South Georgia landfill faces trust problem over toxic metals

It started with a corporate apology and, right away, it became clear this wasn’t going to be an ordinary public hearing to discuss an environmental permit needed for a landfill expansion.

Republic Services, which owns the solid-waste landfill in a quiet and forested corner of Wayne County, acknowledged a lack of openness and candor in its dealings with the community. Locals, for example never learned that toxic metals at the garbage dump had leached from coal ash into the soil and groundwater until The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported it this year.

Nor was the citizenry publicly informed until recently that Republic plans to brings up to 10,000 tons daily of coal ash to the Broadhurst Environmental Landfill about 10 miles below town. No, Republic’s apology — “We let you down,” spokesman Russ Knocke said — failed to mollify the simmering crowd of 500 locals who were crammed into, and spilling outside of, the auditorium Wednesday at Coastal Pines Technical College.

“Does a respected and reputable corporate citizen take a regional landfill and turn it into a national dump without a word to the community in which it’s located?” former U.S. Rep. Lindsay Thomas, who grew up in the nearby town of Screven where the landfill sits, asked as Knocke and a colleague sat stoically nearby. “As the old country song says, ‘Republic gets the gold mine and we get the shaft.’ ”

Knocke, who said Republic “failed” the residents of Wayne County, nonetheless vowed that Broadhurst will one day be “an asset” to the community.

“Broadhurst Landfill is a remarkable landfill,” he said. “It’s a breathtakingly beautiful site.”

Coal ash disposal isn’t just a red-hot issue in rural Georgia. Coal-fired power plants, many surrounding metro Atlanta, dispose of their ash in nearby ponds and landfills. Georgia Power, for example, maintains 29 ash ponds and 10 landfills across the state and plans to shut down all of them over the next few years. A spokesman said Wednesday that a decision is expected in the next few weeks over disposal of the ash.

In all, 32 Georgia landfills accept trash from other states, according to the state Environmental Protection Division, yet only a couple take toxic coal ash. Broadhurst accepted ash from a Jacksonville, Fla., utility between 2006 and 2014, and it still has a permit to handle what the feds consider a nonhazardous material. It is now applying for a wetlands permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a 25-acre rail yard alongside the Wayne County landfill capable of handling nearly 4 millions tons annually of coal ash.

Republic in December 2011 discovered beryllium and zinc “above regulatory standards” at Broadhurst — about 230 miles southeast of Atlanta — and it reported the findings to the EPD two months later. More than two years passed before the company shuttered the coal ash facilities, according to EPD files pored over by the AJC. Environmental officials said that the metals, which could cause cancer and damage to the nervous system in sufficient quantities, may have also leached into the ground months, if not years, earlier.

It’s not clear how much of the toxic metals leached into the ground, nor how far they might have traveled. Republic, which operates 193 active landfills nationwide, began an extensive cleanup of the ash leakage last fall, and the EPD says there’s no evidence the metals reached nearby wetlands.

Environmental consultants hired by Republic to investigate the leached coal ash suggested that the beryllium might have come naturally from the soil. In a September 2013 response, though, the EPD wrote that the agency “does not concur that statistically significant increases” of beryllium came just from the soil.

Republic stopped taking coal ash sometime in 2014.

By 2017, though, it could be accepting as many 100 train car loads daily of the stuff at Broadhurst. Nobody at Wednesday’s public hearing wanted it in Wayne County.

“If this rail spur is allowed, a floodgate of horror will open. We will be contaminated forever by toxic coal ash,” said Dink NeSmith, the owner of The Jesup Press-Sentinel who, in a recent column, labeled Republic “a conniving, corporate carpetbagger.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will decide perhaps by this summer whether Republic gets a permit to build the four-track rail yard. Republic is already allowed to build a 5-acre rail yard on the site. And it needs no additional regulatory OK to accept coal ash. The company said Wednesday that the rail yard and the 90-acre ash disposal site at the landfill will be well-insulated, and well-monitored, to keep the ash, or ash-contaminated water, from leaching into the ground or water.

Elizabeth Anne Chappelle isn’t convinced. She played and fished as a barefoot child in Little Penholloway Creek, which runs alongside the landfill. Now, she worries Republic will irreparably harm the creek that flows into the Altamaha River.

“There’s already been a breach. Y’all have had a failure containing this coal ash,” Chappelle said. “I don’t see how we can ever trust you.”

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