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County under the gun over landfill deal
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Residents voice concern over landfill

Several dozen concerned residents of the Spring Hill community gathered at the Good Hope Baptist Church Saturday to voice their concerns about current landfill contamination and a proposed lease agreement with a private waste company.

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Newton County’s Board of Commissioners is under pressure to accept a settlement to privatize operation of the public landfill or face a lawsuit that could cost the county tens of millions.

Jim Baker, head of the East Georgia Land and Development Company, which recently won the right to apply for a permit to build a private landfill next to the county’s after more than 17 years of legal wrangling, made it clear he would not hold back if the county balks.

“This is about me not suing the county,” said Baker, who estimated potential damages at about $25 million. “You can’t take my property for seventeen and a half years and not pay me for it.”

“If this deal blows away, not only is the county going to get a lawsuit, but we’re going to go after the landfill,” he said.

The proposed deal would see the county lease the landfill to the newly-formed Green Hill P3 and use $8.5 million of those payments to buy East Georgia’s 424 acres, preventing the construction of a private landfill. Green Hill would also make payments directly to East Georgia, Baker said, to offset the company’s losses over the years. He would not disclose how much Green Hill would pay to his company.

The settlement was prepared by Macon attorney Bob Norman on behalf of both Newton County and East Georgia, with both parties splitting his legal fees. Engineer Bill Hodges has also been jointly retained, and would act as a consulting engineer for Green Hill if the settlement is approved.

The tripartite deal would make it impossible for the county to bid out operation of the landfill to other companies. Baker said Green Hill was backed by RLS Investments and Consulting--the same Jacksonville family group that invested in Advanced Disposal, the original company with which he had planned to work before the plan got caught up in court.

He characterized the proposed deal as a “win-win,” given the county’s poor financial operation of the landfill, which runs an increasing deficit of about $1 million a year.

Under the settlement, Green Hill would take financial responsibility for upgrading and maintaining the landfill, and also contribute to closure costs.

The direct financial relationship between Green Hill and East Georgia was not discussed at Tuesday’s work session. Baker said that if the county attempted to bring in another operator, that company would “be involved in a big old lawsuit.”

At stake in control of the landfill is hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the most recent remaining capacity report on file with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, the landfill is currently taking in about 79,000 tons of waste annually. At this rate, the EPD estimates the landfill could operate for another 77 years (the report was completed in August). Green Hill plans to expand operations by bringing in waste from other Georgia counties, but even if the current disposal rates and tipping fees remained the same, the landfill would bring in at least $200,000,000 over its remaining lifetime.

Given the landfill’s lucrative potential, several people with knowledge of the county’s solid waste operations blamed at least some of its financial problems on 10 free recycling centers.

“The operation of those centers is a cost to the county that they don’t charge for,” said John Gardner of Smith Gardner, an engineering firm that has consulted for the county on the landfill. “What local commissioner wants to be responsible for raising everyone’s fees?”

“If the county really wants to know the value of [the landfill], they need an outside opinion,” he added.

That sentiment was echoed by Bob Krasko, a hydrogeologist who has also consulted for the county and helped design the corrective action plan that was approved by the EPD to address air and water contamination. A compliance evaluation sent to the EPD in August gave Newton County an “acceptable rating,” saying the implementation of the corrective action plan “reflected a good effort by county personnel to operate the site in compliance with the Rules.”

“Private landfills are very, very lucrative, so if the county’s not doing as well…there’s an issue there,” said Krasko.

Krasko also said it was a mistake to allow Green Hill’s engineer to act as the only technical consultant.

“Who’s presenting the information? I, who have done the groundwork out there for the last eight years, you didn’t hear me speak--I wasn’t invited,” said Krasko.

Krasko said certain information that weighed against the deal had been omitted, such as the fact that the county could get several million dollars in reimbursements and matching funds from the state to upgrade the landfill.

He also said private methane gas extraction companies would pay to install the systems and split the profits with the county after recuperating costs. Moreover, he added, East Georgia would face an uphill battle permitting a new landfill.

Phil Johnson, a local Covington attorney who reviewed the proposed agreement between Green Hill and the county, said he would like to see the purchase of East Georgia’s land uncoupled from the operation of the existing landfill.

“Whether or not East Georgia can generate a good case for damages, I don’t think that’s at all clear,” said Johnson, admitting, however that it was a “risk,” given how much the county has already spent on the case. “The county has won some of the cases…until [the state Supreme Court’s final ruling], there was no demonstrated certainty they had the right to the zoning.”

‘We don’t have enough information yet,” concluded Johnson. “Let’s slow this process down a little and get all the facts on the table.”

A public meeting is scheduled for Thursday to discuss the landfill, clearing the way for a vote.

County Chair Keith Ellis could not be reached for comment. Commissioners J.C. Henderson, Lanier Sims, John Douglas and Levie Maddox could not immediately be reached for comment. Commissioner Nancy Schulz said she supported an independent review of the proposal and would not vote on Thursday.