Greensboro council says no to landfill discussion

by Jordan Green

A 6-3 vote by the Greensboro City Council on April 1 sent a message that a 2001 decision to close the White Street Landfill in the city’s northeast quadrant would not be reconsidered, although the majority would consider cost-cutting possibilities such as privatizing a city waste transfer station, developing waste-to-energy technology and entering regional compacts.

“When you talk about not in my backyard, this isn’t about not in my backyard,” said Mayor Yvonne Johnson, a resident of northeast Greensboro. “This is about, how long in my back yard? It’s about respiratory disorders. It’s about cancer. It’s about all kinds or rats and all kinds of varmints everywhere. It’s about stench. It’s about health.

“When you endure something in any community – I don’t care what the racial makeup is – for that long that’s that negative, I don’t think we should have to endure that forever,” she continued. “I think enough is enough…. There are times when you have to make a decision between a commitment and what I consider justice versus costs, because I cannot put a price on a life, and I won’t do that.”

District 4 Councilman Mike Barber, District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade and at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw supported a failed substitute motion to hear information about the cost of reopening the landfill, which currently receives only construction debris and yard waste, relative to continuing to ship all municipal waste to a site outside of the county.

The idea to reopen the landfill was floated by Barber, a longtime proponent of reducing the city’s operational costs and maintaining low tax rates. His show of initiative earned him a rebuke from at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins.

“What happened, in my opinion, with Mike asking for information and then taking a news crew out to the transfer station pushed this thing into the media, and instead of the media saying to the council as a body: ‘What do you think, and what is your voice as a body?’ they took one person’s opinion and blew it into a headline story, and we’re dealing with that today,” he said. “And as far as I can tell in my twelve years on the city council, the city council as a body makes a decision and it is binding in the city of Greensboro, not one council member.”

Perkins, who said he initially opposed closing the landfill, called it “a courageous thing” and “one of the best decisions this council ever made.”

Barber said the city must consider all cost considerations as it grapples with declining revenue in budget negotiations this spring.

“Any solution that we come up with should be sensitive to the people who live around the White Street Landfill; I’m not opposed to that,” he said. “I’m not turning a blind eye to that. But also, if there are 400 homes or 1,000 people [near the landfill], there are also 250,000 people in Greensboro that are paying much, much higher rates, much, much more as it relates to our municipal solid waste. That’s a fact.”

Barber quoted UNCG economist Don Jud as saying that closing the landfill and building the city’s transfer station in western Greensboro incurred a one-time cost of $20 million, and Barber said he’d received estimates of the recurring costs ranging from $3 million to $13 million.

The heated and sometimes personal council discussion turned into a something of trial of the 2001 decision to close the landfill.

“When the city began building a landfill, the county had already begun construction of a transfer station,” Barber said. “And the inability of the city and the county to partner now causes us to have two transfer stations. Which is ludicrous for our community.”

“The private sector builds transfer stations for around 2 million dollars,” the District 4 representative continued. “Ours cost between 8 and 10 million dollars. That’s ridiculous. There is an explanation and an excuse for everything. You mentioned courage, the media and all that. I think what it takes today is courage to vote to have a work session to get our arms around the numbers related to our municipal solid waste issue. That’s courage. It’s not having people become emotional and rewriting history about your vote in 2001.”

Jeryl Covington, the city’s environmental services director, said the city decided to build a waste transfer station that was more expensive than those made by Republican Waste Services in consideration of protecting nearby residents.

“One of the criteria that we discussed when we talked about siting this was we did not want to put an impact on any other community, like the White Street Landfill,” she said. “We wanted to make sure we were secure. So we did take the council to show see a three-sided facility…. Council overwhelmingly said, ‘We don’t want anything like this. We want it totally enclosed.’ Being totally enclosed, that means that you do not have the opportunity to top-load as easily because you have to lift material into the tractor trailer, so we looked at some other designs and we went with the hopper site that we currently have today where the trailers come in on lower ground, we load and push into the hoppers from a level-ground situation. And because of that type of a two-tier situation, that’s what caused the additional expense.”

Covington acknowledged that based on cost considerations she recommended in 2001 that the White Street Landfill remain open.

Perkins suggested that exploring the cost benefit of re-routing household waste to the White Street Landfill would amount to a bad-faith gesture to the citizens.

“I’m not sure what dollar amount it would take for me to vote for reopening this landfill, but there’s something that is inherently important to this council, and that is the issue of trust,” he said. “And by reopening this discussion, we completely eliminate the ability for this council to be trusted by any citizen of Greensboro much less the folks that live around the landfill. And I think that’s paramount. And I can’t equate that to thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, but I think it’s important that as a council we do what we say we’re going to do.”

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