Dumping ground

One neighborhood bears Atlanta's burden

Chances are good that the trash you throw away each week ends up just beyond a clump of woods in Ella Mae Glover's back yard. There, within sight of her living room window, the mountain of trash that is the Live Oak landfill climbs higher every day.

Under the right circumstances, like warm weather or a good rain, the funk is so potent that it forces Glover and her neighbors inside, with windows and doors closed tight.

Before they mow her lawn, Glover makes her grandchildren swallow Benadryl.

On Nov. 27, after it rained for two days, her 16-year-old grandson Carvis' nasal cavities got so inflamed and irritated that his doctors had to operate to make sure he could continue breathing. They removed several polyps from his nasal cavities that, if they'd not been removed, threatened his life, according to an affidavit Glover signed Jan. 21. Glover herself suffers from frequent hay fever, sinus infections and lung infections, she says.

"I haven't had a cookout since 1993," says the 62-year-old.

Not many people do in South River Gardens, Glover's mostly black neighborhood of about 550 single-family homes clumped around the spot where Fulton, Clayton and DeKalb counties come together.

Since it opened in 1986, the landfill has grown taller than even the 30-year-old oaks and pines in Glover's back yard. And each year, the mountain grows by 1.25 million more tons.

You don't have to live near the landfill to smell it. If you've ever driven south on Moreland Avenue toward I-285, or on the freeway itself between Moreland and Jonesboro Road, you know that "rotten fruit" is a perfect description of the stench. "Putrid" is another.

Live Oak isn't the only landfill in South DeKalb. Within two miles of Glover's home, another two dumps are in operation — Hickory Ridge and Donzi Lane, both on the other side of I-285.

Another three are clustered in a different part of South DeKalb, around Lithonia.

Most notably, all those landfills surround, or are surrounded by, predominantly black neighborhoods, eliciting cries of environmental racism. Certainly, it doesn't take a genius to deduce that such an array of dumps would never have been plopped down in the more affluent, heavily white neighborhoods north of Atlanta.

But the neighborhoods around the landfills, for years a disparate bunch with different causes and agendas, have united, developing political muscle that's put dumps like Live Oak on borrowed time.

Last year, then-Gov. Roy Barnes, facing a re-election campaign, turned up the heat on Live Oak, ordering that it be closed down by December 2004. An abashed Harold Reheis, director of the Environmental Protection Division, the agency that regulates landfills such as Live Oak, even apologized to local residents.

But Waste Management Inc., the company that owns Live Oak, is appealing that order in court.

Next month, a judge will decide whether to uphold the order to shut down. How he rules will determine if the mountain at Live Oak keeps rising.

Live Oak closes twice a year — on Christmas and Thanksgiving. Otherwise, day and night, trucks from three states and 34 counties rumble up the asphalt driveway toward the top of Live Oak and ceaselessly add to the growing pile of trash.

Live Oak is so busy, in fact, that where most landfills have only one scale to weigh incoming trucks, Live Oak has three.

A giant bulldozer spreads the trash around and flattens it into the layer beneath. After the machine makes a pass, birds swoop down to pick at the fresh load. Once the trash is compacted, the bulldozer covers it with six inches of soil.

Repeat the process enough times and soon you have a mountain. From its top, the view of Atlanta's skyline — just four miles away — is spectacular, if you can see it through your watering eyes.

It's fitting the city is so close; most of the 4,500 tons of trash dumped here on a typical day — about 86 percent, according to Waste Management — comes from metro Atlanta.

When it opened in 1986, Live Oak's permit allowed it to take in 7.8 million cubic yards of waste. It didn't specify how long Live Oak could accept trash, just how much.

But it's common practice in Georgia for owners to keep open their landfills by applying for expansions. Which is what Waste Management did. A 1993 expansion, authorized by DeKalb County and rubber-stamped by EPD, brought Live Oak's borders to Glover's back yard.

In 1994, Waste Management applied to the city of Atlanta for a permit to expand the landfill by another 220 acres, which would have stretched it into Fulton County and the city of Atlanta. Anticipating that growth, Waste Management had bought the land a decade earlier.

The company had some political heavy hitters on its side. As its representative to the city, Waste Management hired Kevin Ross, who ran Bill Campbell's first campaign for mayor. And City Council president at the time was Marvin Arrington, whose law firm had worked for the company.

But the opposition was formidable, too. Among the foes were Vincent Fort, then the president of the civic group Save Our Southside and now a state senator. Also aligned against Waste Management was Derrick Boazman, an activist who today is an Atlanta city councilman.

"We were just beginning to understand the serious impact this landfill was having on people's lives," Boazman recalls. "You could smell it. It reeked all over the neighborhood."

