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Transfer station questions linger

Photo by Norman Barbee Sr.

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

This story is the fourth in a series that examines issues related to environmental justice and to the fight of the Rogers and Eubanks roads community to be relieved of what they allege to be an undue burden. To read the stories in this series and for other resources, go to www.carrborocitizen.com/main/rogers-road

Did Mike Nelson feel rotten when he voted in favor of placing a solid-waste transfer station on Eubanks Road?

“Oh, god, yes,” says Nelson, a member of the Orange County Board of Commissioners.

“I think it was difficult for almost everyone involved,” he says of the unanimous decision made by the board last March, a decision that has since been overturned after the community, led by the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism, intensified its efforts at bringing attention to what they believe to be an environmental injustice. After 35 years of having lived with the Orange County Landfill and all its attendant consequences, the Rogers-Eubanks community was unwilling to quietly accept this additional burden.

“I think that just about any elected official will tell you there are times when they vote on something and they know that there are people who are going to leave the room hurt,” Nelson said in an interview with The Citizen shortly after the decision, reflecting on that vote. “And for me, that was one of those nights. I was really torn up about it.”

Nelson wasn’t alone in his discomfort: Others among his fellow commissioners felt likewise.

“I think that I can fairly say that more than one commissioner had trouble with that decision,” says board member Valarie Foushee. “We agonized over it.”

And while Moses Carey, who was then board chair, said that he felt the decision was made for “good reasons at the time,” at the Nov. 5 commission meeting at which it was announced the search for a transfer station location would be reopened he said, “I’ve had a change of mind about the location of the transfer station on the Eubanks Road site, and … I’m going to support restarting the search process, recognizing that it will be well into next year before we resolve this matter again and select another site, if we select another one.”

“I’m not saying that we should eliminate the Eubanks Road site from further consideration as we go through the search process again,” Carey continued, “but we do need to decide [if] we want to eliminate it for social justice or other reasons.”

Establishing criteria for waste transfer

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has been putting some consideration into environmental justice concerns the past two decades, and has issued some guidelines on how communities might go about planning for facilities such as a solid-waste transfer station.

In 1993, the EPA created the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) to “provide independent advice, consultation, and recommendations to EPA on matters related to environmental justice.”

In a document published by the NEJAC titled “Waste Transfer Stations: A Manual for Decision-Making,” transfer stations are defined as facilities that all serve “the same basic purpose – consolidating waste from multiple collection vehicles into larger, high-volume transfer vehicles for more economical shipment to distant disposal sites.” That waste is then “loaded into larger vehicles (usually transfer trailers, but intermodal containers, railcars, and barges are also used) for long-haul shipment to a final disposal site – typically a landfill, waste-to-energy plant, or a composting facility.”

“Decision-makers have the opportunity,” the document reads, “to select the most cost-effective and/or environmentally protective disposal sites, even if they are more distant.” A site selection process, it continues, should ensure that siting decisions don’t impose “a disproportionate burden upon low-income or minority communities. Overburdening a community with negative impact facilities can create health, environmental, and quality of living concerns. It can also have a negative economic impact by lowering property values and hindering community revitalization plans.” These are among the environmental justice considerations the NEJAC urged should be addressed in a site-selection process.

Moreover, according to the report, a “siting process that includes continuous public participation is integral to developing a transfer station. The public must be a legitimate partner in the facility siting process to integrate community needs and concerns and to influence the decision-making process. Addressing public concerns is also essential to building integrity and instituting good communications with the community. Establishing credibility and trust with the public is as important as addressing environmental, social, and economic concerns about the solid waste facility.”

As the “Manual for Decision-Making” affirms, in consolidating waste into larger vehicles, transfer stations create traffic concerns – congestion, air emissions, noise and wear and tear on the roads – in the immediate vicinity of the stations. As such, it’s urged that priority be given to sites with access to major roadways and that travel routes and traffic impacts be given significant attention.

Among design and operating considerations that should be taken into account are “haul routes to and from the transfer station that avoid congested areas, residential areas, business districts, schools, hospitals and other sensitive areas.”

Given these criteria, many people here now question the transfer station siting process in Orange County.

Rev. Robert Campbell, a longtime resident of the Rogers Road community and a spokesperson for the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism, is among those who don’t believe the county did a very thorough job in its transfer station search. As he said in an April interview with The Citizen, his sense at the time, and that of many of his neighbors, was one of inevitability, a belief that in regards to the broader community’s solid-waste solutions, “All roads lead back to Eubanks.”

“To me, and listening to my neighbors,” he said then, “it was [believed] that we just didn’t have the power to stop them. We didn’t have the financial, we didn’t have political support, we didn’t have the consensus of the towns around us.”

But things changed.

The Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism reached out to the community as a whole, said Campbell in a recent phone interview, and to the NAACP in particular, pointing to hazards and inconveniences associated with the landfill that the community feels would continue with the placement of a transfer station.

Campbell expressed his particular concern regarding the new elementary school being built on Eubanks Road and 18-wheelers passing up and down the road. “There needs to be a deep traffic analysis to make sure they do the right things,” he said.

Several local elected officials traveled to Greensboro in early March to look at Guildford County’s transfer station, and were generally impressed by its operation. It can handle over a thousand tons a day and operates six days a week.

