The entrance to Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill in Person County looks inviting, as if it were leading to a middle-class subdivision. An artful stone sign bearing the name welcomes drivers down a long road to a 480-acre landfill in Rougemont. Here, trucks haul in garbage from 16 North Carolina counties and eight others from Virginia, as much as 730,000 tons of commercial, industrial and institutional waste each year – or 3.6 million tons over five years.
Beneath the 5.5 million cubic yards of “airspace” — the amount of trash mounded above ground — garbage juices percolate inside the landfill liner. That liquid then drains into a giant holding tank, where it mixes and percolates and chemically reacts.
Although the landfill is permitted to accept only “non-hazardous” waste, no one is opening every bag and checking for pesticide containers or cleaning solvents. The leachate — or landfill juice, to be inelegant for a moment — often contains lead from electronics, mercury from batteries, bacteria and viruses from dirty diapers; antibiotics, hormones and other toxics from routine prescription and specialized chemotherapy drugs; volatile organic compounds from plastics, toner cartridges, glues and cleansers.
Waste disposal companies have to get rid of this leachate, about 4 million to 30 million gallons of it each year. Yet disposal is extremely expensive. Evaporation ponds can cost upward of $2 million, according to Republic Services, one of the nation’s largest waste disposal companies, which made a presentation to legislators earlier this year. Pre-treating the leachate, then pumping and trucking it to a hazardous waste site or wastewater treatment plant, runs another $2 million or so, plus fees.
Or these companies can take the cheaper, untested, way out. Republic owns three landfills in North Carolina that have received a state permit to spray leachate from the holding tanks into the air: Upper Piedmont, Foothills and East Carolina Municipal Solid Waste. (Charah owns a fourth landfill, the Brickhaven mine in Chatham County, which is being filled with coal ash. In March, it received a state permit to conduct a 90-day field trial.)
The technology is known as leachate aerosolization, invented by Kelly Houston of Cornelius, a former lobbyist and a Republican campaign donor. The theory behind the system is that the contaminants in the mist will fall to the ground, ostensibly on top of the landfill, allegedly leaving uncontaminated tiny particles to drift away.
The controversial House Bill 576, “Allow Aerosolization of Leachate,” is sponsored by Republican Rep. Jimmy Dixon of Duplin County. By removing certain permitting requirements, the bill undermines the authority of the NC Department of Environmental Quality. If the bill becomes law, DEQ would be required to approve this technology under most circumstances. The state would have to issue a permit for facilities where the leachate doesn’t produce “significant” air contamination, although that term is not defined.
Lawmakers debated the bill at last week’s House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Dixon steamrolled over any objections.
John Autry, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, asked for additional safety information about the process. “How do we know if there is significant contamination?” he said.
“We’ll follow a similar process when people thought the Earth was flat and found out it was round,” Dixon replied. “Observation and study.”
“I’m still concerned that the language requires DEQ to do this,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat. “We lack the expertise.”
“I don’t think we ought to tell DEQ what the right technology is,” added Rep. Chuck McGrady, a Republican from Henderson County.
Houston did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the safety and cost of the system. But Rep. Dixon defended the safety of the technology. He waved several sheets of paper before his colleagues at the committee meeting, saying “There’s been some dialogue that this is an unknown, unproven process,” he said. “Here are 10,000 pages that you’re welcome to access that talk about the process. I’ve not reviewed all of these documents, but I’m convinced this process has good merit to use.”
The documents that Dixon cited without having read don’t specifically address leachate aerosolization from landfills. They do deal with pathogens, such as monkeypox, but the articles don’t address the public health and environmental concerns of spraying landfill leachate into the air.
Brooks Rainey Pearson, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, called leachate “a witch’s brew of toxics.”
Pearson questioned why the technology should be allowed to circumvent permitting. ”
“This doesn’t begin to address air concerns,” she told NCPW. Microscopic particles, she said, can travel “at least three miles.”
“We need data to show they don’t pass through the system,” Pearson added. “This bill doesn’t address how it interfaces with public health.”
Rep. Jeff Collins erroneously claimed that Foothills is “successfully using this process.” But according to DEQ, none of the North Carolina facilities has yet deployed the system.
An amendment did remove coal ash and swine waste from the list of landfills that can use the technology. It also requires any particles to fall within the permitted landfill area, and not beyond. In the original bill, spraying from unlined landfills didn’t require a permit, but now it does. However, the bill places the onus on the applicant, such as Republic, to provide data on contamination to DEQ.
