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June 14, 2024 11:26 pm

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Moving the Misery Around: EPA Approves Plan to Truck Contaminated Soil From One Black Community to Another

Credit: iStock

By Lisa Sorg, NC Policy Watch

Three landfills are under consideration to receive contaminated soil. The closest facility is in Sampson County, 68 miles away. Here, 44% of residents in the landfill’s census block group are low-income and 38% are non-white. A neighboring census block group is 75% low-income. All three landfills are in environmental justice communities. (Map: Lisa Sorg)

Contaminated soil from a Superfund site in Navassa will be shipped to one of three landfills outside Brunswick County, likely moving toxic pollution from one non-white or low-income community to another. 

The proposed cleanup plan, approved by the EPA in late May, highlights the environmental injustices that occur when counties, regulators and polluters offload their problems to communities of color.

From 1936 to 1974, Kerr-McGee and its predecessors operated a wood treatment plant on 244 acres of a former rice plantation in the historically Black community of Navassa. The company applied creosote to utility poles, railroad ties and other wood products to repel pests and prevent rot. 

Decades of misuse poisoned the site with carcinogens, including dioxins and PAH, also known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. To shield itself from environmental liability, Kerr-McGee spun off a company, Tronox, which declared bankruptcy in 2009. The site entered the Superfund program the next year.

Some of the Kerr-McGee site is irreparably damaged for the foreseeable future. But the least contaminated portion of the site — 15.6 acres — will be redeveloped for housing. To reduce the health risks to future residents and to wildlife, 2,900 cubic yards of contaminated soil — about 100 dumpsters’ worth — on 1.6 of these acres must be excavated.

The EPA plan does not list the landfills targeted for disposal. But Claire Woods, director of Environmental Justice Policies and Programs at the Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust  confirmed that 25 landfills were initially considered. The Trust was appointed by a bankruptcy court to manage the cleanup, work with communities, and redevelop hundreds of Kerr-McGee sites nationwide.

Claire Woods (Photo: Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust)

The list is now narrowed to three landfills:

  • Sampson County in Roseboro; 
  • Great Oak, in Randleman, in Randolph County; 
  • and Chambers Development, also known as the Anson County landfill, in Polkton.

All three are located in and near non-white or low-income communities — or both.

DEQ spokesperson Laura Leonard said certain landfills were excluded because they don’t accept out-of-county waste, can’t meet necessary legal requirements under Superfund law, or would require long hauling distances. 

The EPA will determine which landfill will receive the material, based on recommendations from the Trust and DEQ. “We are going to be extremely sensitive to environmental justice concerns,” said Charles King, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the Kerr-McGee site, at a public meeting in June in Navassa. “We want to have minimal impact.”

Sampson County is the most likely destination because the landfill is only 68 miles from Navassa. Yet the county has long borne the brunt of cumulative impacts of pollution sources, including hundreds of industrialized hog farms, a biogas plant, and an untold number of unregulated poultry operations. 

Veronica Carter, a member of the state’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, lives in Brunswick County, in Leland. “These people are already marginalized,” she said of Sampson County. “This is wrong.”

Veronica Carter (Photo: Town of Leland)

Joseph Smith is the general manager of the Sampson County landfill, operated by a private company, GFL Environmental. He said the company has been contacted to provide price estimates to receive non-hazardous waste from the Kerr-McGee site.

However, Smith said GFL hasn’t yet received a formal request or analytical data to prove the material is non-hazardous. Once GFL receives that information, he said, an outside engineering firm would evaluate it and advise the company of “whether or note we could receive and any special conditions for handling, should we desire to receive it.”

Soil sampling results provided by the Trust show levels of benzopyrene, a known carcinogen, up to 600 times above residential standards and 33 times above those for industrial uses. A half-dozen other compounds exceeded residential standards, including naphthalene, a possible carcinogen that can damage the retina and cause anemia in people who are chronically exposed, according to the EPA. Some of the soil samples were composites, which represent the average contaminant concentrations.

While these levels exceed legal limits for the planned reuse, Woods said they are low enough that the material can be disposed of in a lined landfill that has been approved by the EPA to accept Superfund waste. 

However, if further investigations show the soil contains concentrations that exceed non-hazardous disposal standards, it would be shipped to a hazardous waste landfill, Woods said. 

There are no hazardous waste landfills in North Carolina. The nearest one, in the small town of Emelle, Alabama, is the largest hazardous waste landfill in the nation. Emelle’s population is 80% Black. 

“If the soil is so benign, why doesn’t Brunswick County keep it?” said Sherri White-Williamson. She is the environmental justice policy director of the NC Conservation Network, as well as a member of EJCAN, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Clinton that covers all of Sampson County. White-Williamson also sits on DEQ’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. She previously worked for the EPA.

Sherri White-Williamson (Photo: EJCAN)

Brunswick County does operate a construction and demolition landfill that accepts clean soil and treated wood. However, Leonard of DEQ said the county isn’t legally permitted to receive contaminated soil from Navassa.

The “CERCLA Off-Site Rule,” which governs the disposal of waste from Superfund sites, prohibits the transfer of material to a facility that is releasing contaminants into the environment. Earlier this year, DEQ cited the Great Oak landfill for doing just that. The facility accidentally released sediment and leachate from a lined part of the landfill into an unlined portion where another cell will be built.