With help from David Scott, then a state senator and today a congressman, the coalition lobbied for a state law to block new landfills in areas where there are already three or more in a two-mile radius. Scott led a protest at the Capitol that drew 300 people.

The political pressure worked. City Council voted down the expansion, and Scott's bill squeaked through the General Assembly.

But the coalition's victory was short-lived. In 1999, Waste Management got around the restrictions on its horizontal growth by convincing the EPD to permit Live Oak to expand not sideways, but up.

Live Oak is now a mound of about 18 million cubic yards — more than 10 million cubic yards larger than its original permit allowed. Today the mountain has grown to more than 100 feet high.

For the neighbors of Live Oak, the vertical expansion was their first hint that perhaps their real problem wasn't Waste Management, but the EPD itself. Boazman pulls no punches when he talks about the state agency's director.

"Harold Reheis is an enemy of our community because on every turn we saw his complicity with Waste Management, with Live Oak," he says. "They knew they couldn't have a lateral expansion. Somehow they were able to slip in there a vertical expansion. He grants them an administrative permit for them to do this, knowing full well the objections of all of the elected officials and the community."

Through a spokesman, Reheis declined comment, citing ongoing litigation with Waste Management.

While EPD has the authority to fine operators for running their landfills illegally, it wasn't until last year that Live Oak had to worry about being sanctioned by the state. For years, EPD inspectors would make a twice-yearly pass through Live Oak. And each time, the landfill scored consistently high marks. Most scores were above 90 — out of 100.

Yet while the EPD was finding nothing wrong with Live Oak, its neighbors were. But they lacked the political might to take on Waste Management.

Then, a little more than a year ago, John Bryant and his boss, former-Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney were heading west on I-285 toward the airport. The windows of McKinney's congressional van were down. Near the Moreland Avenue exit, either Live Oak's or Hickory Ridge's signature smell forced him to roll up the windows.

McKinney asked Bryant, a former environmental investigator, to look into it.

Within a month, Bryant teamed up with two activists who had been complaining about South DeKalb's landfills for years: self-proclaimed community hell-raiser Alfonso Mallory and Jackie Ward of the Southern Organizing Committee For Economic and Social Justice.

"Obviously this wasn't a federal issue," Bryant says. "But we used the clout of this office to do something because the landfills obviously impacted the congresswoman's constituents. And there were issues of environmental justice."

In December 2001, McKinney fired off letters to the EPD, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and DeKalb CEO Vernon Jones.

"South DeKalb has historically been considered by many as the state's dumping ground," she wrote. "It appears that the desire and voice of the people who resided in the afflicted area have not been listened to or properly represented. It is obvious that South DeKalb has been disproportionately impacted by negative environmental development. It seems to me that this community has been burdened long enough by having to live in the midst of a sea of garbage."

She went on to request that EPD investigate "to ascertain why this predominantly African-American community has been discriminated against."

Reheis' reply was courteous but didn't mention any investigation.

Next, Bryant organized a town hall meeting for Feb. 9 at the Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur. More than 250 people showed up.

David Word, the EPD's assistant director, agreed that the odors were horrendous and that EPD would do what it could to lessen the smell.

By summer, routine inspections of Live Oak that in the past had found nothing but minor violations were now suddenly turning up serious infractions. According to EPD inspectors, Waste Management left dumped garbage exposed for days. The company also left sewage sludge out in the open. Its funk, carried by the wind, drifted out into the surrounding community.

Because sewage sludge is easily the foulest of all things found at a landfill, EPD requires that it be covered by at least six inches of dirt immediately. Regular trash is supposed to be covered by six inches within 24 hours.

During non-peak hours, when the bulldozers aren't as slammed with incoming trash, they're supposed to reduce the size of exposed trash by 50 percent. When EPD inspectors visited Live Oak one night last spring, they found that the exposed area of trash was larger than it was during peak times. They asked the night operator why, and, according to the EPD, he replied that he didn't know anything about any downtime regulations.

Waste Management is also accused of not maintaining records, and using a mesh tarp to cover up waste (a solid tarp is required by law).

EPD ordered Waste Management to pay $25,000 a day for every day it violated state law — a total of $1.2 million — and ordered the shutdown of Live Oak by Dec. 1, 2004. Barnes signed the EPD decree during one of the biggest photo ops to ever come to South DeKalb. He had two busloads of residents shipped to Live Oak's parking lot to watch the ceremony. Cameras from every TV station in town were aimed on him.

Barnes was running for re-election, after all.

To Ray Chewning, who designed, helped build and now runs Live Oak, the timing was too coincidental.

"We have a right to operate this landfill in accordance with the rules and regulations of the state — not because of political campaign aspirations, and I think that was abundantly clear to be the case," Chewning says.

