Tide of Conflict Rises over Landfill
Unscrupulous Development in the Green Swamp
By Tess Taylor
It would take a flood of biblical proportions to disrupt a landfill proposed for the Green Swamp in Columbus County, say its developers, Greg Peverall and Bill Dreitzler of Riegel Ridge LLC.
They may have the map to prove it.
Then again, they may not.
After a year of relative quiet, the debate about a proposed landfill in the Green Swamp is primed to swell again. In question are two conflicting versions of a flood plain map of the area containing the landfill's footprint.
The developers' own 2000 study, completed by the Raleigh firm Alpha and Omega, showed 30 percent of the proposed landfill in the 100-year flood plain, meaning that it would have at least a 1 percent risk of flooding each year.
And nine years ago, one of the developers -- acting then as a consultant to Columbus County -- conducted a study that seemed to discourage the idea of putting a landfill in the Green Swamp.
Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is preparing to release its own new flood plain maps. The maps show none of the landfill's footprint in the flood plain.
This would allow the developers to move on to the next phase of landfill permitting without applying for approval from the county.
"It shows what we have believed all along," Mr. Dreitzler said. "Our landfill will not be impacted by any flooding."
But landfill opponents say the maps only raise more questions. They say the developers used more precise mapping techniques than the government. Thus, the FEMA maps are less reliable for judging the risks associated with a landfill.
"The state mapped such a large area on such a large scale that it is hard to use them to determine anything," said John Runkle, a lawyer for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense fund who is representing landfill opponents.
"The new maps are not as accurate as the old ones for making exact siting decisions. They're broad brush," he said.
It's the latest in a difficult permitting process for Columbus County's proposed regional landfill. The developer, Riegel Ridge, wants to build a 100-acre landfill on 760 Green Swamp acres. The facility would accept 1,500 tons of garbage a day from seven counties within a 100-mile radius for the next 23 years.
The county issued a permit, but plans stalled late last year over the question of whether the landfill would be in a flood plain.
State law forbids landfills in 100-year flood plains. The law was adopted after Hurricane Floyd washed a toxic cocktail of contaminants from dumps and garbage sites down eastern North Carolina's waterways in 1999, damaging wildlife and fisheries.
At the time, parties agreed to wait until state flood plain maps, then under revision, were released. Maps, now in draft form, will be released later this month for 90 days of public comment.
The question now centers on which maps the state and county will use during the landfill permitting process -- and the answer could go a long way toward determining whether the landfill gets built.
The issue of the conflicting studies has touched a nerve. Landfill opponents like Mr. Runkle and Jeff Lane, chairman of Friends of the Green Swamp, note that the county and the developers both stand to profit from the landfill.
The county could net $46 million over the landfill's 23-year life span. The developers said they stand to make $40 million to $60 million.
And Mr. Lane contends the developers have a history of ignoring their own studies.
Nine years ago, in 1994, as its landfill was reaching capacity, Columbus County hired Mr. Dreitzler's consulting firm, Marlowe, Dreitzler & Associates to investigate possible sites for county refuse.
The consultants offered Columbus County a study detailing the limitations of a Green Swamp landfill site. The study stated that soils were unstable, the area was near recreational facilities, and that it would be difficult to build without disturbing wetlands. "It would be necessary to show that no other practical alternatives existed," the study said.
Mr. Dreitzler's position shifted, however, after he re-emerged as a landfill developer. In the years after 1995, Mr. Dreitzler joined with Greg Peverall, who owned the previous county landfill, to form Riegel Ridge. Within years, Mr. Dreitzler and Mr. Peverall began a process to build on a Green Swamp site. Mr. Lane points to the study as evidence that the Green Swamp is not a suitable site. "What Bill Dreitzler said when he was an unbiased consultant changed when he had a financial stake," he said.
Mr. Peverall says the site now being proposed was not evaluated in the 1994 study. "After completing the study, we found some dry clay soils that were more suitable to development," he said. "The soil on the proposed landfill site is better and the wetlands are fewer. Columbus County officials looked closely at the soil maps and found that site for me."