Great Oak has fixed the problem and is now in compliance, according to DEQ.

A spokeswoman for the Great Oak landfill said its officials had not been contacted about receiving the soil. 

The manager for the Anson County landfill did not respond to Policy Watch.

Communities of color especially burdened by pollution

Like most pollution sources, landfills have historically been located in communities of color. 

The odds of a solid waste facility being located in a predominantly non-white census block group were nearly three times greater than those that were at least 90% white, according to a 2007 article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Race isn’t the only issue that influences the siting of landfills. When analyzing for median home values, the article’s authors, including UNC’s Altha Cravey and the late UNC epidemiologist Steve Wing, found poorer communities in North Carolina were 1.5 times more likely to be home to a landfill than their wealthier counterparts.

The state’s solid waste rules now require DEQ to consider environmental justice factors when approving new landfills. However, once these facilities are built, they can accept any waste that meets federal and state disposal rules. 

All of the landfills on the short list for the contaminated soil are double-lined. However, liners can degrade or become punctured over time. That happened at the Anson County landfill in 2008, when the liner was penetrated during the installation of a gas extraction well, state records show. The hole was immediately plugged until the liner could be repaired.

Landfills also operate leachate collection systems — essentially tanks that collect the rain and garbage juice. That leachate, a cocktail of fetid chemicals, is either pumped, treated and shipped offsite by truck, as in the case of Sampson County, or treated and sent to a wastewater plant by sewer connection. 

Leachate can and does leave landfills, which occurred at the Great Oak facility earlier this year.

UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor Courtney Woods co-leads the Health Equity, Social Justice and Human Rights concentration, which she helped develop, at the Gillis School of Public Health. (She is not related to Claire Woods.)

She and a research team sampled surface water next to the Sampson County landfill for the presence of PFAS. Like most landfills, Sampson County accepts materials that contain PFAS; the compounds are a global pollutant and difficult to avoid.

Upstream of the landfill, sampling did not detect PFAS. However, downstream and closer to the facility, there were “modest levels,” Woods said. Without further analysis, researchers can’t definitively pinpoint the landfill as the source of the PFAS. “But that facility is not a closed system,” Woods said.

Neighbors of the landfill are concerned not only about the water, but also the air. Residents of Snow Hill, which is adjacent to the landfill, have often complained about the stench coming from the facility. 

But what residents can’t smell could also be hurting them. In 2019, the Sampson County landfill emitted more than 50 tons of volatile organic compounds, 36 tons of carbon monoxide and 32 tons of hazardous air pollutants, according to state records.

(Data source: Annual facility reports filed with DEQ)

Despite the environmental harm, for poorer counties, taking in other counties’ trash can be a reliable source of income. 

The Sampson County landfill imported 1.7 million tons of waste from 44 North Carolina counties in 2020-21, according to the facility’s annual report filed with DEQ. By comparison, only 62,249 tons were generated within Sampson County.

Sampson County charges $47.06 per ton in tipping fees for routine solid waste, but it can charge more for material that requires special handling.

The Great Oak landfill, in Randolph County, which took in 552,000 tons of waste from 30 counties, charges just over $36 a ton.

And the Anson County landfill, also known as Chambers Development, imported 867,804 tons from within the state, plus another 35,000 tons from South Carolina, at $45 per ton.

The annual gross income from these tipping fees: $20 million to $80 million.

Trust plans meeting for Sampson County, Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board discusses cumulative impacts this week

This map of the Kerr-McGee site shows the “Operating Units” that, depending on contamination levels, will be redeveloped or left alone. OU2 is the source of the contaminated soil. (Map: Multistate Trust)

Superfund law requires regulators to deploy a community engagement plan to hold public meetings and keep residents informed about cleanups. That has occurred in Navassa in the form of quarterly meetings, as well as extensive documentation housed at public libraries in Brunswick County. At the EPA’s latest public meeting in June, the agency and the Trust provided updates about excavation, disposal and costs of the removing the soil — $1.6 million.

However, it would have been very difficult for residents near the three candidate landfills to have known about the event — especially without being aware their communities were under consideration. Despite original plans to begin excavation in the fall, only in July did anyone from the EPA or the Trust notify Sampson County. 

Asked how the state would notify affected communities, DEQ provided a non-committal answer: “Community engagement and outreach for those near the receiving landfill will be determined based on input from respective stakeholders.”

In an interview last week with Policy Watch, Claire Woods said the Multistate Trust will “work with the communities to see what their concerns are. And if we can come up with measures that help address those concerns, and we’re committed to doing that.”

This week, Woods told Policy Watch that after speaking with Sherri White-Williamson, a community meeting will be held in Sampson County, likely next month. 

The Trust will also publish a transportation plan to describe how contractors will prevent accidents and spills at the sites and while traveling through communities en route to the landfill.

“The environmental justice issue is obvious in Sampson County,” said UNC associate professor Courtney Woods. “Advocates don’t want the waste sent to another marginalized community. Work on this site began a decade ago. There’s been time to come up with a better plan.”

This article was published with the permission of NC Policy Watch, under the Creative Commons license. The original publication of this story can be found here.