Sampson County residents wary of landfill’s methane plan

Sampson County residents wary of landfill's methane plan

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By Will Atwater

Whitney Parker has had enough. 

The Snow Hill resident lives close enough to the GFL Sampson County Regional Landfill to see the daily operations from his house.  Parker said that for decades the landfill has cast an imposing  shadow over his community and destroyed their quality of life.

“We can’t breathe. We can’t sleep. We can’t enjoy what we’ve worked for.”

Parker, who is in his 40s, and many of his neighbors have been locked in a decades-long, multigenerational battle against the landfill. 

What’s more, as reported in January by Newsline, the Sampson County Regional Landfill produces 824,568 metric tons of methane annually. It is the second-largest emitter among U.S. landfills, according to 2021 EPA data

It’s the cumulative impact of environmental injustices faced by this predominantly Black and low-wealth community that has pushed Parker to a place where he wants the landfill closed.

Waning trust

For five decades, Snow Hill residents have complained that the landfill has reduced their quality of life. They say the landfill has fouled the air, soil and water. They also blame it for attracting buzzards that pick shingles off rooftops and congregate in yards — not to mention the cancer and other health issues that plague the community.

The landfill opened in 1973, and today it accepts waste from communities as far away as Durham, a hundred miles away. Beginning at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. to noon on Saturdays, trucks line up to enter the landfill, where they dump a variety of debris, including commercial, business and residential trash, as well as construction and demolition waste, according to the Sampson County website.

Four African American men and one woman sit at roundtable, during a community meeting. A man seated in the middle, is speaking into a mocrophone.
Snow Hill resident Whitney Parker shares his feelings about the proposed methane capture and natural gas conversion system that would be installed at the GFL Sampson County Landfill. Credit: Will Atwater

Given the lack of trust the community has for the regional dump’s management team, who they claim could be more responsive to their concerns, Parker was in no mood to discuss ways to negotiate over a proposal to establish a methane capture and natural gas conversion system at the site.  

“We’re not trying to coexist [with the landfill] at all,” he said. “So horse trading and bartering? We’re way past that.”

The proposed methane capture system was a hot topic at the July Environmental Justice Community Action Network meeting at Snow Baptist Church, where Parker and approximately 25 residents showed up to discuss the landfill and other community concerns.

‘Fear for life and family’

Earlier this year, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality posted a notice that it had reviewed a request by Sapphire Renewable Energy for an air quality permit to establish a methane capture and natural gas conversion system. Based on the initial review, NCDEQ “determin[ed] that the project could be approved and the Division of Air Quality permit could be

issued, if certain permit conditions are met,” according to the notice

The next step was to schedule a public hearing where community residents could comment on the proposal. The event took place on June 27, 2023, at Clinton City Hall. 

Sherri White-Williamson, co-founder of EJCAN and the environmental policy director at North Carolina Conservation Network, was pleased with the community’s response to the public hearing. She said there were between 60 to 70 people who came to the meeting.

“We had about 21 people who spoke,” she said. It was a mixture of residents and community partners “who raised real concerns about the lack of information in the permit that we were expected to comment on,” White-Williamson said. “I saw DEQ engineers taking a lot of notes, but whether that really means anything or not, I don’t know.”

Like Parker, his cousin Taryn Ratley does not want to see a methane capture system installed at the landfill. “I am very concerned — I am afraid for my life and my family,” Ratley said. Ratley said she fears an explosion in the middle of the night or some other environmental accident related to the proposed methane capture system could destroy the community. 

Ratley said that in the past she’s witnessed fire trucks heading to the landfill, often at night, to put out fires she believes were caused by a buildup of gases interacting with combustible materials. 

Their fears are not unfounded. One Georgia landfill had fires burning for years on the site. Other landfills around the country have had methane leaks and are vulnerable to fires caused by a buildup of gases, for instance

A room divided

At the June EJCAN meeting, others expressed similar concerns and would rather fight against the proposal. However, Irena Como, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, floated the idea of having the community brainstorm about developing a community development agreement to submit to Sapphire. 

Community development agreements are not uncommon. They spell out how proposed projects will benefit communities needing specific amenities to improve their quality of life in exchange for supporting proposals, such as the one presented by Sapphire Renewable Energy. 

In this case, some residents at the meeting discussed asking the company for support in developing a community center and other opportunities that could serve local youth. 

