Missing the Point, Missing an Opportunity

Last night, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to set June 30, 2013, as the closing date of the county’s municipal waste landfill, and to pursue a costly interlocal agreement to ship our trash to Durham’s waste transfer station. Orange County’s trash, according to county manager Frank Clifton, will ultimately come to rest in Montgomery County (specifically, the middle of the Uwharrie National Forest). The commissioners also approved the creation of a task force to address sewer service and a community center for the Rogers Road neighborhood.

In a stormy interlude between these two decisions, the commissioners—cheered on by residents of the rural buffer and speakers from Justice United, the Rogers-Eubanks Neighborhood Association, and Orange County Voice—took turns laying into Carrboro mayor Mark Chilton. At an Assembly of Governments work session three weeks earlier, Chilton asked that county staff be allowed to investigate the feasibility of a property northwest of the I-40/NC 86 interchange as a potential site for a transfer station. His request came in the wake of a discussion on OrangePolitics about closing the landfill.

In latching onto controversy about the I-40/NC 86 suggestion, the commissioners and others seem to have missed the larger point: we should not be shipping our trash to other communities. Doing so will be expensive, will be bad for the environment, and will get us into the habit of not dealing with our own mess. Shipping our trash elsewhere will also substitute one social justice problem with another.

If we’re going to take responsibility for our trash, we need a way to decide how to do it. Chilton proposed a set of criteria for how to determine where a new solid waste facility should be located. The criteria include locating the facility (1) in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro area, (2) near as few residences as possible, and (3) near a major highway. The location also should not add to the existing burden on the Rogers Road neighborhood. Chilton suggested the I-40/NC 86 location as an example of a site that would meet the proposed criteria. He also explicitly acknowledged problems with the site and how they might be mitigated, and he and others later discussed other potential sites.

By willfully missing the point of the proposal, the commissioners have also missed an opportunity. Municipal leaders who attended the recent Assembly of Governments meeting indicated a renewed willingness to consider sites in or near the towns. Trucking our trash to Durham will cost Chapel Hill and Carrboro taxpayers something like $750,000 per year. The commissioners haven’t indicated how long the trucking will continue, so we can expect to pay higher taxes indefinitely on a solid waste solution that doesn’t really solve anything. We could spend that money instead on the sewer service and community center the commissioners agreed last night to pursue. (How do they plan to pay for those, by the way?)

The commissioners made clear last night that they want to be seen as the lone deciders on shipping our solid waste out of the county, with or without the towns. But when it comes to long-term decision making, they say they won't even begin to think of planning without assurances that they won't have to go it alone. So, in their eagerness to score political points, the commissioners get to strut for a while like leaders who make big decisions when, in fact, they have accomplished little.



Thank you so much for this excellent post, Damon. I left last night's BOCC so frustrated. The rural buffer residents and the Rogers Road residents seemed to be supporting each other's points, although there are many ways in which their short-term interests might not be aligned or may even tunr out to be contradictory. (For example, if nothing can be sited in anyone's neighborhood, nothing can be sited at all.) My concern is not that they are supporting each other (perhaps a topic to be discussed another day), but their manners in the board room last night. After a dozen speakers offered jeers at the Commissioners and received cheers from the crowd, I frankly was afraid to stand up when the chairwoman asked if there was anyone else who wanted to speak on the matter. What I would have liked to say was something like this:   

  • I don't think anyone would argue that it's not time to close the landfill as soon as practical. That should be a given for our conversations. 
  • I don't think we should INclude nor PREclude any site based on an off-hand comment (Mayor Chilton's) or a group of angry neighbors at one meeting. That any potential site would be selected through a deliberate, strategic process ought to be a given as well. 
  • Shipping our trash to Durham will be very expensive for Chapel Hill and Carrboro. This will cost millions of dollars that can then not be spent on sewers or other remediation for Rogers Road.
  • If we really want to be responsible for our waste, we need to site a new landfill or at least a transfer station here in Orange County. 
  • Closing the landfill will also close the main source of funds for remediation. We don't know yet, but it may work out that keeping it open a few more months would help give us the time and money to develop a workable local solution.

The debate shouldn't be about closing the landfill ASAP, everyone agrees on that. What we're failing to discuss is realistic options for responsibly and economically handling our own waste in Orange County. The single-minded emphasis on closing the landfill ASAP could end up trashing the best solutions to help the Rogers Road neighbors. Now I truly understand why the Town of Chapel Hill is so adamant about prohibiting cheering and clapping during their meetings. If you know me, you know it's not often that I don't feel comfortable sharing my opinions in public. Last night was quite disturbing to me.  

Where was everyone three years ago when the county decided not to site a transfer station?   There was so much research, so much discussion.  Its groundhog day in Orange County!

The rural buffer is intended to prevent sprawl.  There's no water and sewer.  And of course you can build a transfer station with catchment systems and septic - but that just adds to the cost. Don't forget the risks to wells on adjacent land.  You can call it NIMBY - we call it planning.

There are better sites in town -and if the town leaders decide to build a transfer station,  they certainly will discover them.
With good planning, which could include relocation, ther project should enhance rather than degrade the value of an area

Lets not forget that a tranfer stations are collection - not disposal operations. They are not interchangable.  Whether its a Durham or Orange County or Chapel Hill transfer station,  the trash has to be shipped to a landfill or WTE site somewhere. 
It doesn't stay in the county.

