During the winter months, when the trees around his property are bare, the view from Michael Melton's driveway in Camden, Tenn., includes a mountain of waste. Literally. Just blocks from Main Street, in an otherwise sleepy town located 90 miles west of Nashville in Benton County, a black mound rises from the ground like the snout of some sleeping beast.
"That's the first thing I see when I come out to start my day," Melton says, during the Scene's recent visit to the rural neighborhood he's called home for more than 20 years.
He and his wife Sheila live on 15 acres of property that bumps up against a Class II industrial landfill. When it opened, it occupied five acres. It has swelled in recent years to 42. What the Meltons see through the trees when they walk out their front door is at least several hundred thousand tons of secondary aluminum smelter waste, a byproduct of the aluminum recycling process.
The waste can be a touchy neighbor. When it reacts with oxygen, it generates heat. When it reacts with water, it produces flammable and toxic gases such as ammonia. That might be less of a problem if it were dumped in some far-off unsettled corner of the state.
But here, it's in the middle of a quiet suburban neighborhood. And residents blame their unwanted neighbor for illnesses, pet ailments, a nauseating stench — and in at least one case, a disastrous effect on the resale potential of a property.
How the situation got to this point is worth examining, as landfills remain big business all across Tennessee. Equally deserving of scrutiny, though, are the few options open for communities like Camden who wish to fight such landfills. For if they're expecting the state to come to their rescue ... they may find themselves tilting at a windmill of garbage.
Melton, a Baptist minister and owner of a trucking business, has lived in Camden his whole life. In December 2011, he and four other residents filed suit against Robert Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the landfill's operator, Environmental Waste Solutions.
Landfills, like grease stains, tend to start small and spread. A common practice is for a large company to buy a puny existing landfill, which allows it to sidestep a possibly contentious approval process and skip straight to securing an expansion permit. The Camden landfill started in 2000 as a 5-acre tire disposal facility. Its operators tried without success for eight years to convert it into a coal-ash waste site, before they sold it to EWS in 2009.
A month after the sale, the company requested, and received, a minor permit modification from TDEC allowing them to manage secondary aluminum smelter waste. For the next two years, the site brought in an extraordinary amount of waste. The high levels of ammonia that resulted alerted residents that something had changed.
The plaintiffs, who live within 300 yards of the landfill, charge that the site was approved and expanded illegally, in violation of a little-known statute known as the Jackson Law. The law was passed to give local residents and public officials some say as to whether a landfill opens up in their county — or, as it happens, just beyond their backyard.
EWS president Chris White says the landfill has been "highly compliant" with all state regulations, calling it "one of the best sites visited and reviewed by TDEC and EPA in over a year." To date, White says, "we've had no issues from TDEC."
But the residents' complaints aren't just about due process. For several years now, Melton and his neighbors claim in sworn affidavits that they have been under assault from elements they can't see.
In court documents, residents report a "sharp, pungent" and "overwhelming" odor from ammonia fumes, detectable outside their homes and even in the town square. They say the smell first appeared in 2010, the year after the landfill's sale and expansion; it persisted as recently as last year, burning their eyes, making it difficult to breathe, and forcing them indoors. Some have noticed illness in their pets. Others describe family dogs vomiting in their yards.
The lawsuit against TDEC and EWS includes 33 such affidavits filed last summer by residents, local officials and police officers who responded to complaints about fumes coming from the landfill. Just a sample of the accounts is enough to make one queasy:
• Timothy Plunk, a local funeral-home owner, describes in his affidavit the "breathtaking" fumes he has encountered while on early morning "death calls." He says the stink burned his eyes and throat and made him nauseous.
• Marie Colter lives on the same street as the landfill. In her affidavit, she recalls an episode in March 2011 when she drove up to her home with her daughter-in-law and her three grandchildren. They were met with the landfill's "overwhelming" smell. "My grandchildren started throwing up," she states. "Vomiting from the fumes. We all had to get in the house as quickly as possible."
• Resident Jean Lockhart, in her affidavit, notes the "noisy, dusty trucks" as well as the smell of ammonia. She says she worries now whether the tomatoes she grows are safe to eat, and that she has "been plagued with repeated upper respiratory issues."
"Sometimes," she says, "I feel imprisoned in my own home."
Michael Melton says he has been hesitant to have his baby granddaughter over to his house. Often, he says, he has carried her to the car with a blanket over her, to shield her from the fumes.
"This has been a nightmare for my family," he states in his affidavit. "It is a dangerous and unnecessary situation. The state and the landfill either do not know or do not care what we are being exposed to."
White says that is not the case. He calls the ammonia smell "a historic issue" that has been solved by responsive management. On a recent February afternoon, eye-watering fumes were not in evidence, though a faint astringent odor infrequently wafted by.
"We have not received the type of volume of aluminum smelter waste that the site initially received," White tells the Scene. "We're receiving 90 percent less. So that's been over a year now."
But Melton isn't convinced the problem has been solved. He recalls a close encounter in spring 2011 that still gives him pause.
A back entrance to his neighborhood is a barely two-lane road shared by trucks hauling full loads of waste to the site. Occasionally, they leave crumbs of aluminum dross along the way.
Melton says in his affidavit that residents had been told "this material was not dangerous in any way." Furthermore, according to Melton, the landfill's owner — Nashville land developer and EWS principal Scott Sohr — "had talked about it and held up some of the material during public meetings." Sohr, described by EWS' White as "a wonderful human being" who "has spent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to attempt to mitigate, and successfully mitigate, many of the concerns of the local residents," did not respond to the Scene's requests for comment by press time.
