Stretched regulators to state lawmakers: We have no idea what’s in most closed NC landfills

By: - December 14, 2017 5:30 am

Image: NC DEQ

Just south of Candler off the Pisgah Highway is a lovely piece of property on Little Piney Mountain Road. Wooded, with creeks nearby, it would be an idyllic retreat for those who love the bucolic hills and valleys of western North Carolina.

Yet part of this same land was the site of the old Buncombe County Landfill, where before 1983, trash from the area was dumped into an open pit. In those days, there were no laws requiring landfills to be lined, so whatever material was tossed in there—ranging from green bean cans to asbestos to lead batteries—percolated, their chemicals leaching into the groundwater.

The old Buncombe County Landfill is one of 677 such dumps in North Carolina. Known more elegantly as “pre-regulatory landfills,” most of them contain mystery substances. There are few, if any records of what was dumped. Local land records don’t list their location or their boundaries, which sometimes intrude into residential neighborhoods.

That’s what happened on Little Piney Road. Rep. Brian Turner, a Democrat representing Buncombe County, heard from a constituent who had unknowingly purchased a house and land, a section of which sat over the old dump.

“It doesn’t show up on a title search,” said Turner, whose day job is in commercial real estate. “And the dump may not have to be on a person’s property to hurt them.”

The seller was not required to disclose the location of the dump—if he or she knew it. Nor was there an easy way for a real estate broker to unearth the environmental history of a residential property. As it turns out, the new property owner learned of the dump from a neighbor, then had to drill a new well because the existing one was contaminated. Other homes on that road drilled new wells, too, because the pollution ran downhill.

On Wednesday, the Environmental Review Commission (ERC) heard from Michael Scott, director of the Division of Waste Management, about the status of the pre-regulatory landfill program. As part of the financial discussion—a solid waste tax helps pay for the assessment and remediation of these landfills—the topic of transparency came up.

It’s not uncommon, Scott said, for old dump records to be inadequate. “It’s not like running into a white trash bag that you find in your kitchen,” he told the ERC. “It’s often metal trash cans or 55-gallon drums.”

And the situation on Little Piney Mountain Road has been repeated in other places in the state, such as Onslow County, where part of a residential neighborhood had been overlaid on an old dump.

As a result, Scott said, the state has sampled more than 1,000 drinking water supplies since 2008, when the legislature passed a solid waste tax to help fund the pre-regulatory landfill program. In addition to households that drilled new wells, like those on Little Piney Road, 20 homes have been outfitted with filtration systems because of landfill contamination.

Image: NC DEQ

Of the 677 dumps, more than 520 lie within 1,000 feet—less than a quarter-mile—of a park, daycare, school, church or drinking water supply. Some of these landfills contain not only hazardous solid waste, such as asbestos, but also dangerous gases. Methane, for example, can build up, and threaten to explode. Other dumps are near rivers or other environmentally sensitive areas.

In less enlightened times, landfills were located in flood-prone areas. For example, the 70-acre Kinston demolition landfill lies within the Neuse River floodplain. And when heavy rains fall, Scott said, “these landfills are inundated. Waste is scoured out of the landfills and into new locations.”

Contractors for the NC Department of Environmental Quality capped the landfill, but there’s no cost-effective, environmentally safe way to remove the trash. “We’re not digging up 70 acres of waste, 10 feet deep, as in Kinston,” Scott said.

Instead, a warning barrier alerts prospective developers to what is nearby, and the cap keeps rain from infiltrating the landfill and creating more leachate—garbage juice in the bottom.

The land over some old dumps can be reused once the cleanup is finished. Even apartments can be built if the waste is innocuous enough. A public park is located over the Old Raleigh Dump No. 11 at Dorothea Dix. The Cary dump is now a recycling center. A used car lot now sits atop the old Mooresville Landfill in Cabarrus County.

Yet these cleanups are expensive. In 2007, the legislature passed a law assessing on counties and cities a solid waste tax of $2 a ton on trash deposited in landfills or on waste that is transferred out of state for disposal. The municipalities often pass that cost along to the waste haulers in the form of tipping fees or included it in their annual budgets.

Half of that tax revenue goes to DEQ; 37.5 percent reverts back to the municipalities for solid waste management programs. And 12.5 percent is put in the state’s General Fund. Since 2009, the tax has generated $17 million to $19 million annually—for a total of about $160 million.

DEQ has received $80 million of that amount, but those dollars don’t go very far. Since 2009, the agency has spent $18.1 million on merely assessing the footprint and potential exposure routes of 322 of the landfills—less than half of the 677.

The agency has spent another $16.6 million on cleaning up just a dozen of the highest-risk dumps. Another 16 are slated for remediation over the next two years. Private contractors hired by the state are tasked with the remediation; only eight people within DEQ are assigned to the Division of Waste Management’s pre-regulatory landfill program.

“It’s very expensive work,” Charlotte Jesneck, who works in the program, told the ERC. “Part of it is trying to find the sites, to do geophysical studies, to study groundwater contamination, drill monitoring wells.”

Sen. Trudy Wade questioned how DEQ can rank the sites based on risk if officials don’t know what the dumps contain. Jesneck said that old dumps that could imminently harm human health and the environment are designated as high-risk, even without a full accounting of what is buried in the ground.

But the disclosure issue remains unresolved. While commercial disclosures of old landfills are required, similar transparency is not mandated for residential properties. And most of the time, a title search would not include the information.

Sen. Andy Wells, a Republican from Hickory, works in real estate. He frequently consults on counties’ mapping and GIS systems, but none of DEQ’s information, which is available on its website, is linked to online property records held by the counties’ Register of Deeds.

If that service were available, Wells said, “We could have identified the boundaries of 677 landfills and anyone in real estate practice” could advise a potential buyer. “Then the market can deal with this.”

“We built the system,” Scott said. “We have the locational information and we’re ready to make it available to the public. We need to be clear on how to disseminate it.”

“Do we need to do legislation?” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, asked. “There’s no statutory requirement that all of these dumps be recorded on deed restrictions?”

In fact, such legislation did exist. Rep. Turner, who is not a member of the ERC, co-sponsored a bill this year that would have helped property owners, prospective buyers and realtors know if land was on or near a pre-regulatory landfill.

That measure, House Bill 763, would have required DEQ to share its GIS data on all contaminated sites with each counties’ Register of Deeds. In turn, those county officials would be required to put that information online in a searchable format.

However, the bill, whose primary sponsors were Rep. Turner, and two Republicans, Reps.

Julia Howard and Chuck McGrady, never even had a hearing. That means buyers and sellers of property must check the DEQ website to find the address or an online map, the public version of which doesn’t include certain county data, such as parcel numbers.

“It was a bipartisan effort,” Turner said of his bill. “This was not a heavy lift.”

[notification type=”notification_info” ] The high cost of trash

677 – Number of unlined landfills statewide that were built before 1983
521 – Number of these landfills are within 1,000 feet of a school, daycare, church, home, park or drinking water supply
11 – Number of sites fully cleaned up
$16.6 million – Cost to clean up these sites
322 – Number of landfills where contamination has been fully assessed
$18.1 million – Cost to fully assess these sites
1,010 – Number of drinking water supplies sampled by DEQ
$ 1.36 million – Cost of the sampling these supplies
Source: NC DEQ, time frame 2009–present [/notification]

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.