The Garbage Equation

by Brian Clarey

Onclear days you can see the downtown skyline from almost four miles awayat the apogee of this man-made hill in northeast Greensboro, the spiresand rooftops pushing through a tree cover that blankets the city like aleafy quilt.

Somethingstinks in this corner of Greensboro, though you might not realize itstanding here on the rise admiring the view. It’s been stinking sinceroughly 1940, when the US Army dug a bug hole out here and startedthrowing garbage in it. Time and technology have affected the site, nowknown as the White Street Sanitary Landfill, but it is now what it willever be: a hole in the ground — or, more accurately, holes in the ground — filled with garbage. Greensboro’s garbage. Our garbage. Butright now, from the top of this mound, it smells like the greatoutdoors tinged with diesel fumes and, if you get too close to thecompost heaps, each as big as a brachiosaur, the strangelylife-affirming aroma of organic decomposition. The freshcountry air is noteworthy for two reasons. For one, this landfill hasbeen more or less closed to household waste, known in garbage terms as“municipal solid waste” or MSW, since January 2007. And MSW, as anyseasoned trash carrier can tell you, is the stuff that really smells:banana peels, dirty diapers, spilled milk and everything else we haulout to our curbs once a week. For another, this grassy mound with theview, which covers 85 acres and rises some 700 feet above sea level, isitself made of garbage, built layer by layer of MSW and god knows whatelse in the unregulated years between 1940 and 1978, then topped offwith construction and demolition debris (known in garbage-speak asC&D) before it was capped and left to the flora and fauna. Thiswas Phase I of the municipal landfill, opened before environmentalagencies and governmental authorities took much interest in householdgarbage. It occupies a small cranny at the center of the nearly1,000-acre facility. Adjacent to it, in the northeast corner,Phase II continues to rise against the backdrop of trees and kudzuvines. Phase II, a 135-acre pile, has been in operation since the statepermits cleared in 1978, though it stopped taking MSW in 1997. Now thepile grows by roughly 275 tons per day, C&D from job sitesthroughout the Triad. Most of it looks just like the stuff GeronimoGonzalez unloaded from the bed of his pickup earlier in the day:pressboard, planks thorned with bent nails, empty caulk tubes, Drywallscrap. The rubbish goes to the top of the pile, is broken down andcompressed by 120,000-pound tractors designed specifically for the joband then gets covered with six inches of dirt before nightfall. Whenthe section fills up, it is sealed off and another is begun on top ofit. At this rate, and with no improvements or additions, Phase IIshould last perhaps another nine years according to GreensboroEnvironmental Director Jeryl Covington. Maybe more — like everythingelse, it seems, the life span of the White Street Landfill is tied tothe real estate market. More construction and demolition mean moreC&D Today, the active portion of Phase II smells a bit like lumberand dust. The stink — and in 2009, the stink is a metaphorical one — iscoming from Phase III, a 50-acre swath in the southwest corner of theWhite Street Landfill, the quadrant of the property closest toresidential neighborhoods. The stink is metaphorical becausepeople stopped complaining about the smell in 2006, when the citystopped bringing the garbage of its citizens into the city-ownedlandfill and began shipping it 70 or so miles away to a privately ownedone in Montgomery County. Phase III still accepts a limited amount ofwhat is technically deemed MSW — ashes and screening from citywastewater treatment plants that looks like dirt and unspeakably grossdebris — but the turkey vultures have stopped hovering above the pileand the litter fence around it has been windblown into disrepair. The2006 “closing” of the White Street Landfill can be looked at in myriadways. It was a boon to residents of Nealtown Road, a city-subsidizedcommunity conceived, built and sold in the shadow of the landfill whileit was in full operation in the 1990s. It was an early politicalvictory for Goldie Wells, the Greensboro City Council member whorepresents the neighborhoods in District 2 that are closest to thelandfill — she attempted to close debate on the subject at a councilmeeting earlier this spring. Former Greensboro Mayor Keith Hollidayconsidered it a necessary step towards a long-term waste solution. CurrentMayor Yvonne Johnson, who lives within a mile or two of White Street,has spoken publicly against reopening the facility to MSW, though shesays she would explore the possibility of “mining” the existinglandfill if a technological solution were to arise that could turn therefuse into energy or raw materials. And current District 4Representative Mike Barber called the “closing” of the White StreetLandfill “the worst economic decision made by this city since 1808.”

