Politics not 'at play' over landfill expansion, TDEC says

Friday, August 5, 2011

There have been reactions to reports that a state department's reconsideration of permitting expansion of Cedar Ridge Landfill -- instead of leaving the decision to the state Solid Waste Disposal Control Board -- is a result of a business friendly governor succeeding one perceived as environmentally friendly.

A state spokeswoman says that's not what's happening since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam succeeded Democrat Phil Bredesen.

Tisha Calabrese-Benton, communications director for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation this week responded to a Tribune question that started on July 28 with Gov. Bill Haslam after his remarks during a "meet and greet" event in Columbia. Haslam was asked about expansion of Cedar Ridge Landfill on eight acres that include a sinkhole. The governor replied that he was unaware of the details, but would check with TDEC Commissioner Robert Martineau and the subject could be revisited.

As a result, Calabrese-Benton and Haslam's press secretary, David Smith, were asked about the apparent public perception and Calabrese-Benton replied.

"The assertion that there is any sort of politics at play regarding the Cedar Ridge MOU (Memorandum of Understanding about what must be accomplished before expansion might be permitted) is absolutely without merit," Calabrese-Benton stated. "TDEC is committed to making decisions based on fact and sound science."

Bredesen's TDEC commissioner, Jim Fyke, denied Waste Management's request to expand Cedar Ridge with trash to be disposed over a sinkhole that would be capped. Waste Management appealed to the Solid Waste Disposal Control Board and an administrative law judge hearing had been scheduled and rescheduled. Now there's a possibility of the Disposal Control Board meeting late this month to consider an agreement that might lead to a permit allowing expansion of the landfill on eight unused acres at Cedar Ridge. That board meeting is tentatively set for Aug. 29 in Nashville, but it's to be preceded by a public notice published here two weeks before that Monday meeting date.

"Waste Management appealed the department's denial of the permit," Calabrese-Benton said. "It is not unusual for the department to go to the Board with proposed Agreed Orders or Consent Orders after an appeal. In this particular case, the MOU adds requirements that must be met before the department would propose an Agreed Order for the Solid Waste Disposal Control Board's consideration.

"It is important to note that negotiations resulting in the MOU actually began during the last administration," Calabrese-Benton said in an e-mail. "Our General Counsel has indicated that he personally visited the landfill during negotiations last November.

"The permit was initially denied because the application materials did not adequately prove the geology of the site could effectively contain the waste, or that the site could be effectively monitored. The MOU requires Cedar Ridge/Waste Management to prove otherwise through additional geologic investigation and either additional monitoring wells or a cell designed to a hazardous waste standard - with double synthetic liners and monitoring between the liners - before the department would propose an Agreed Order for consideration to the Board. Ultimately, if the requirements of the MOU are met and department proposes an Agreed Order, the decision as to whether to the allow the permit is up to the Board."

Amid the administrative steps prompted by Waste Management's requests for an expansion permit is litigation filed by several Marshall County residents who sued Waste Management. Allegations include violation of the Clean Water Act of 1972. Plaintiffs are associated with the Tri-County Environmental Association, created to fend off Waste Management's attempt to develop a landfill at Cornersville.

Contacted this week about these latest developments, Tri-County's lawyer was asked about the case. While she declined to speak about on-going litigation, Elizabeth Murphy responded to the observation that Waste Management officials have contended that the sinkhole can be filled, capped and trash can be buried over one or two synthetic liners.

"They've been saying that for years," Murphy said. "There's no new technical information from when it (the expansion permit) was denied in 2010...

"There is something else going on," said the attorney who's been filing motions in the federal environmental law case against Waste Management.

"Everyone who's tried to cap a sinkhole had problems," Murphy said. "It's not simple."

Daily coverings of dirt on trash disposed at landfills create a great amount of weight, she said.

She questioned the suitability of a synthetic liner over the sinkhole and when told it's to be capped with concrete -- as described during public hearings in Lewisburg -- Murphy asked what would hold the cap in place. Most of the sinkholes that have been covered were filled with rocks, she said.

Stability of the cap isn't the only requirement as Calabrese-Benton explained. That's also been explained by Robert Cheney, business development director for Waste Management.

"We have to prove to the state that we can monitor the site and that the geology is stable," Cheney said.

Stability is to be displayed "by cleaning out the re-entrant," he said, using one of several words to refer to a sinkhole.

Landfill employees have referred to it as the "feature." Cheney points out that there is a "depression" on the eight acres with the opening in the middle. "Swalette" is another term used in such discussions. It's the portion of a disappearing stream where the water drains into a sinkhole.

"We've explored it to bedrock," Cheney continued. "We've been able to show that there are no cracks, fissures or voids."

That information has been delivered to the state, he said.

Cedar Ridge Landfill and the still pending decision on whether it can expand remain a significant issue in the county as landfill operations contribute user fees to the county budget and a loss of disposal services associated with the landfill are seen by some as leading to a solid waste fee that would be imposed on all households not served by municipal contracts with disposal services.

In a discussion Wednesday morning with Jim Patterson, the environmental manager for St. John Engineering in Manchester, the city consultant was asked about capping sinkholes.

"Permits get issued all the time for closure of sinkholes," Patterson said after acknowledging that he is generally aware of the landfill issue.

"You just have to be sure you can handle the drainage that would go through the sinkhole," Patterson said.

TDEC's concern is to prevent detrimental effects on water people use for drinking and other household purposes, he said.

In subdivision developments, permits have been issued to make sinkholes better drains, he said.

As for the situation at the landfill, Patterson said, "I would think that the state would want to be real conservative about how it's capped to be sure there's no avenue for leachate to get in there and I'm sure they'd be real careful about that.

"But," Patterson concluded, "I wouldn't want to say it can't be done."