Originally created 09/21/99

Landfill fire concerns residents

THOMSON -- Joseph Sweatman has been standing vigil -- some nights until 4 a.m. -- to make sure an underground fire in a dormant industrial landfill doesn't ignite his family's hay.

"We got 600 bales right here on the fence line," the 15-year-old said. "If it goes up, we got a real problem."

The hay is for Angus cattle his family raises on land adjacent to the controversial Williams-Mesena Road Landfill that was shut down by Georgia's Environmental Protection Division in 1991.

On Sept. 9 -- after eight years of inactivity -- the buried piles of rubber shoe soles, medical waste and other unsavory refuse mysteriously caught fire and continues to re-ignite.

"The Georgia Forestry Commission cut a fire break and put out the brush fire," said Scott Callaway, an EPD compliance officer. "But tires and all kinds of other material under the ground is still burning."

Although only about five acres of the 120-acre landfill burned, fires are re-igniting in about a dozen places, he said.

Neighbors like Mesena Road resident Wormy Newton are annoyed at the acrid, toxic smoke emanating from the old dump.

"You hear barrels exploding now and then," he said. "The smoke is so bad you go out in the yard at night and you can't even find your car."

The fire is the latest in a decade-long string of environmental problems linked to the landfill, said Bill Williams, a compliance officer in EPD's Hazardous Waste Section.

State regulators shut down the site in 1991 for violations that included unauthorized acceptance of out-of-state medical waste and other materials, he said. The complete contents of the site are unknown.

EPD ordered the owner to clean up the area, but it never happened.

According to EPD, the site is owned by a corporation called Jerry D. Williams Inc., with the landfill's former operator, Mark Gates, as the sole shareholder. Mr. Gates, according to EPD, left the state.

In the meantime, EPD is trying to force companies who dumped at the site and others involved in the landfill to pay for cleanup costs.

"Just in the last six months, we've gotten an agreement between about 10 responsible parties who will investigate, perform water and soil tests and see what needs to be done," Mr. Williams said.

Those parties, he added, are now being asked to mobilize their efforts immediately to extinguish the fire.

"We've offered them a chance to make a voluntary response to it," he said. "If they don't respond we can issue an administrative order to perform corrective action or mobilize state contractors to do it."

He declined to identify the parties because a formal agreement has not been completed.

Robert Mullins, a Savannah attorney working with the group, also refused to identify the parties working with EPD, but said the group wants to work out a resolution.

"They're asking people who sent waste to the landfill to work together to hire a contractor to put the fire out," Mr. Mullins said. "The first notice we got was Friday, and we're trying to turn it around as quickly as we can."

Even if the group finances efforts to extinguish the fire, EPD likely will still want further environmental cleanup in the area.

"It's a harsh reality, but the government can make you go back in and clean it up," said Mr. Mullins, whose practice specializes in environmental law.

In the meantime, residents want the fire extinguished as soon as possible.

"Unless something's done, it's probably gonna burn for 300 years," Mr. Newton said. "And people are worried about what all that poison smoke's gonna do to them. Might make them have children with four toes."

Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222.


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