City vote seen predictable by some

Friday, November 14, 2008

With a City Hall hearing set for Monday night on Cedar Ridge Landfill's proposed expansion, some city and county leaders have anticipated approval because that's the way three councilmen have previously voted on this question.

"As far as I know, I'll stay like I've been," Councilman Hershel Davis said Wednesday when asked for his opinion on whether the landfill's expansion plan meets the standards set forth in state law criteria. "I don't think we're ready to get out of this."

While Davis and Councilmen Robin Minor and Phil Sanders have consistently voted on related issues to permit expansion, Davis added, "I could even change my mind between now and then (when the Council is to vote on Tuesday) but from looking at all of what I have seen, I don't see that much being changed."

If the expansion is denied, the landfill will probably be filled within a year and a state-approved closure plan would be implemented.

However, expansion seemed more likely and it could be allowed two ways: Simple approval, or; Release of city authority, a step that's still possible and one which, according to Waste Management's attorney, might still include benefits that had been left on the table after Council votes in recent months.

Some county commissioners anticipate at least three councilmen voting for the expansion, but there's a new councilman and he could vote in a way that would allow expansion and reclaim Waste Management's offer of free dumping.

Newly-appointed Councilman Odie Whitehead Jr. was to attend his first Council meeting Thursday night. While the landfill was not on the agenda, it could be brought up by any member of the Council.

If the landfill expansion is permitted by the state, then the county's plans on what to do with trash collected at convenience centers won't be needed for five years or more. Short-term plans are ready according to some county leaders. Long-term plans are being developed. Meanwhile, the city's contract for disposal of trash at Cedar Ridge expires June 1.

City Council approval of the expansion would restart the state's examination of the expansion application submitted early this year to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

6 p.m. Monday

Monday's public hearing starts at 6 p.m. in City Hall. The Council is to receive information from the public and then consider it for a vote to be conducted during a special called meeting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Waste Management Inc. is asking for permission to use 11 acres at about 80 acres where it has been allowed to bury trash under a state permit issued years ago. County commissioners voted 11-7 in 2007 for the expansion. Since the regional solid waste authority voted in November 2007 that the expansion plan conforms to the regional disposal plan, the state started to process the application.

Several months ago, the Council voted to acquire authority under state law to approve or disapprove the plan. That state law is leading toward Monday's hearing when the proposed expansion is to be judged against eight criteria in the law.

They are about the: Type of waste to be buried; Method of disposal; Impact from noise and odor; Property values; Adequate roads to get to the site; Economic impact; Zoning of the land, and; Other uses for the land. Health and welfare of the people are other factors typically considered at such hearings.

"It all boils down to: Are you doing what you said you'd do?" says County Commissioner Don Ledford, chairman of the Solid Waste Committee who's been an opponent of the landfill.

He contends that the company has not kept all of its promises, and he points to reports of pollution attributed to the landfill. Waste Management has said it acquired a landfill developed under old environmental regulations and that it's taken steps to resolve those issues.


Beyond citing transportation problems because of the trucks going to the landfill, Ledford takes a broader view of the situation.

"My generation will probably be dead and gone before we know what they did to the county," Ledford said.

Citizens and property owners have a duty to pass the land along to future generations in a condition that's better than it was, he said.

"I don't see Waste Management doing that," Ledford said.

Davis took what might be called a more practical point of view.

"That landfill is not going to go away," the councilman said. "It'll probably be here for the next hundred years or so. We've had landfills here as long as I've been here. We still have to monitor those. Waste Management will have to monitor this one."

As Davis and several county commissioners have noted the consistent voting record of Davis, Minor and Sanders on the landfill's expansion, Davis explained reasons behind some of his votes.

A chief reason is that he feels the city's adoption of the state law -- giving the city authority over the landfill's expansion -- was based on information that was "misrepresented," Davis said.

When the law was adopted, there was an assumption that the resolution's exemption for the landfill would be legal. While there are different legal opinions, the exemption has been determined to be unreliable.

