Originally created 11/30/03

Columbia County hunts home for trash



Two decades ago, Columbia County's governing body was more than willing to jump the many hurdles required to build a new landfill.

Waste-disposal laws were lax. Rural land was plentiful, and the county's population was sparse. Best of all, opposition was minimal.

Today, it's a different world. The Baker Place landfill is almost full and must close next year. Will county commissioners build a new one? No way.

"My constituents would run me out of town," county Commissioner Diane Ford said. "They'd never go for another landfill."

Instead, the county hopes to ship its trash to Richmond County's landfill and send its sewage sludge - currently buried at Baker Place - to be sprayed on pastures in Jefferson County.

Getting out of the garbage business is a trend that has swept affluent, fast-growing areas in Georgia whose residents don't want dumps in their back yards.

Tim Earl, the solid waste program manager for Georgia's Environmental Protection Division, said city and county landfills are being replaced by huge private facilities in rural areas.

"With all the strict environmental regulations, there's now a huge capital outlay with new landfills," he said. "They are expensive, almost $1 million an acre sometimes."

In the past decade, the number of city- or county-owned landfills in Georgia dropped from 121 to 45, creating a niche for private companies to establish huge regional landfills that handle millions of tons of garbage a year.

One - the mammoth Taylor County landfill near Mauk, Ga. - covers 1,550 acres and buries 1 million tons of trash a year, including waste shipped by rail from as far away as New England.

Its owner, Arizona-based Allied/BFI Waste, is one of three primary waste companies competing for Georgia's increasingly regional waste market, Mr. Earl said.

"There's a level of expertise that's required on this economic scale to make it worthwhile," he said. "A lot of cities and counties have decided they're not interested."

The push for highly profitable "mega-fills" has sent developers into sparsely populated, rural areas, where land is still inexpensive, the population is usually poor and uneducated and there are fewer restrictions.

"These big landfills need to go somewhere, and it's in the best interest of someone planning one to go where there is no zoning but where there is transportation available to a major metro area," Mr. Earl said.

ABOUT A DOZEN applications are pending for new landfills, including one in rural Taliaferro County, 50 miles west of Augusta. Atlanta developer Complex Environmental Inc. wants to build a 1,030-acre landfill along Interstate 20. Residents of Georgia's least populous county have fought hard - and its three county commissioners even went to jail - in their fight to keep the project out.

Some say it's a losing battle.

"If zoning is not in place when folks either own or get an option on property, and you react trying to keep them out, a lot of times it doesn't hold up in court," Mr. Earl said.

Opponents have snubbed the developer's offers of extra revenue for the economically depressed county.

Complex Environmental even offered the county seat of Crawfordville a $300,000 gift for municipal improvements, provided that Mayor Cy Easters, a supporter of the landfill, won re-election.

He didn't. With the landfill as the dominant campaign issue, he was ousted by a 2-to-1 margin earlier this month. But residents fighting the project say they're still out-gunned.

"If you look at the types of counties these people go after, we fit it to a T," said Nathan Yanasak, a co-president of Taliaferro Countians Against Landfills. "We're sparsely populated, somewhat impoverished, agriculturally minded, socially conservative and have a higher minority population."

Mr. Yanasak and others fighting the Taliaferro project say they don't mind landfills. They simply don't want to be a dumping ground for everyone else's garbage.

ALTHOUGH DEVELOPERS say the Taliaferro County landfill would be used only for trash from Georgia, it is indisputable that other states are finding the Peach State receptive to trash importation.

According to figures compiled by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, out-of-state waste buried in Georgia has increased 491 percent in the past four years - to 950,779 tons last year.

"It's not garbage anymore; it's a commodity," said Don Bartles, who manages Columbia County's solid waste program.

The 112-acre Baker Place landfill is small compared with the Taliaferro project. But when it closes next year, it will have buried 3 million tons of waste over two decades.

With a quarter-century in the solid-waste industry, Mr. Bartles understands the economic forces that drive development of giant, regional landfills.

"What creates that kind of market is things like the city of New York closing landfills," he said, citing the now-defunct, 25,000-tons-per-day Fresh Kills landfill.

The Baker Place landfill buries about 300 tons a day - down from 650 tons a day in recent years. When it closes, that trash will be diverted to Richmond County, where - at least for now - it is welcome.

"We have land to build additional cells, so we have 15 to 20 years of additional space at the current rates of disposal," said Augusta Commission member Andy Cheek, the chairman of the commission's public works committee.

"We've already talked about Columbia County's landfill," he said. "My understanding is the extra business would be welcome. It's an economic thing. The more business, the more revenue."

Columbia County taxpayers, meanwhile, contract with private haulers for waste services, so the change is not expected to affect their taxes.

Aiken County has no municipal landfill, and its waste goes to Three Rivers Landfill at Savannah River Site.

GEORGIA TRENDS

  • In the past decade, the number of municipal (city- or county-owned) landfills dropped from 121 to 45, creating a niche for private companies that typically build huge, regional landfills.
  • Private landfills already handle more waste than municipal facilities. In 2002, more than 7 million tons of garbage went to 14 private landfills, compared with 3.2 million tons entering the 45 remaining municipal sites.
  • Georgia is attracting more out-of-state garbage from as far away as New York and Connecticut. Importation of household waste totaled 950,779 tons last year - a 491 percent increase in just four years.
  • As more municipal landfills close, the demand for private facilities - typically located in poor, rural communities close to interstates and rail lines - will continue to escalate.
  • State regulators are evaluating more than a dozen requests for permits for new landfills, mostly from private companies. The permitting process takes at least two years.
  • Reach Robert Pavey at (706) 868-1222, ext. 119, or rob.pavey@augustachronicle.com.