgEnvironmental Reporter, joined N.C. Policy Watch in July 2016. She covers environmental issues, including social justice, pollution, climate change and energy policy. Before joining the project, Lisa was the editor and an investigative reporter for INDY Week, covering the environment, housing and city government. She has been a journalist for 22 years, working at magazines, daily newspapers, digital media outlets and alternative newsweeklies.
lisa@ncpolicywatch.com
919-861-1463