Of course, it's also possible that EPD inspectors weren't looking that hard until the political pressure was turned on.

Regardless, Chewning says, "I felt violated. What legal right does the government have to shut us down? We have a permit to do what we're doing, for God's sakes. And we follow it to the letter."

During a lengthy interview in the Waste Management offices at Live Oak, Chewning and spokeswoman Erica Cook make several arguments for keeping Live Oak open. Chewning also provided a tour of the landfill in his Ford Explorer to point out $1.5 million worth of new installations and systems that are supposed to control odor.

He's added 62 new wells that collect gases emitted by the decomposition going on constantly within Live Oak. (There are now 105 active collection wells.) He's added a third flare to burn off the captured gas, and installed a system that also catches the gas coming from the liquids captured from the landfill.

When managers know there's a particularly smelly load coming in, a mister sprays an odor-neutralizing chemical directly onto the garbage.

And there's another odor-neutralizing system that encircles the entire landfill. It's a black hose with nozzles that spray a fine mist that smells like strawberries, sometimes gardenias. The hose and misters even spray in the woods between the landfill and Glover's home.

Chewning stopped accepting sewage sludge from the city of Atlanta in December. He says of the sludge, "If they wanna take it over to Hickory Ridge, I don't care. It's not worth it anymore. It's something we had to do if we're going to lick this odor problem."

Because there's no more sewage sludge going into Live Oak, and because of the new flare, Chewning says, "I'll bet that this summer will be much better than last summer."

Chewning and Cook say they have a great relationship with their neighbors and that of all the 550 households in South River Gardens, only a handful are outspoken. Plus, "some people exaggerate about the smell," Chewning says.

He's not eager to acknowledge that his landfill might affect the neighbors' quality of life. When asked about Ella Mae Glover's family having to take antihistamines to mow her yard, Chewning and Cook immediately offer up two alternative explanations.

"Well that could be because of the grass," Cook says.

"Or the trees," Chewning adds.

Chewning says he's never heard of Glover and has never gotten a call from her. Finally, he says if that he'd known about the Glover family's breathing problems, he'd have sent a crew over to mow the grass for her.

Chewning points out that if Live Oak closes, the metro area will have to find a place to put 1 million tons of garbage each year. If it was shipped off to more remote landfills, as is done in most major cities, that would add 110,000 tractor-trailers carrying waste to Atlanta's already clogged roads.

It'll have to go somewhere, Chewning says.

That's exactly what Shirley Nichols, the past president and current environmental chairwoman of the South River Gardens Community Association, says, too: "You know, we realize garbage has to go somewhere."

It's just that Nichols is tired of it coming to her neighborhood.

"We've born our part of the burden. Now it's time for someone else to bear it," she says.

On a recent gray Saturday afternoon, Nichols hosts a meeting of the South River Gardens Community Association's executive board. Homemade chili and apple cider are warmed on the stove.

Says Exie Smith, who chairs the association's code enforcement committee: "We didn't buy our homes on the edge of the landfill. They expanded that landfill to the edge of our homes. We don't need to move. They do."

That decision is being left up to a state administrative court judge. Because Waste Management is appealing an order by a state agency, EPD, the hearing goes into the administrative courts, not to the civil courts.

During the hearing, scheduled for March 28, the residents near Live Oak will be largely on their own. Last summer's political momentum is gone. Both McKinney and Barnes were voted out of office.

DeKalb County CEO Vernon Jones said through a spokesman that the county has already spoken on the landfill issue by rejecting Waste Management's request to expand a year ago. Hank Johnson, the DeKalb County commissioner who represents the area that includes Live Oak, says he is adamantly opposed to landfills. But he won't be participating in the EPD vs. Waste Management administrative hearing because he says he "hasn't been invited."

And the residents of South DeKalb certainly don't trust EPD to fight for them.

That's why South River Gardens, the Southern Organizing Committee for Social and Economic Justice, and the South DeKalb Homeowners Association have hired Robert Ukeiley to intervene on their behalf.

Ukeiley is an attorney with the Law in the Center for Public Interest, which regularly takes on big-time polluters like Georgia Power and Duke Energy.

During the trial, Ukeiley, his clients and EPD will face off against Waste Management's team of lawyers. He'll come armed with sworn testimony from residents to be presented to the judge, including the plight of Glover and her grandson.

Looking beyond the immediate battle and focusing on the war, Ukeiley says, "When it comes to getting rid of our trash, most Americans still think 'out of sight, out of mind.'" Live Oak Landfill is an offensive reminder that's not true.

"We need to closely regulate our existing landfills. Perhaps even more importantly, instead of choosing which communities to burden with a landfill, we need to decrease our consumption and waste and increase our recycling. That will move us toward the day when no one will have to live next to a landfill and suffer its consequences."