Tons of garbage: A very unwanted neighbor

NIMBY fights go statewide and get nasty

While a state tribunal
mulls the fate of the Live Oak landfill, trash companies across the state are maneuvering to get in on Atlanta's action. Bribing neighborhoods and bullying local governments have become standard operating procedures for the handful of companies hoping to replace Waste Management, Live Oak's operators, as the new king of the trash mountain.

Waste Management was ordered last summer to close Live Oak because of odor complaints and shoddy operations. The company appealed, and judges will either uphold the order to shut down Live Oak landfill, which receives most of the city's trash, or allow Waste Management to accept more trash until it reaches its legal limit.

Once Live Oak and other intown landfills reach capacity — and all of them should in the next two to three years — garbage "is going to have to go to transfer stations close in and then it's going to be shipped out to the larger capacity landfills outside the metro area [such as] Cherokee, Butts, Taylor and Forsyth counties," says Tim Earl, a solid waste manager with the state Environmental Protection Division.

That translates into "not in my back yard" fights across the state. According to the EPD, there are 26 pending applications for either new landfills, expansions at existing landfills, or solid waste transfer stations.

One of the toughest strongholds of resistance is in Taliaferro County, 100 miles east on I-20.

There, three county commissioners tried to block Atlanta businessmen from building a 1,030-acre landfill by changing Taliaferro's zoning laws. But a Superior Court judge ruled that the commissioners' zoning change was illegal, and ordered them to write a letter of support for the landfill. The letter is required for the landfill to get a permit from the state EPD. The commissioners wrote such a letter, but also threw in some lines about the landfill's negative environmental impacts. All three commissioners face jail time for contempt of court.

But ground zero is still here in Atlanta.

Waste Management Inc. has offered to pay $25 million for 125 homes within a half-mile of the landfill in south DeKalb County.

But the deal is contingent on Waste Management being able to expand the landfill, prompting City Councilman Derrick Boazman to call it a "sellout, not a buyout."

Now, Brown Ferris Industries — Waste Management's biggest rival — is dangling a $1 million-a-year trust fund in front of a neighborhood that stands in the way of the company's plan to build a solid waste transfer station near the intersection of Marietta Boulevard and Bankhead Highway, across the street from the Bankhead MARTA station.

Atlanta's Zoning Review Board is scheduled to vote in October on whether to rezone the property, which is necessary for Brown Ferris to begin construction.

The neighborhood planning unit that encompasses the proposed site voted down the company's proposal — something the Zoning Review Board considers when deciding to grant a zoning application.

Brown Ferris spokeswoman Abbie Mullaney says a portion of the money the company makes from the waste transfer station — she expects that'll equal $1 million when the station is running at full capacity — will be passed out to community organizations.

One catch: The community will get nothing if it doesn't support Brown Ferris' pending rezoning application.

"What this amounts to is nothing less than legal bribery," says state Sen. Vincent Fort.

Fort is now drafting legislation he plans to introduce in the 2004 General Assembly "to restrict these kinds of deals," he says. "These decisions ought to be made based on the particulars of land use planning, not on the basis of who gets a cut of the trust fund."

Fort better hurry, because the trust fund has already landed Brown Ferris the support of a church and local businesses in the area that stand to get a piece of the company's green generosity.

Neighbors are fighting back with protests, petitions, and a campaign asking Brown Ferris' attorney, Charles Palmer, to resign from MARTA's board of directors.

"Both the city's and MARTA's comprehensive plans call for more transit-oriented developments to go near MARTA stations, and I'm sorry but I don't think a waste transfer station is a transit- oriented development," says Jerry Riley, chairman of Neighborhood Planning Unit-K, which includes Howell Station, the neighborhood closest to the proposed transfer station.

Palmer didn't return a phone call.