Another idea was to ask for help to get a community health assessment, which many argue should have been conducted years ago by the county health department. NC Health News asked the Sampson County Health Department whether a health assessment has been scheduled and is awaiting a response.

Whatever energy there was for a discussion about a community development agreement was thwarted by the foreboding sense that something bad will happen if the community engages in negotiations with Sapphire Energy and the landfill. 

Ratley captured the energy in the room when she commented later about her feelings. “I’m done. I have no trust. You know, I am so angry it is unreal,” she said. Before the conversation ended she offered: 

“You have to understand this [struggle] has been going on for decades, and it’s gotten increasingly worse. We have a public health department that will not help us. We have a hospital that is inadequate, a training hospital. We have no emergency evacuation plan if [disaster strikes].”

Regarding the project, GFL Environmental and Opal Fuels, the parent company of Sapphire Renewable Energy released the following statement:

“OPAL Fuels and GFL are working together to develop the new state-of-the-art Sapphire renewable natural gas facility at the Sampson County Landfill. 

The new plant will take naturally occurring methane from the decomposition of organic material at the landfill that is captured by the landfill gas collection system and purify it into [renewable natural gas]by removing carbon dioxide and other components from the biogas.

The Sapphire RNG facility will deliver a number of environmental and local benefits to the community including:

  • RNG projects convert 95 percent of the captured methane in landfill gas to RNG, for beneficial use as a renewable fuel replacing diesel fuel in vehicles, for example. The balance of the captured methane is destroyed by flaring.
  • By enhancing the capture of landfill gas from the landfill as part of this RNG project, the plant will help to reduce GHG and other types of local air emissions.  

We value the feedback that we have received from the stakeholders interested in our RNG project and look forward to the next stages of the development of the Sapphire RNG facility.”

The problem with methane

Although Snow Hill and the larger Sampson County community’s concerns about Sapphire’s proposal are based on their collective experience dealing with environmental issues, the area does have methane emissions that need to be addressed to reduce the landfill’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming. 

Methane is “28 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency

If nothing is done, the landfill will continue to release thousands of metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. However, the impacts of climate change that are already being felt, plus the opportunity to make money by capturing it and selling it back to the grid as natural gas, is spreading across the country.

While it makes sense to reduce the amount of methane entering the atmosphere and, at first glance, Sapphire’s proposal looks like it will benefit the community, the potential for abuse is lying beneath the surface, according to SELC attorney Maia Hutt.

“Our concern is that landfills that use the waste in order to generate methane, tend to adopt waste management practices that accelerate methane production,” she said. In other words the possibility of making money could hijack the process and lead to more methane in the community. 

A marathon, not a sprint

When longtime activist and Chapel Hill resident David Caldwell heard about the issue with the Warren County Landfill, he recalled his community’s 40-year battle against the Orange County Landfill that was located in Chapel Hill. 

“That is exactly our story. It took us 40 years [of fighting] to get it going. When it started, I was one of the youngest community activists [involved], and now I’m one of the oldest,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said that like Snow Hill, his Chapel Hill Rogers’ Road community complained about how the landfill, now closed, was destroying their quality of life. They complained about poor air quality, buzzards and the constant parade of trucks entering and leaving the landfill daily, among other complaints. 

Caldwell said conditions at the landfill went from bad to outrageous before things got better.

“The first landfill had no liner, had no fences and there were no regulations,”Caldwell said. 

Over time, the community developed relationships with experts, such as scientists, university professors and organizations like SELC, to assist them with their grievances. After opening in 1972, the Orange County Landfill closed in 2013. At the time of landfill’s closing, officials decided to send waste to the Durham transfer station.  

Durham sends its waste to the GFL Sampson County Regional Landfill.

Longtime activist Dollie Burwell and former Congresswoman Eva Clayton, who assisted Burwell and others with environmental issues faced by Warren County in the 1980s after the state decided to place a hazardous waste dump in the community, echoed the notion that environmental justice battles often play out over decades.

Burwell said that one of the messages that she shares with young people is that in order to survive a protracted conflict, one must focus not only on winning the war, but should identify small battles that can be won, because people need to see that they’re making progress to stay engaged.

Clayton said that it’s important to take the long view when dealing with environmental injustice. 

“Continuous vigilance and commitment is required,” she said. “Otherwise the investment or the price paid by our grandparents will be lost.”

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