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Community members question ethics of exporting garbage

Editor’s note: This story is the fifth 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 

By Taylor Sisk
Staff Writer

Over the past few months, many in Orange County have been engaged in a discussion concerning environmental justice.

Community members have asked: “Is it right to demand that a neighborhood that has borne the unpleasant consequences of our county’s landfill for over 35 years now be the location of yet another solid-waste facility?”

Many have responded, “No.”

But another question lies within this discussion of whether it would be an environmental injustice to further burden a neighborhood that most now acknowledge has shouldered, at the very least, its share – another question of environmental justice: “Should a solid-waste transfer station be placed anywhere in Orange County?”

The EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council defines waste transfer stations as facilities that are used for “consolidating waste from multiple collection vehicles into larger, high-volume transfer vehicles for more economical shipment to distant disposal sites.”

“Distant disposal sites,” as in, generally speaking, rural, traditionally underserved communities.

And so the question is asked – as it was by Rev. Robert Campbell of the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism at the meeting at which the board of commissioners announced they were reopening the transfer station site search – “Why do we want to send our trash to someone else’s backyard?”

When the commission takes comments from citizens, it’s not formally intended as a back-and-forth exchange, so the question then was largely rhetorical. But it’s a question that a number of folks are asking: “Is it, in fact, an environmental injustice to not take responsibility for our own waste?”

According to Gayle Wilson, solid-waste management director for Orange County, the fact that a previous county board of commissioners adopted a resolution stating that there would not be another municipal solid waste facility located in Orange County means, “We have not discussed, nor to my knowledge do we intend to, the location of a new municipal solid-waste landfill in the county.”

Thus plans are now in motion to build a waste transfer station and to carry our garbage to another county.

Of arguments that we shouldn’t be shipping waste out of Orange County, Wilson allows that, “I think that would be consistent with most commonly understood notions of sustainability and environmental responsibility.

“However, most of those people don’t have the responsibility to actually be the ones who go out and find [a new landfill] site and fight the fight and deal with the disgruntled community in which that facility is to be located.

“All things being equal, would it be better to have a landfill in county and be responsible for your own waste? I think most people would agree the answer to that is ‘yes.’ But the political realities are such that if you take the political reality of the transfer station and multiple it by 10 times, then you have the political reality of trying to site a landfill.”

Further, Wilson says, there are ever fewer areas in the county that can support a modern landfill with the required buffers.

“It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen,” Wilson concludes. “I’ve seen no real political will to pursue that. It would take a tremendous amount of energy and it would be very upsetting and divisive for the community.”

‘Unconscionable’

“I would say it would be the biggest worm in the apple of Orange County progressive politics,” says Mark Marcoplos about the decision to send our garbage elsewhere. Marcoplos has been speaking out about environmental issues in Orange County for many years; he served on the Orange Water and Sewer Authority board from 1999 to 2006, two years as chair.

“It’s unconscionable that we would feel good about sending our waste into a poor community, even if [in doing so] we spare a poor community that we know,” Marcoplos says.

But regardless of the economic status of the community to which it would be carried, Marcoplos feels it’s simply wrong to send our garbage packing.

County Commissioner Mike Nelson agrees: “I think it’s horrible,” he recently told The Citizen.

The decision to build a transfer station, says Nelson, was a decision made “long before I was on the county commission. But it’s a decision I don’t agree with.”

Marcoplos believes, though, that the most critical mistake was made much further back – back in the early ’90s.

“What happened was that the powers that be decided that we needed a new landfill,” Marcoplos recalls, “and they said that we needed it by 1996. So they set up this landfill owners group committee of citizens to search for a landfill site.”

The meetings concerning the landfill, he says, were packed and “there was a lot of animosity, because people were coming out to defend their community from this landfill. There were probably about 13 communities organizing and coming to these meetings with their signs [reading], “No to Site 10.” “No to Site 2.”

So Marcoplos and a few others decided to recruit representatives from every community that was under consideration for a landfill and formed a group called the Orange County Landfill Council.

“What we wanted to do was find out what we could do that we all could agree upon,” he says, “knowing that the solution had to arise from that kind of discussion.”

The group determined that waste reduction was key – “that there should not be any landfill sited in any community in Orange County,” says Marcoplos, “until we had the best, most-aggressive waste-reduction program that we could figure out, and that, [as a result], the landfill would be much, much smaller than the gargantuan mega-sites that they were proposing.”

Marcoplos describes it as a great process, “and we were able to bridge the NIMBY gap between all these people.