Thinking it "might be helpful to the city to give to their expert for testing," Melton says he put the chunk of material in his truck bed. Rain seemed imminent, he says, so he wrapped the material in a plastic grocery bag and put it inside his car to keep it dry.
On his way to work, he "noticed the smell of ammonia fumes" and his "mouth tasted of metal." At his office, he placed the material, already enclosed in plastic, in a zipper bag. About 20 minutes later, he says, he was "already feeling sick and nauseated with a headache." He called a doctor, who said to come in.
"Whatever is in this stuff was harmful to me," he states in the affidavit. "Also, I am in the trucking business, and have smelled my share of foul things. Nothing compares to this. I actually felt as if I had been poisoned and was sick and weak the next day after being exposed to one piece."
At the behest of TDEC — with a little prodding from $15,000 in fines — EWS has taken steps to control the ammonia odor. It has installed a synthetic liner over the initial waste cell, a gas collection and treatment system, and an air-monitoring program. The smell, for the most part, is gone.
"We have redundant monitors all over the site, including a monitor in the neighborhood," White tells the Scene. He says the landfill has been using a third party to measure traces of ammonia in the area. Where "a whiff of ammonia has to be 5 parts-per-million to really get a sniff," he explains, in the last nine months the highest reading he's seen is 2.41. That's out of 331,000 readings.
"So we've been, for a long period of time, well below even a sniff range within the issue of ammonia," White says.
Melton and his neighbors do not find that reassuring. They wonder what other unseen gases and contaminants might be present in Camden. They also wonder why the state agency purportedly there to protect citizens from pollutants appears to side so often with landfill operators. They're frustrated with a system they say is designed to absolve would-be regulators of blame in the aftermath.
Something stinks in Camden, they say, and it isn't just the garbage.
For those who aren't thrilled with the thought of a landfill in their community — the smell, the dust, the traffic, the trucks, the proximity of trash and toxins — there are two primary lines of defense.
One is TDEC, the state agency that regulates solid and hazardous waste management. Its stated mission is "to protect and enhance the public health and environment from existing and future contamination." It does this, in part, by deciding who does or doesn't get a landfill permit. At present, some 152 landfills operate in Tennessee, 33 of them designated at Class I to handle toxic waste.
And if you don't want anybody in your community getting one of those permits? There's the Jackson Law, so named for its sponsor, former Tennessee state Rep. Doug Jackson. The statute is meant to give citizens a process by which they can voice their opposition. Under its terms, if city and county governments opt in, citizens are entitled to public notice (and public hearings) about proposed landfills. What's more, any such project ultimately must get approval from the local government.
Those safeguards, however, have not worked for the Camden residents fighting the landfill expansion. The plaintiffs have introduced court documents to bolster their claim that ever since the city of Camden and Benton County adopted the law, back in 1993, neither has complied with the Jackson Law's terms.
In his affidavit, Melton cites minutes from meetings of the Benton County Solid Waste Board, the Benton County Commissioners, and the Camden city board. Each expresses opposition to expanding the landfill. In addition, each reiterates that no public notices or votes had been held to approve or deny the landfill, or its expansion. The city even declared the landfill a public nuisance in March 2011, but was unsuccessful in shutting down the site.
On that basis, the plaintiffs assert that TDEC did not have the authority to issue any permits for the site. That includes the permit modification approved in 2011, which allowed the operation to expand from five acres to 42 and precipitated the lawsuit.
TDEC argues it did have that authority. The agency cites letters it received from the city and county in 2004, which say an expansion was approved. But the plaintiffs counter that one of those letters, from the city of Camden, makes no mention of following the tenets of the Jackson Law — and hence the state would have had no way of knowing (and did nothing to verify) whether its requirements had been satisfied.
In response, the agency maintains it does not have a duty to determine, beyond simple notification, whether local governments have complied with the law or not. That brings no comfort to residents, or to environmental groups across Tennessee. If the state's purported environmental watchdog would approve expanding the landfill — despite pleas from multiple local government bodies, health concerns from citizens and serious questions about whether it even had the legal authority to do so — one wonders what TDEC wouldn't rubber-stamp.
It's a fair question, given TDEC's track record in Camden. Landfill operators, after all, can be expected to look out for their own interests in an unclean trade. One experienced source who spoke to the Scene went so far as to compare a major player in the national waste industry (not EWS) to "the Mafia."
TDEC, on the other hand, is supposedly a protector of the state's natural resources. And yet in 2003, when the Camden tire disposal site applied to handle notoriously toxic coal ash — a hemlock cocktail of arsenic, mercury, lead and heavy metals — TDEC nodded its approval. (Alas, the site never found any takers.) In 2009, when EWS asked to manage secondary aluminum smelter waste, TDEC again gave its assent.
Landfill opponents say TDEC rarely denies an application for a solid waste permit, much less a request for expansion.
Elizabeth Murphy, the Nashville attorney representing the Camden residents, declined to comment on the pending case. But she's seen enough to know the Camden case is not an isolated incident. Murphy has fought landfill operations in cases in Cumberland County, where a case pertaining to the Jackson Law ultimately went to the Tennessee Supreme Court; Marshall County, in a case related to violations by the landfill operator; and in Nashville, as a part of the fight over the infamous Bordeaux Landfill. The details of the specific cases differ, but she's seen a pattern.