But Mr. Lane argues that pressure to deal with the garbage situation quickly has caused developers and county officials to change their perspective.
"To them, it's a question of short-term financial incentives," he said.
County officials said if built, the proposed regional landfill would save Columbus County residents an average of $177 annually on their garbage bills. It would save the county $1 million annually in garbage-hauling costs. And accepting out-of-town garbage would generate another $1 million a year for the next 20 years.
The $2 million represents about 4 percent of the county's annual budget.
It's money Assistant County Manager Darren Currie said the county could use. "No one likes to make this kind of decision," he said. "Everyone would rather their garbage would just go away."
Sammie Jacobs, who has been on the Columbus County Board of Commissioners during the entire landfill development project, says he doesn't remember how the new land was found. But he said he supports the landfill.
"We got the science and technology to put a man on the moon," he said. "I think we've got the science enough to bury a bag of trash in the ground."
The maps may determine which side has the upper hand in the argument.
FEMA maps are typically used to permit construction. Abdul Rahmani, who oversaw the FEMA mapping, said the new maps may not be as accurate as those created by Riegel's developers for judging risks associated with a landfill.
"Our maps are more for looking at whether or not you should build a house there," he said. "The maps were not made to make a decision on something like a landfill."
The difference lies partly in the way the maps are made. Mr. Rahmani said because it was a sparsely populated rural area, FEMA did a limited-detail study based on aerial photographs. He said it's an appropriate tool for developing insurance ratings in such areas.
"It is fine in an area where there is not much development. It's less definite for each specific location," he said. "The developers have done a much more high-detail study of actual ground level with their consultants, and it is much more suitable for judging development risks," Mr. Rahmani said.
Mr. Dreitzler contended that he has no legal obligation to pay attention to the maps his analysts have created, and instead will rely on new maps created by FEMA.
"The state flood rate insurance maps are the guideline," he said. "I am satisfied with them." Sherri Coghill, environmental engineer for the state's Division of Waste Management, said she is not sure how the state will proceed.
"This is the first time the state will be called on to make a judgment on this type of situation," she said. "I guess the state maps are more concerned with something like home ownership than something like landfill development. My instinct is that we should probably still take into account the more detailed information."
Venus's Flytraps, Carolina Pygmy Sunfish
On a recent tour of the site, Mr. Peverall defended the project. Standing amid hardwood mangroves, he said the state-of-the-art, clay-lined landfill he proposes would not harm the swamp around it. "It would take 20 years for any leachate to leak through the clay into the water supply," he said. "We will be monitoring the water intensely. The landfill will not pose a threat."
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Chapter of the Nature Conservancy is working to preserve Juniper Creek, a river downstream from the proposed landfill that holds particularly clear waters and a wide variety of rare species, including Venus's flytraps and a small silvery sunfish known as the Carolina Pygmy.
"You're talking about building a landfill at the head of one of the most pristine water sources in North Carolina," said Dan Bell, the Nature Conservancy's local project director. "Even with the best engineering, we believe there is going to be impact. And in the case of a big storm, you are looking at a much, much greater risk of leakages."
Mr. Dreitzler still said he cannot foresee any future conditions where the Green Swamp would flood a landfill. Mr. Rahmani said the proposed landfill doesn't necessarily pose a risk but cautioned that future development upstream could significantly change flood plain patterns.
Mr. Lane pointed out that after developing the landfill, Riegel does not have to look very far into the future. The firm would only be required to care for the landfill for 30 years before passing it into the possession of the state.
"The flood plain could change a lot by then," he said, noting that areas that flooded in Floyd had never flooded before. "After all, they'll be out after only 30 years, but the garbage will be there forever," he said. "We're tempting Providence."
City Desk: 343-2312
Published in the Star News, Wilmington,NC, August 10, 2003, included maps and graphics.