Landfill showdown in court this morning

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

04-18-2007 - Marshall County Chancellor J.B. Cox was scheduled this morning to consider arguments on a request from County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett for interpretation of a 1999 contract on Cedar Ridge Landfill because its operators want to expand.

Terms of the contract show that if Marshall County does not grant the expansion request then the county would be in breach of the contract, according to County Attorney Lee Bowles who noted an 11-acre expansion was requested last month.

An opposite position on the contract is taken by the attorney representing the landfill, but the complicated legal sparring is only part of a showdown between landfill leaders and county officials.

The landfill company collects fees for the county, splits them and uses its half to operate convenience centers where Marshall County residents dispose of household trash. Waste Management has told Lewisburg if the county does not approve the expansion, then city trash collections might not be accepted at Cedar Ridge.

Some county officials have seen the contract as requiring a "rubber stamp" of approval for expansion requests, contrary to the Jackson Law, named for a state senator who wrote the law. It lists criteria county commissioners must consider when evaluating a request for landfill construction.

The criteria include: "The projected impact on surrounding areas from noise and odor created by the proposed landfill," according to the county's petition to Cox.

Odor from Cedar Ridge Landfill in recent months has been a topic of complaints from residents near the facility just west of Lewisburg. Landfill managers have explained they've taken steps to reduce odor, but heavy rain several months ago allowed buried garbage to be uncovered when additional operations were required.

Other criteria to be considered by county commissioners when evaluating an expansion request include the projected impact on property values in surrounding areas, the adequacy of existing roads to carry any increased traffic from the landfill, economic impacts, and "any other factors which may affect the public health, safety or welfare."

Bowles' petition describes the county's contract with the landfill's owners and/or operators as "restricting Marshall County's duties under that Jackson Law," and she says that would make them "void as contrary to public policy."

The contract was signed years before the current administration of the county took office on Sept. 1 last year.

"A county government cannot contract away its statutory obligations," Bowles wrote to Chancellor Cox.

He's being asked to "sever provisions obligating Marshall County to approve any requested expansion ... and declare such provisions void, as contrary to public policy," according to the county's petition.

Bowles' March 19 assertion that the contract is contrary to state law is rebutted by John P. Williams, attorney for Waste Management Inc., who answered the litigation last Thursday.

"The agreement does not expressly state that the county's disapproval constitutes a breach of the agreement," Williams said.

However, Waste Management admits that, through the contract, Marshall County agreed to "provide necessary approval pursuant to the Jackson Law" if Cedar Ridge sought to expand by adding additional acreage to its state permit for landfill operations, Williams wrote.

The agreement was approved by the Marshall County Commission and the county executive in 1999, Williams wrote, "so they must have thought at that time that they had the authority to agree to [the section Cox is asked to nullify.]"

"Waste Management Inc. ... denies that it has ever taken the position ... that Marshall County's contractual duty supersedes its express statutory and constitutional duties..." Williams wrote in his reply to the county.

The company denies that Marshall County sought to avoid its obligations or that it contracted away its statutory obligations by entering into the 1999 contract, Williams said.

Waste Management Inc. wants the case dismissed, saying that because of its interpretation of the contract there is no controversy between the two parties.

Since Bowles filed the petition for Cox's interpretation of the contract and removal of a portion of the agreement, Waste Management Inc. said that there are corporate relationships which, technically, separate the corporation from another legal entity, Cedar Ridge Landfill Inc. Bowles asked that Cedar Ridge be made part of the suit and it was Waste Management's attorney that answered her original complaint.

Since the cause of the litigation is a request for permission to use 11 acres in the Cedar Ridge compound for dumping garage, the county commission must eventually make a decision. The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. April 23. Three resolutions have been forwarded to the commission from the Solid Waste Committee. They range from granting the request, denial, and an increase in what the county is paid per ton of garbage dumped at the landfill.

Mayor Liggett has said he's unaware of any discussion on the idea of renegotiating the entire contract.

"What would suit us is if we had a clarification by Chancellor Cox," Liggett said. "That's why we filed this [petition to the chancellor.]"

Bowles "read the contract and had concerns about it," the mayor said.

Chancellor Cox was scheduled to conduct the hearing beginning at 10 this morning.