Had Davis known differently, he might not have voted to adopt the state law that requires the hearing set for Monday night, he said.

Amid that reflection, lies another aspect of the pending decision.


The council has been advised by City Attorney Bill Haywood that it can relinquish its authority over the landfill. Using that option to get out of the responsibility has been seen as the city's ability to "opt-out" of the Jackson Law, so-called because of the state lawmaker who sponsored that bill.

Doing so requires a two-thirds margin and it was now-former Councilwoman Betsy Sanders' vote that left the city with the responsibility.

However, she's resigned and Whitehead is her successor.

The Council rejected an opportunity to obtain free disposal of trash at the landfill for as long as it's open, but a subsequent vote was against opting-out of the Jackson Law. The offer for free dumping -- valued at some $130,000 annually based on a city budget item, is still available, according to John P. Williams, attorney for Waste Management Inc.

The question of using that option seemed moot to Williams since Monday's hearing was set, but his observation about the offer still being alive might still be something for the Council to consider on Tuesday.

Results would depend on how Whitehead votes. He could be the fourth vote for opting out. It would provide the needed two-thirds majority for the city to opt-out of the Jackson Law.

It's unclear what Whitehead will do since he's declined to state an opinion.

"I'll have to wait until the citizens have expressed their opinions," Whitehead said Wednesday afternoon when asked about the scheduled vote Tuesday. "The Council will have its discussion on the 18th. I won't have anything to say until then. I will not express my feelings. I'll express what I heard from the citizens."

It remains to be seen if city residents address the issue of free disposal if the landfill remains open. If three councilmen vote to say the landfill expansion plan meets the criteria of the Jackson Law, then the expansion application becomes a state issue. If four councilmen vote to have the city opt-out of the Jackson Law, then the expansion application also becomes a state issue.

County OK'd it

Another reason cited by Davis to continue to vote for expansion is the county commission's vote for expansion.

"They need to finish what they started," Davis said. "The county voted for it. The regional group did and we were not to be a part of it all along."

City manager Eddie Fuller also noted the voting record of Davis, Sanders and Minor.

"I don't want to second guess anybody, but there's a track record on how they voted," Fuller said.

County Commissioner Jimmy Wolaver of Cornersville, near where Waste Management planned to develop a landfill, was at the county's Solid Waste Committee meeting on Monday night. He and others were asked for their opinion on the city decision since the county is positioning itself to borrow money if it has to take over convenience center operations when the landfill closes. Half of the host fees paid by Waste Management are used by the county to pay the company for its operation of the convenience centers.

"I kind of think they (council members) will go for the expansion, just from what I'm hearing," Wolaver said.

"The way they've been voting," Commissioner Mickey King said, "I'd say they will" vote in such a way as to allow expansion.

King also asked if the public hearing on Monday night would allow comments from people who are not residents of the city.

"I don't know," responded Commissioner Wilford "Spider" Wentzel, "but if they don't, that's just not fair."

Calls were made to obtain the views of Kathy Fox, president of the Tri-County Environmental Association and Council members Robin Minor, Phil Sanders and Quinn Brandon. Brandon has been an advocate for hard bargaining with Waste Management Inc., and has voted in a way that would stop operations at the landfill sooner than later.

Waste Management has issued statements indicating that the landfill will be full in less than a year now. Expansion would apparently keep it in operation for five years or longer, depending on the rate of deliveries.

What's next?

Dennis Lampley, the field office manager for the Tennessee Division of Solid Waste Management's Environmental Field Office in Columbia, was asked about his department's next steps if the city votes to let the application proceed.

"If the city approves the expansion under the Jackson Law, then plans will be reviewed by the Division of Solid Waste Management," he said, according to the department's spokeswoman. "If plans are approved, we will also hold a public comment period and a public hearing will be held."

The state public comment period and hearing may be held even if the Council opts-out of the Jackson Law -- whether that's to accept Waste Management's offer of free disposal, or other reasons.