by Steven Hale
The cover story of this week's issue of the Scene is garbage. Secondary aluminum smelter waste, actually.
The residents of Camden, Tenn., in Benton County 90 miles west of Nashville, have been living around the stuff — right next door in some cases — for several years now. In December of 2011, they filed a lawsuit against Robert Martineau, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the landfill's operator, Environmental Waste Solutions, claiming that the landfill was approved and expanded in violation of a state law meant to protect communities like Camden. In short, residents, the city and the county all say the landfill didn't follow the legal procedure (outlined in a statute known as the Jackson Law) to obtain a permit from the state. The landfill and TDEC disagree.
A final hearing in the case was held in January, and a ruling is still pending.
To understand the residents' exasperation with the landfill's continued operation (and growth), sample a few anecdotes from affidavits filed as part of the lawsuit:
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."
It was after those and other harrowing experiences that the department approved an expansion of the site that will bring the waste closer to nearby homes. After being hit with $15,000 in fines, EWS took steps that have mostly mitigated the once-overwhelming smell of ammonia, but that's provided little comfort to those living closest to the site.
The ordeal — which is hardly the first of its kind — raises questions about how TDEC approves landfills, how they regulate them, and just how dirty the politics of trash can get.