“It doesn’t seem to be benign,” Harrison responded to Dixon. “Pathogens are a different issue than toxins and heavy metals that could spread. Am I wrong?”
“Yes ma’am,” Dixon replied. “You’re wrong. We’re talking about taking out the bad stuff and releasing only the good water. It’s not contaminant-free, but just at a safe enough level.”
In addition to Dixon, other key Republican lawmakers have been pushing this technology for at least a year. During the 2015-2016, the leachate language was couched in a late edition of House Bill 593, then sponsored by Rep. Pat McElraft. (She also favors leachate spraying.)
Filed in April 2015, that bill did not include a provision for leachate aerosolization — until June 16, 2016. That’s when the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee offered a substitute, which introduced the leachate idea for the first time.
A key member of the Senate Ag committee was Trudy Wade, a Guilford County Republican responsible for many environmentally damaging solid waste bills. On June 29, 2016, Wade was the chairwoman of a Senate conference committee charged with compromising with the House on some of the bill’s particulars. On June 30, the Wade campaign received $5,000 from Kelly Houston, the inventor of the leachate aerosolization technology.
Wade did not respond to written questions or a request for an interview about the timetable and her support of the technology.
The bill, though, died shortly before the 2015-2016 session ended. Until this year, when it was resurrected by Rep. Dixon.
Despite Rep. Dixon’s citation of 10,000 pages, there appears to be no peer-reviewed science on the leachate spraying technology in general. (Nor is it listed on the agenda at next week’s the waste industry’s Leachate Summit at the WasteExpo in New Orleans.) However, there is plenty of such science on the toxicity of landfill leachate. A 2011 article in The Scientific World Journal noted that as many as 190 substances have been identified in leachate, including cancer-causing benzenes, ammonia and heavy metals.
And what goes in the landfill can be quite different from what leaves it. “Chemical composition of leachate changes with the timespan of landfill operation,” the article read. Chemical reactions among the different components can create new contaminants. New leachate tends to be more toxic than old.
Even naturally occurring elements can contaminate landfills and leachate. At the Upper Piedmont landfill, levels of cadmium, chromium, iron and zinc exceeded surface water standards upstream of the facility, according to correspondence between DEQ and Republic in 2011. Republic maintained these elements were naturally occurring in the soil.
Barium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, vanadium and zinc were detected at concentrations above solid waste reporting limits in monitoring wells downgradient from the Foothills Landfill in Lenoir County, which also is permitted for a leachate spray system.
A field trial of the system is scheduled to begin this summer at the Brickhaven Mine in Chatham County, where Duke Energy is burying tons of its coal ash.
On March 3, Charah requested a state permit to conduct a 90-day field trial of the technology. However, on March 13, Charah notified DEQ that Duke Energy had detected PCBs in the coal ash from the Riverbend plant at concentrations of less than 1 part per million. At those levels, the ash can still be legally placed in the lined landfill, according to federal standards.
Of the 3.5 million tons of coal ash at Brickhaven, more than half of it originated at Riverbend, near Mount Holly. PCBs are not usually found in coal ash, but they were used in the electric industry, such as in capacitors and mineral oil.
In 1981, according to Duke Energy spokesman Jeff Brooks, the EPA allowed Riverbend to burn mineral oil with low levels of PCBs from that site and others. With that imported material, Riverbend “received and handled oil with PCBs at a greater volume than other coal plants on our system.”
On March 20, DEQ then requested a meeting to discuss how to handle any coal ash that contained higher than acceptable levels of PCBs. On March 31, Charah wrote to DEQ stating that it would not accept any coal ash for Brickhaven that contained PCBs at or above that level. “The PCBs will be segregated and held at the ash basin,” the letter said. There was no mention of the cumulative effects of acceptable levels of PCBs in the ash.
On April 4, Charah received a DEQ permit for that demonstration project . The state has laid out a dozen requirements including where, how and when the leachate can be sprayed; notification requirements in case of contamination, and a monitoring plan.
Michael Scott, chief of DEQ’s Division of Waste Management, told NCPW that airborne metals will be monitored during the Brickhaven demonstration, but the discovery of PCBs has not affected plans for that field trial. Additional testing or requirements could be required, though.
Therese Vick, a community organizer with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League said she’s perplexed by the timing of the field trial and the PCB discovery. “Before they approved the aerosolization, they knew the PCBs were found,” she said. “It’s inconceivable to me. The optics are bad, for sure.
“It is an irresponsible bill,” she continued. “There’s no permitting or testing protocol, no public input or participation. It’s really bad.”
This story was changed to correct the number of tons the Upper Piedmont landfill receives each year.