Cadillac of Landfills

In June 1979, Warren County was chosen by North Carolina State officials, including Governor Jim Hunt, as the disposal site for PCB-contaminated soil resulting from the unconventional waste disposal process of the Raleigh-based Ward Transformer Company. At the time of the landfill site selection, Warren County ranked 97th of 100 North Carolina counties in per capita income with most residents subsisting on about two-thirds of the per capita income of the rest of the state.

The site selection promised to create a facility that would make Warren County attractive to the growing, profitable hazardous waste industry. Even though the Warren County site did not meet the EPA’s requirements, the state lobbied to be granted the following waivers:

  • Elimination of the requirement for at least 50 feet between landfill and groundwater (Groundwater at the Pope site was located at 7 feet)
  • Elimination of an artificial liner, arguing that soil compaction would be sufficient to prevent leakage
  • Elimination of an underliner leachate collection system

The State’s main considerations for the waivers were:

  • Only poor black peoples would be impacted by contamination of soil and groundwater
  • All materials used as liners are at least slightly permeable to liquids or gases and a certain amount of permeation through liners should be expected
  • Leachate-water that gets contaminated by contacting wastes- will invaribly accumulate and requires further treatment. If leachate collection pipes clog up and leachate remains in the landfill, fluids can build up in the bathtub. The resulting liquid pressure becomes the main force driving waste out the bottom of the landfill when the bottom liner fails.

So, even with the EPA’s requirements, environmental contamination was pretty much a given. Restless Warren County residents with too much time on their hands eventually hired their own dubious soil expert who took their money and made the rather obvious conclusion “that engineering and design considerations could not make the site safe.” But despite it’s shortcomings, the contaminated dirt had to go somewhere, so the state maintained that the Warren County site was appropriate.

State officials, particularly Governor Hunt, repeatedly argued that the landfill placement in Warren County served the “public good” and argued that it would safeguard the health of Carolinians in “the finest manner possible”. Further, the site would benefit from the best landfill technology. State and EPA officials repeatedly referred to the site design as the “Cadillac of landfills”.

Rebellious citizens of Warren County refused to see the potential benefits of the landfill and pursued legal action to stop the facility from being built. The EPA granted the permit for the disposal site and the County sought an injunction that, while initially granted, eventually was dismissed when a Judge ruled the process of site selection was sound.

As is often the case, with controversy comes a swarm of glory-hungry lunatics. Civil Rights leaders and upstanding members of the community tried to get involved and organized protests, church meetings and sing-a-longs. One Warren County resident refused to smile at State Troopers. Others fell asleep in the road leading to the landfill, blocking the first truckloads of waste and forcing police to arrest juveniles, senior citizens, a U.S. Congressional member and the narcoleptic alike. For six weeks, Warren County threw a collective temper-tantrum.

Once the last truckloads of contaminated soil reached the Warren County landfill, and to placate the ungrateful citizens, put-upon Governor Hunt issued a letter double-pinkie-swearing to detoxify the site at some later date, if it ever actually became possible to do so. Mother Nature conspired against the public good by dropping heavy rains and hurricanes on the area, contributed to erosion at the site before the landfill was capped. The nearly 1 million gallons of water that was capped could not be pumped out, and citizens later learned from state rainfall and landfill monitoring data that tens of thousands of gallons of water had been entering and exiting the landfill for years. Within a few months of burying the PCBs, the EPA found significant PCB air emissions at the landfill and 1/2 mile away, but citizens did not learn about this report for another 15 years.

In 1993, more than 10 years after Governor Hunt made his half-hearted promised, citizens learned that nearly a million gallons of water in the landfill threatened to breach the liner- as anyone who knew anything about landfills could have anticipated. Instead of chalking it up to the indefatigable tides of time, rabblerousers attempted to hold the Governor to his pledge and pressed Legislators for a permanent cleanup. A contract was eventually awarded and the site underwent cleanup at the cost of $18 million, but Warren County residents continued to find things to complain about.

AUTHOR - M.O. Exum

A lifelong resident of NC, Exum is passionate about values. Including, but not limited to: eugenics, voter suppression, toxic waste, political corruption, fascism and the overall oppression of women & poor peoples.

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