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County landfill costs at tipping point
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Environmental engineer Bill Hodges explains how the landfill will be upgraded.

The trash may be buried, but county commissioners caught a whiff of the cost of Newton County’s landfill Thursday night, and it did not smell sweet.

The landfill already operates at a deficit of about a million dollars a year and will require a significant investment to address groundwater contamination and methane gas emissions.

It could easily start costing the county between $4 and $5 million a year starting immediately, county auditor Wayne Tamplin and environment engineer Bill Hodges warned the board during an open work session.

That number, an estimate, includes the cost of mining out waste from the existing site ($4-8 million over five or six years); construction of new, lined cells ($250,000/acre, or possibly $12 million); installation and maintenance of a methane gas extraction system ($1.4 million plus cost of additional wells every few years); and $17 million in closure and post-closure funds to be secured and paid out incrementally over the next 30 years.

The board did not discuss the county’s recent legal defeat over a different landfill project, which could potentially cost the county millions more in damages.

Meanwhile, tipping fees for the county are already high compared to at least one neighboring county of similar size, and any potential revenue from the methane gas extraction would not appear for at least ten years.

Part of the problem, Hodges said, is that the county landfill was created before environmental controls came into place, but he added that successive boards have kicked the can down the road for too long.

“I certainly say we can’t push it out three or four years—three or four months, maybe,” he said in response to a question from Commissioner Levie Maddox.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division could amend a recently issued permit to upgrade the landfill by 2017, but only if the county has a funding mechanism in place, Hodges said.

“You can’t just say ‘we can’t afford it,’” Hodges said.

Not only will the county have to raise millions for its existing landfill in relatively short order, the Georgia Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the East Georgia Land and Development company, which has been fighting for 17 years to build a private landfill on land it acquired next to the county landfill over 30 years ago.

The court found that the county had failed to attach the necessary maps to a prohibitive zoning ordinance, enacted on May 21, 1985, thus rendering the ordinance void.

A source familiar with the case said construction of the new, private landfill is all but inevitable, and estimated that the county was liable for damages up to $10 million.

However, the source said the county could avoid paying damages if it successfully negotiates an agreement with the East Georgia Land and Development Co. 

Commissioner Nancy Schulz, who has had professional dealings with the company through her business, The Oaks golf course, confirmed that the company has reached out to the county.

“The question is: Is it realistic for the county to continue to be in the landfill business based on the numbers issued last night,” Schulz said.

Maddox would not address the county’s relationship with the East Georgia Land and Development Company directly, but did say that “everything will and should be on the table” when it comes to finding a solution to the county’s solid waste woes.

Commissioners declined to speculate about where the funds for the county’s solid waste management might come from, but one option is to increase solid waste fees or taxes.

“We’re in a heck of a pickle,” said Maddox, adding that the board will be faced with some “tough decisions.”
“I think last night they laid out a grave picture; not only do we have a burden upon us, it’s time sensitive,” he said. “Changes have to be made.”

Between the landfill, changes at the Newton County Medical Center, and proposed raises for law enforcement, the county will likely find it difficult to draw up a budget this year.

“You add all this up its going to be a burden this year,” Maddox warned.

“The information we got was not real encouraging,” Commissioner John Douglas admitted. “We’re going to have to take some actions to fix the landfill, obviously, and hopefully we can do that at minimum cost to the people of the county.”

*The original version of this article said the landfill was in violation of EPD regulations. The landfill's corrective action plan has been approved by the EPD and is therefore in compliance as it seeks to address environmental problems.