Odor affects residents near Winston-Salem landfill

by Jordan Green

Barry Edwards and David Campbell, who live at Colonial Village at Mill Creek Apartment Homes, say the nearby Hanes Mill Road landfill creates an unpleasant odor (photo by Jordan Green).

The audience at Laughlin Memorial United Methodist Church on a recent Monday evening last month was restless. They wanted to hear that their district representative, Greensboro City Councilman Jim Kee, would fight against the reopening of the White Street Landfill even though every one understood that the majority had long since decided to move forward.

Kee argued that, considering the direction taken by the council majority, he wants to make sure that the unpleasant side effects of the landfill were mitigated.

“And so when I said that I would make requests of the council, I am making requests on behalf of this district in terms of things that we just can’t tolerate as citizens,” Kee said. “I’m not agreeing that we open the landfill to municipal solid waste, but I think everyone can agree that you don’t want trash coming through the neighborhood, that you don’t want noise, that you don’t want rodents.”

Many northeast Greensboro residents, including Goldie Wells — Kee’s predecessor in the District 2 seat — mention the smell.

“You think about your trash can when you open it,” said Wells, who lives about a mile away from the landfill. “When your trash sits out in the sun for a day, how does that smell.”

That pungent sense memory has stuck with residents since the landfill closed to most household waste in 2006.

The residents of Colonial Village at Mill Creek Apartment Homes, who live a half-mile away from the Hanes Mill Road landfill in Winston-Salem, can relate.

Barry Edwards’ first attempt at characterizing the smell ended in an expletive. Asked to articulate the experience in more descriptive terms, he said, “Suppose you get cabbage in your refrigerator and it goes bad. Or how about watermelon. You know how it has that sweet smell? Imagine it’s a hot day. Then throw some cat litter in. Got the picture now?” Edwards, who deals in GM auto parts, said he feels nauseous sometimes when he comes out to smoke a cigarette in the morning before taking a shower. He also said the landfill makes his eyes itch. He said he periodically sees trash alongside the road that flies off of trucks operated by private haulers.

His neighbor, David Campbell, said the smell gets in his clothes sometimes.

“This is a great place to stay, but when the wind picks up, you want to stay inside,” he said. “It makes you nauseous. It’s like you have a rotten potato in the house, and you can’t find it.”

Edwards said he doesn’t think a landfill should be sited within 10 miles of residential areas. Ten? Campbell countered. Try 15.

“In the summer time when you have these hot, muggy mornings and there’s very little wind — we call it an inversion — odors can be out there and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it,” said Ed Gibson, a solid waste engineer employed by the city of Winston-Salem who works at the landfill. “But it’s just temporary.”

Gibson said that odors from the landfill are irregular and far from a common occurrence, adding that the landfill staff monitors odors and responds to complaints. The landfill received three complaints over a period of a couple months, he said, from a resident of the Becks Church Road area.

“In this particular case that happened in November, we had some waste that was rotting,” Gibson said. “There was some dead animals that had been buried close to the surface. So we immediately covered it with more daily cover. We instructed our employees: ‘If you receive something like that late in the day, you’re to dig a hole deep down in the trash.’ We don’t want them close to the surface.”

Gibson said he regards Edwards’ and Campbell’s assertions that the landfill causes irritation to the eyes and that the smell gets in residents clothes with skepticism.

“What’s irritating this guy’s eyes may be something else,” he said. “I would find it very hard to believe that the landfill would make someone’s eyes itch.”

As to trash falling off of trucks, Gibson said there’s little the landfill staff can do about it without, at the very least, knowing the name of the hauling company.

“Every once in awhile we get citizens complaining about that,” he said. “I recommend they catch the name on the side of the truck. I’d call the company and tell them about it.”

Other neighboring residents say the smell doesn’t bother them. Jesse Tyree, who lives on Sunburst Circle directly across US Highway 52 from the landfill, said he has never really had a problem with it.

Greensboro Mayor Bill Knight urged his colleagues to visit the landfill in Winston- Salem at a recent council meeting. As if to counter arguments that reopening the White Street Landfill will drive away economic development from northeast Greensboro, Knight noted that a Waffle House is located at the exit from US Highway 52 to Hanes Mill Road, cattycorner to the landfill. He presented a slideshow of photographs he took during his visit, including a shot of the entrance to the landfill replete with lush, fertilized grass.

The Fulton Family YMCA is located next door to the landfill. The property line is screened by a row of pine trees. Further down the road is the corporate headquarters of apparel giant HanesBrands. And across the street is the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County.

“I don’t mind it,” said 23-year-old Eric Williard, who lives in nearby Stanleyville and comes to the YMCA to work out. “It might smell a little at night.”

Chris Brook, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham who is representing landfill opponents pro bono, noted in a letter to Greensboro City Manager Rashad Young that the Winston-Salem landfill is located eight miles from the city center. In contrast, the White Street Landfill is located only four miles from the intersection of Elm and Market streets, the geographic center of Greensboro.

Residential waste from Charlotte is currently buried in a landfill in neighboring Cabarrus County. The South Wake Landfill, operated by Waste Industries — one of two companies vying for a contract to operate the White Street Landfill — is located about 15 miles from downtown Raleigh. Smaller North Carolina’s city’s provisions for disposing of household waste vary considerably: The Ann Street Landfill is located about a mile from downtown Fayetteville; Wilmington’s garbage goes to a landfill on the other side of the Cape Fear River; and the Buncombe County Landfill is located 14 miles away from downtown Asheville.

“Placing the White Street Landfill in the broader context of the 40 [municipal solid waste] landfills currently operating in North Carolina makes the decision to reopen it to MSW even more extraordinary and confounding,” Brook said. “Mt. Gilead, the current destination for Greensboro MSW, is typical of North Carolina communities hosting landfills with its mere 1,181 residents. However, even this landfill is located more than nine miles from downtown Mt. Gilead.”

Based on block data from the 2000 Census — the most recent available — YES! Weekly found that about 7,800 people live within a mile of the White Street Landfill. In comparison, only about 2,500 people live within a mile of the Hanes Mill Road landfill in Winston-Salem. The residential population within a mile of the South Wake Landfill is about 1,200 while about 500 people live within the same distance of the Uwharrie landfill in rural Montgomery County, which currently accepts Greensboro’s household waste.

The populations of Nealtown Farms, Kings Forest and Woodmere Park, which are located due west of the White Street Landfill, have some of the highest concentrations of black residents in the city. Upwards of 70 percent of the people who live near the landfill are black. In contrast, blacks comprise only 40 percent of the city’s overall population, according to the 2010 Census.

“The message is clear: landfills are rarely located in large population centers in North Carolina,” Brook wrote. “Greensboro is the lone major municipality considering locating the public health, environmental and business consequences of an MSW landfill… so close to their population and business center.”