(Gayle Wilson, solid-waste management director for Orange County, estimates that based on recent waste tonnages in the county, and assuming being open five and a half days a week, the transfer station here would average about 208 tons a day, with Monday being the heaviest day and Wednesday and Saturday the lightest. Using Greensboro as a gauge, that would mean an average of 10-15 tractor-trailer trucks coming out of the facility each a day.)

The Greensboro station, though, was placed in an industrial area. Greensboro Environmental Services Department director Jeryl Covington says that, “When we started looking at locations, we knew we could not look in District 2, which was the area where the White Street landfill was.” An organization called the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro had successfully fought the placement of another solid-waste facility in their neighborhood. The city determined that consideration of placing a transfer station there was, in Covington’s words, “off target.”

Likewise, those who’ve lived near the Orange County landfill feel that Eubanks Road should be withdrawn from consideration as a transfer station site – which, as of yet, hasn’t been done.

The Eubanks option, says spokesperson Neloa Jones, must be “taken off the table … if for no other reason than that [this neighborhood] has already been on the table for 35 years, and that was longer than we were promised it had to be.”

“The Commissioners have not yet decided on our criteria for siting the transfer station,” Mike Nelson said in an email this week to The Citizen. “I, for one, support taking the Eubanks Road site off the list. I do not know if a majority of my colleagues will support doing so.”

A different conclusion

“If you find that the decision you made was not the best decision and you have the opportunity to change it, why wouldn’t you?” asks Orange County Commissioner Valerie Foushee.

What role did outcry and education from by the community play in the decision to reopen the transfer station search?

“Just going through this process of talking about how we might mitigate the impacts of the transfer station brought to light some things that I had already felt,” Foushee says. “And as we worked through the process, we were given more, or different, information.”

“There wasn’t one, single ‘defining moment’ that led me to re-evaluate my position,” says Nelson. “During the spring and summer, I heard from a very broad cross-section of Orange County citizens. I listened to what they had to say and balanced that against the seriousness of the County’s need to make a final decision about how we dispose of our trash. Orange County runs a very real risk of running out of landfill space before a transfer station is sited, so reopening this process was not an easy decision.”

“When you talk about the commissioners reconsidering siting the transfer station,” says Foushee, “you have to put everything into perspective. The initial decision was based on a set of circumstances as they were presented to us. And I think for me, working on the [Historic Rogers Road Community Enhancement Plan Development and Monitoring Task Force] and then finding out that we had another year left at the landfill, [I thought], ‘Okay, if I take this piece of information and this information, what I conclude is different from what I concluded from the first set of information.’”

“When the people say ‘you need to take a look at this’ or ‘you need to look at this in this way, in addition to how you’ve viewed it previously,’” Foushee says, “or ‘you need to consider this along with other considerations you’ve had,’ for me, I feel like I’m obliged to do that.

“Now, if I do that and my thinking changes, then I need to say my thinking changed.”

Was an environmental injustice committed in selecting the Rogers-Eubanks community as the site of a solid-waste transfer station?

Many elected officials think so. In a questionnaire submitted by the Coalition to End Environmental Racism, officials were asked, “Does continuing solid waste activities, including building a solid waste transfer station in the Rogers-Eubanks communities, constitute environmental injustice by your definition?”

Chapel Hill Town Council member Bill Strom, who also serves as co-chair of the Town of Chapel Hill’s Rogers Road Small Area Plan Task Force, responded by citing a statement he had previously submitted to the local chapter of the NAACP, in which he said, in part:

“Although I can’t give a ‘binding’ yes or no answer to whether I would vote to permit the proposed transfer station because a special use permit application has been submitted and I am legally required to hear all the evidence before making a decision, I am very concerned about the burden Rogers Road has had to carry for our community over the years. We need to take care of our waste in a way that does not harm the quality of life for minority and under-represented communities.”

Carrboro Alderman Dan Coleman wrote: “The transfer station may, in itself, not be the sort of burden the landfill has been but its placement on Eubanks Road nonetheless further burdens the Rogers Road neighbors. It is impossible to separate this placement from the long history of abuses suffered by this neighborhood and by the larger African-American community.”

In a 2000 document titled “A Regulatory Strategy for Siting and Operating Waste Transfer Stations,” the NEJAC writes: “The clustering and disproportionate siting of noxious facilities in low-income communities and communities of color led to the creation of the environmental justice movement. The siting and operation of waste transfer stations is such an example.”

Further: “The realization of safe siting and operation of waste transfer stations and livable communities requires good-faith collaboration for its implementation.”

And in its manual on decision-making, the NEJAC states: “A siting process that includes continuous public participation is integral to developing a transfer station. The public must be a legitimate partner in the facility siting process to integrate community needs and concerns and to influence the decision-making process.”

The search in Orange County now continues.

In next week’s Citizen: Should we be dumping our garbage on someone else?

[correction: The editors have somewhat belatedly noticed two unfortunate errors in the first paragraph of the Nov. 15 installment of this series. The Orange County Commissioners did not, of course, vote to place a transfer station on Rogers Road. They voted to place it on Eubanks Road. And that vote took place in late March, not in April. Our apologies for these errors.]

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