“We went to the landfill owners group, and we presented to them this eminently sensible plan. And they said, ‘Well, we can’t do that.’ And we said, ‘Well, why not?’ And they said, ‘Because our job is [strictly] to site a landfill.’”

That decision, Marcoplos believes, set in motion a chain of decisions that were undertaken without proper community input, and that ultimately painted the county into a corner defined by a transfer station.

It hadn’t begun that way.

“My standing joke,” Marcoplos says, “was that I would be standing there next to a Helms voter and we’d be agreeing on a Sierra Club position that we should reduce waste so that we wouldn’t have a big landfill in our backyard. And it was a great lesson in local politics, that when things happen to people in a community, your party affiliation goes out the window and you’re much more apt to find a logical solution just based on what you’re finding in your community.”

‘Commonly understood notions’

Mike Nelson struggled with the board of commissioners’ decision to site a transfer station in Orange County.

“I think it’s wrong for us to ship our garbage to a poorer community,” says Mike Nelson. “It’ll be in eastern North Carolina or in southeastern Virginia. It’s going to be a county that’s economically depressed. It’s likely to be a county with a large minority population.

“I think it’s hypocritical of us.”

Marcoplos and other, like-minded environmentalists in the community believe we should be devising policies and practices that provide inspiration to reduce waste – for example, economic-development programs founded on creating new products from waste.

“If we ship it to another community – put it on trucks and send it out of here,” Marcoplos says, “we’re taking away incentive. If we control our own waste, we’re going to do the right thing. We’re going to learn how to reduce our waste.

“The world needs aggressive environmental policies right now.”

A leadership role

In an Aug. 2 News & Observer article, Jim Perry, president and CEO of Waste Industries, a company that wants to build a large landfill in Camden County, sought to justify importing trash from other states into North Carolina by saying, “There is a perception that North Carolina waste is special trash,” he said. “If I put two bags of garbage on the table, one from New York City and one from Apex, can you tell me that one is more toxic than the other? No.”

His argument seemed to miss the point made by those who object to garbage being moved from one place to another – that point being that we should each deal with our own garbage – but a rebuttal can be made that garbage moved from one place to another is, in fact, more toxic, in that additional pollutants are put into the air as a consequence of its transfer.

Greg Dingman, who until recently was manager of the Solid Waste Disposal Division for Guilford County, says that on a typical day more than 50 tractor-trailer trucks come in and out of the transfer station in Greensboro.

“One day,” he says, “just playing around, I was wondering about the environmental impact of that, so I did a little calculation, and have since refined it.

“We’re putting an additional 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just for the transfer of waste. And that’s over and above what we were putting in the air just from disposing of waste in the landfill.”

That hits home for Mark Marcoplos.

“I think it would be a huge positive commitment and a real source of pride that would infuse the rest of what we do here in Orange County,” Marcoplos says, “if we were to say, ‘Okay; we realize we need to take care of our waste. … We’re going to cut our waste so dramatically that we’re going to be leaders, we’re going to be national leaders in waste reduction. And we’re going to site a couple of small landfills and we’re going to exceed all expectations for how this can work’ – and just do it. We could do it.”

The answer, Marcoplos says, is to methodically apply common sense at every point in the waste stream.

Marcoplos says he’s disappointed that the local activist community that stood up very admirably for keeping the transfer station away from Rogers and Eubanks roads isn’t speaking out more against sending our waste somewhere else.

“It’s not healthy for us,” he says.

“I think that the magnitude of the mistake that was made in 1992 is the major impediment to moving forward,” he says in summing up our predicament today. “[The county commission] lost so much time, they just gave up. They made so many bad decisions in 1992, they hit the wall with the process and were so overwrought by the whole thing, and exhausted, that they just said, ‘I can’t do it for a while.’ And they let time slip away.

“They should have right away gotten on it, put energy into waste reduction and expanding the life of the landfill – and they let it slide, just procrastinated – and now that’s their reason for doing this transfer station: ‘We don’t have time.’”

Marcoplos says he believes there are enough people who feel as he does – that we ought to take care of our own waste – that a sensible, workable solution will be realized. “I’m always optimistic.

“I can see the Carrboro board getting strong on this. I can see the Chapel Hill Town Council being in on it too.”

“Maybe a good strategy would be,” he concludes, “since 65 percent, 70 percent of the garbage comes from down here [in the municipalities] anyway, to get the Chapel Hill Town Council and the Carrboro board to make a public statement that they want to seriously explore taking care of our own waste.”

In the Jan. 3 issue of The Citizen: A similar struggle in a community just to our north.

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