Sampson County residents tell DEQ to deny landfill gas permit because it lacks key details

Public comment period on Sapphire Energy plant ends June 30 at 5 p.m.

By: - June 29, 2023 1:34 pm
An aerial photo of semi trucks dumping garbage at the Sampson County landfill.

GFL, which owns the Sampson County Landfill, which accepts trash from 44 counties in North Carolina. It is the largest landfill in the state. (Photo: Cape Fear River Watch)

A pack of people carrying signs congregated near the entrance to Clinton City Hall, bewildered by an admonition they had never seen at a state public hearing before.

“No signs or posters”
“No protesting or demonstrating”
“No talking or shouting over recognized speakers”

“Thank you for your cooperation.”

The NC Department of Environmental Quality was hosting a public hearing about a proposed gas conditioning facility next to the Sampson County landfill in Snow Hill. Community members were already upset about the lack of a virtual meeting option for people who couldn’t attend, as well as insufficient outreach to Latinx residents.  

“The people who couldn’t be here speak through these signs,” said Sherri White-Williamson, a Sampson County resident  and environmental justice advocate who works for the NC Conservation Network and EJCAN.

DEQ’s sign policy at the Sampson County public hearing was based on the size of the venue — Clinton City Hall seats about 80 people — according to an agency spokesman. DEQ “opted to limit signs inside the hearing room to allow for maximum seating and visibility. This policy is also in response to past complaints about signs and demonstrations producing a distracting or intimidating environment.” (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Many of 60 or so attendees live near the landfill and have long complained about the noise, odor, truck traffic, and air pollution emanating from 85 acres of trash.

And, the neighbors, county residents, environmental advocates and public health experts said, the proposal for the gas conditioning plant proposal is short on details and long on spurious promises.

GFL Environmental, a billion-dollar publicly traded company operates the Sampson County Landfill, the largest municipal waste facility in North Carolina. Of the 1,321 municipal landfills in the U.S., Sampson County’s ranks second in emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, federal records show.

GFL’s subsidiary, Sapphire RNG, is proposing to capture some of the methane from the landfill, clean it of impurities, then inject it into a natural gas pipeline. Duke Energy would buy the gas from Sapphire and use it to generate electricity. 

Initially, though, the gas would be compressed into mobile trailers and trucked to the pipeline at an unnamed injection point.

Denise Fisher Faison has lived two miles from the landfill since 1986, subjected to daily noise and truck traffic. “Two hundred fifty trucks per day,” Faison said. “I can hear them at 5 in the morning waiting to get into the landfill. I’m worried that will increase.”

Other neighbors of this predominantly nonwhite community said they were worried about potential methane explosions. Still others were concerned that by profiting off the gas, Sapphire and GFL would be incentivized to bring even more trash to the landfill. The facility already contains 25 million tons of garbage, collected from 44 counties in North Carolina.

“No one should get to profit off the backs of Snow Hill residents,” Larry Sutton said. “We should consider closing that landfill. Let’s prepare to wish it farewell.”

Because the landfill is known to have PFAS-contaminated material in it — the toxic compounds are in many consumer and industrial products — DEQ is requiring Sapphire to initially test the or the compounds as the landfill gas enters its facility. 

But the testing doesn’t need to be finished until six months after the plant “achieves steady operation.” Sapphire would then be required to submit a written report to the state within 30 days of receiving the test results. The company would have “an ongoing duty to disclose the known presence of materials containing fluorinated chemicals to the environment.”

PFAS are not regulated in the air or in landfill gas, so it’s unclear from the permit what the benchmarks and remedies the state would require.

“Sapphire has not conducted any analysis for PFAS,” the permit application reads. “I don’t think there is precedent for such analysis in the landfill industry so far.”

Public can comment on Sapphire landfill gas project
Deadline is Friday, June 30, at 5 p.m.
Leave comments via voice mail at (919)-707-8714
Or email comments to daq.p[email protected] with Sapphire.22A in the subject line.

Courtney Woods, an environmental health scientist at UNC Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Public Health, told DEQ that there is a potential for PFAS to be released into the air from the Sapphire plant. “PFAS emissions are difficult to destroy even at very high temperatures,” Woods said. 

PFAS that enter the air often float far from their origin and fall to the ground, where they can contaminate the soil, rivers, groundwater and even drinking water wells. Woods’s research team tested Bearskin Creek and found PFAS downstream of the landfill, but not upstream. “There is uncertainty about the exposure levels for neighboring residents,” Woods said.

The toxic compounds would also be present in Sapphire’s condensate (moisture) from processing — similar to the current condensate at the landfill. Waste gas and other treatment membranes are expected to contaminated with PFAS, as well, according to the permit application.

Sapphire says in its application that the contaminated condensate “will be handled with the same precautions being taken at the landfill at this time.” 

The contaminated materials will be “disposed using best management practices” after the waste is analyzed. 

This map shows the location of the proposed landfill gas facility, next to the existing Sampson County landfill. (Map: DEQ)

If considered hazardous, the PFAS waste is required go to a special landfill. The closest one is in Emelle, Alabama, a small, predominantly Black town that is home to the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill. The waste would be moved from one Black community, overburdened with pollution, to another.

Sapphire RNG touts its proposed plant as a way to sharply reduce greenhouse gases emissions, including carbon dioxide, from the landfill. The company also claims it would not be a major source of hazardous air pollutants. 

That’s not true, Maia Hutt, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told DEQ. Sapphire is using the wrong method to estimate and calculate its emissions. These are “default” values based on area-wide estimates — known as AP-42 guidance — and are not site-specific. In November 2020, the EPA warned state agencies and industry not to use AP-42 estimates.

Even worse, Hutt said, Sapphire used AP-42 incorrectly. “It assumes that the landfill gas will have relatively low hazardous air pollutant concentrations because that is usually the case for landfills that only accept residential waste. But we all know that the Sampson County Landfill has accepted everything from PFAS-contaminated leachate from Chemours to protective equipment and sampling waste from the Navassa Superfund site,” Hutt said.

Landfills that have accepted this type of waste have different methods of estimating and calculating their emissions, Hutt said, “but Sapphire did not use them. This is a really important detail that directly impacts the level of pollution from the facility. Sapphire has gotten it completely wrong and DAQ appears to have accepted this bad information. This is unacceptable for an agency whose duty it is to protect North Carolinians. DAQ needs to be open and transparent with the public and it needs to get these details right.”

The Sapphire plant would be the second such facility at this location.

A subsidiary of Waste Industries (since absorbed into GFL), Black Creek Renewables operated a similar landfill gas facility on the site for nearly a decade, beginning in  2011. It sold gas to Duke Energy under a power supply agreement. (Black Creek closed the plant in 2021 after negotiations with Duke on a price for the gas failed.)

Yet not until 2019 — eight years and several state permit renewals later — did DEQ realize the plant’s engines were emitting about 50 tons of formaldehyde each year, state records show.

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen; exposure to high levels can cause myeloid leukemia and rare nasal and sinus cancers.

“This is why details matter,” Hutt said.

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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.