Mother Nature chimes in as officials ponder controversial landfill proposal

Mother Nature chimes in as officials ponder controversial landfill proposal

- in Environment, Top Story
An aerial view of the proposed landfill site. (Photo: Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper)

A day of dangerous flooding underscores concerns of local residents regarding proposed Vance County facility

The rain, curtains of it, had fallen in North Carolina all of Thursday. Relentless and unforgiving, floodwaters filled rivers and creeks, which broke their banks. It swept mud from hillsides, buckled roads, swallowed cars. It killed people in several counties. 

For residents of Egypt Mountain Road in Kittrell, in rural Vance County, the flooding was an unspoken expert witness in their fight against a Land Clearing and Inert Debris Landfill proposed for their neighborhood.

Late Thursday afternoon, the Vance County Board of Adjustment heard more testimony about the potential environmental impacts of the LCID, as these landfills are known. LCIDs accept tons upon tons of trees, stumps, brush, unpainted wood and concrete, often from construction sites. If the board grants a conditional use permit, this LCID would be built within a half-mile of 60 homes, on roughly 80 acres of steep, rugged and forested terrain that bottoms out at Long Creek, a tributary to Tabbs Creek and the Tar River.

Two months ago, Kenneth Harrison III of K&K Organics, and his attorney, Tom Terrell, had deployed a battalion of expert witnesses — traffic engineers, real estate appraisers, landfill consultants — to testify in hopes of convincing the board to approve the plan. The residents were caught off-guard by the proceedings, which are quasi-judicial in nature and include sworn testimony, similar to a court. The board gave the residents 60 days to hire their own attorney and gather their own expert witnesses, which coincidentally included the flood.

Jeff Garrett lives with his wife Angie on 170 acres that have been in the family for five generations. His mother’s ashes are scattered on the farm, which abuts the property where the LCID would be built. “The creek floods five to 10 times a year,” Garrett said. “And five of those times it’s a major flood.”

The slopes on the proposed landfill acreage are steep, a 70-foot drop in some places. “You’re talking about a lot of water,” Garrett said, comparing the force to “throwing a bowling ball from the top of a hill.”

“How in the world will you build a containment that will hold that water before it gets to the creek?” he added. “There’s a place for these sites, a place far from water.”

John Alderman, a retired biologist with the state Wildlife Resource Commission, discovered freshwater mussels in Tabbs Creek more than 30 years ago— about 350 million years after they emerged from primordial soup. “They watched the dinosaurs come and go,” Alderman said. “The waters were filled with these creatures. Now 80% of the species have been wiped out.

Both endangered and threatened species of mussels live in Long and Tabbs creeks. Birds, fish and mammals eat mussels, which are also vital to maintaining water quality by filtering out pollutants.

Alderman now works as a consultant to industry, including developers of megasites. “I tell my clients, ‘Put your site where there will be the least damage, the least impact. Be careful. These creatures are going extinct on our watch.'”

Terrell asked Alderman if he “had any evidence” that the LCID would be improperly designed and maintained.

“These designs aren’t made for major rain events,” Alderman replied. “It is not the engineers’ fault. These are 500-, 1,000-year storm events. Whatever is approved can be washed out.”

Terrell has a reputation for being an aggressive, at times even rude litigator. His line of attack was to question the opponents’ witnesses if they had “evidence” that environmental laws would not be followed or enforced.

While it’s impossible to speculate on this particular project, Jill Howell, the Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper said, the fact that Harrison had already broken environmental laws by illegally dumping on the property without a permit shows “bad faith.”

In addition, the NC Department of Environmental Quality is so short-staffed and underfunded that its enforcement and inspections have suffered. The agency has lost a third of its funding and more than 370 employees in the past 10 years, and, stretched thin, inspectors can visit landfills only once a year, sometimes less frequently. For example, after notifying the agency of illegal clearing along a stream in eastern North Carolina, Howell said, it took two weeks for inspectors to visit the area. Two months later, dirt was still flowing into the waterway. A year later, the site still hasn’t been restored, she said.

The proposed landfill would be on the north side of Egypt Mountain Road, west of US 1, in rural Kittrell. Long Creek runs through the property; Tabbs Creek borders it and flows south to the Tar River.

Sedimentation and erosion are the least glamorous aspects of environmental protection, but controlling the flow of dirt is essential. When sediment accumulates in rivers and creeks, it clogs fish gills, blocks light, and carries pollutants from the land. It consumes space where water would otherwise go, and worsens flooding. If the land is cleared for the LCID, the trees and vegetation that currently hold the dirt in place and control flood waters will be gone, leaving exposed hillsides that would turn to mud.

“LCIDs can have minimum impacts if sited correctly,” said Howell, who has a master’s degree from Yale University in environmental management. “Flat topography, distance to water and homes. This is site is far from ideal. It poses unreasonable risks to Long and Tabb creeks and the Tar River.” 

Former legislator and U.S. attorney, ex-state Treasurer and now a bank president, Richard Moore lives on Egypt Mountain Road about four miles from the proposed LCID site. “This thing is going to be humming wide open,” Moore said, adding that he’s concerned not only about traffic, but about invasive beetles riding in on the trucks filled with brush and trees. From there, the insects can spread and decimate forests. “I’m scared for my timber.”

Kittrell, Moore noted, was the first resort in North Carolina, known for its natural springs. The water table is high, gurgling just below the surface.

“The aquifers in this area are really special,” Moore said. “Water is everywhere.”

As the meeting ended Thursday evening, downstream the Tar River kept rising. In Tarboro, it’s projected to crest tomorrow at nearly 32 feet, major flood stage.

The board will rule on the proposal after closing arguments on Dec. 10.