The EPA says that a well sited transfer station is an industrial application and should be site close to where the trash is generated on land with water and sewer. It could be next to commercial, retail, or university facilities -with trucks running on high traffic roads.  Such a site will be cheaper, faster, and easier to develop - and will not place a residential  communities at risk.      

It takes 5 acres. There are many good sites in town.

How about prohibiting elected officials from proposing sites outside their jurisdiction for unwanted municipal services  Here's the statement that got the most cheers last night.

“I was shocked to hear that Mayor Chilton and the other representatives from the
Carrboro Board of Aldermen offered up a site for the waste transfer station
completely outside their jurisdiction and within the rural buffer,” Marilee
McTigue told the board. “The rural parts of our county are not vacant lands
waiting for the municipalities to decide how to break them up and use them.”

For the entire report:


Certainly there have been much well informed discusssion on this subject, supported by a great deal of reserach.  Unfortunately that is not true for the NC 86 proposal which seemed to be pulled out of the air with no information about siting, costs, or operations of transfer stations - or about zoning or land use principles in Orange  County.

Certainly if there are informed ideas, everyone wants to hear it. But not if it starts with a goal of compromising "the fewest people".
Can't we work together for a win-win?

Bonniie Hauser 

OP posts on this subject go back over 4 years. See http://orangepolitics.org/tags/waste-transfer-station and http://orangepolitics.org/search/node/waste+transfer+stationAs I said, the town leaders are expressing a new willingness to deal with our trash closer to home. Closing the landfill sooner than needed may make it impossible to figure out and implement a local solution. And trucking to Durham will not be a short-term thing. It will cost millions to gear up for it, and will be even harder it stop once we start it. We all just need to take a few breaths and think about how to solve the probems of justice for the landfill neighbors for more than the next few months.

I totally agree with this Ruby. The town of Chapel Hill has required OWASA to spend over $6M to control odors at the waste water treatment plant. The same type of quality enforcement should be applied to the existing landfill, even if it closes tomorrow, since we know other parts of the facility will continue in operations for years. The methane capture facility is supposed to have a major impact on odor abatement, but controls need to be put in place for vermin, illegal dumping, and any groundwater contamination. But if the site is an expense instead of a revenue generator, I don't see where the funds will come from to 1) clean it up, 2) pay for water and sewer, 3) pay the increased costs of short-term hauling to Durham, and 4) pay for a locally-sited permanent solution.

The towns were informed in 2009 that there will be no county transfer station in orange county - and that trash would be going to Durham. Hillsborough did their homework  - they are ready to exit the landfill in 2012.  Their vendor, Waste Industries, is threatening a rate increase if they continue to use the county landfill because the tipping fee is so high.

UNC already left the landfill.   So did the rural haulers  No cost increase to their customers. 

Chapel HIll is doing its homework - looking at their options for the short and long term -and they are likely to find out tha they have many good options that are likely to save their citizens a great deal of money.   Carrboro has been invited to participate- but to our knowledge has not accepted the invitation.  I

The Assenby of Govts, led by Jim Ward, nicely stepped up to the plate on all this.  As Jim explained, the issue is not new- and the elected officials now have to accept the consequences for their failure to plan for this eventuality.   It's certainly not the responsibility of the Rogers Road community who has been more than accomodating for decades.  
I heard no leader in this county ask for the landfill to stay open. Even Carrboro backed down on this one. 

The towns may have to sharpen their pencils and get creative in the short term.    Maybe the vendors can help.  Vendors already handle the town recycling program and are doing a fine job.   

Hooray to the commissioners for finally ending the landfill legacy- a dark and ugly chapter in the history of Orange County.    And hooray to the Assembly of Governments for walking the talk.

Bonnie Hauser

I don't agree that the landfill should be closed immediately. I think it's a waste to close it before it's filled up. Shipping trash--wasting the energy--to another poor community when we have the means and the already degradated environment here to handle it is just unconscionable in my opinion. This isn't about social or environmental justice; it's about politics. As far as the sewer issue goes, even if the local governments come up with the funds to install the sewer lines, each resident will still have to pay to connect to the central line. That's been estimated at between $2,000 and $10,000 per household depending on location. Hopefully, there will be enough foresight to ask residents whether they intend to connect to the sewer within 24-48 months before funds are used to install the mains. It would be another economic travesty to spend millions of dollars to invest in this infrastructure and then not have the majority of homes connected to it.

The real data just does not support the statement that we will only be dumping our problems on some other poor community. The Montgomery county regional landfill is already accepting waste from other Piedmont counties. Their county budget currently receives over a million dollars per year into their county budget from the landfill which goes to provide better schools to that "poor" community. We would only provide more dollars for their county budget and their schools by shipping to this location. Currently $0.00 dollars goes into the OC budget to help our schools from the OC landfill operation. Where's the justice in that. The cost to Orange county and Hillsborough is not much different whether they ship to OC landfill or Durham Transfer. The problem is with Chapel Hill and Carrboro. A recent comment by a commissioner asked for these townships to provide locations in their boundaries rather than expecting rural Orange County to host their problems. I would advise you to contact Chapel Hill and Carrboro officials to get them working on a location within Chapel Hill or Carrboro. You will probably then find buy in from the BOCC.


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