“Allof this goes back to when we decided to go left instead of right,”Keith Holliday says from a patio table in downtown Greensboro, lessthan four miles from the White Street Landfill. Hollidayserved on Greensboro City Council from 1995 until 1999, when he waselected mayor, a post he would hold until he left city politics in2007. During his time on council, he saw the residents of NealtownGardens bring suit against the city in 1995, charging environmentalracism, and a 1996 settlement by the city, which agreed to coverresidents’ financial losses when they couldn’t sell their homes. Asmayor, he oversaw the July 2001 council decision to wind the landfillto a close by 2008 and “actively pursue other options,” options whichcity staff were to report on two months later at a special meeting tobe held on Sept. 11, 2001. Needless to say, the meeting never happened.He was mayor in 2006, when the Burnt Poplar Road transfer station wascompleted, and he was mayor in 2007, when the White Street Landfillstopped taking the city’s household refuse.

AntonioWoods, 22, is one of the few residents of Nealtown Road who thinks theWhite street landfill should be reopened to municipal solid waste. Hisfamily members in the neighborhood disagree. (photos by Brian clarey)

Thecity could have expanded the facility at White Street in 2001, which,he says, would have extended its life another 10 years. Or he couldhave listened to waste-industry lobbyists whom he says were interestedin establishing their own landfills and paying “host fees” to themunicipalities in which they were located. “I was looking fora 50- to 75-year solution,” he says, “not an 18- to 20-year one.” Hesays the formula included the time frame left for the White Streetfacility; the cost of buying buffer land and neighboring homes; theconstruction of a new road to the landfill; the cost of digging andlining a new hole in the ground; the income the landfill brought infrom tipping fees, methane and compost sales; and the probable growthof the city through population increase and annexation. “Whatyou need to think of is trash as a commodity,” he says. “‘I can makemoney off that trash, and science is going to protect me from anynegative environmental impact.’ The impact on the neighbors is moreperception than anything. “[We didn’t close the landfill] because we had three dozen residents complaining,” he adds. “It was a business decision.”

Andin the end, he says, it just didn’t make sense, financial or otherwise,to keep the White Street facility open to MSW. He believed the landfillcould not suit our purposes much longer. Barber disagrees. Inan e-mail exchange, he writes, “I would like to see us investing in thelandfill so that it will be a viable option for 50 to 75 years or untilthe landfill concept becomes obsolete.” To be fair, he madesimilar statements last April. Barber has said he is not seekingreelection for his district seat. Mayor Johnson has announced hercandidacy this year, perhaps making her position a bit morecircumspect. “I’m really look for the win-win situationbetween the people who live [near the landfill] and the totalpopulation of Greensboro,” she says.

Along-term solution makes sense in that the problem of what to do withour garbage is a constant. But the solution itself is a moving target. TheWhite Street Landfill has a life span that is dependent on variables.Covington says that, as it stands, the landfill has estimably 1.9million cubic yards of airspace available in Phase III, and thatC&D waste can be compacted to about 1,000 pounds per cubic yard.The landfill currently takes on about 100,000tons of C&D per year, Covington says, giving it a projected9.5-year lifespan under its current configuration. Though MSW can becompacted more tightly than C&D, Covington says, taking it on wouldmean another 2,000 tons a day into the hole, significantly shorteningthe lifespan of the facility. The clock is ticking on Phase II as well;Covington says that at current capacity it will have to be capped sometime around 2011. There are other vagaries to the garbage dilemma. Todayin North Carolina, land is relatively cheap, so the cheapest legal wayfor us to deal with our garbage is to bury it in large tracts. But asthe population in North Carolina increases — we are currently the 11 thmost populous state, and could be the ninth by the time the next decadestarts — land becomes more dear and the volume of MSW increases. Addfluctuations in construction, which provides most C&D, and gasprices, which dictate the costs of both collecting MSW and trucking itout to the Montgomery County landfill. And consider thattechnological solutions to the problem of waste — in the form of safeincineration and other types of processing — are advancing each day.Sooner or later, the landfill will go the way of the rotary-dialtelephone. In her figuring, Covington says, “the only constantis that one ton equals 2,000 pounds. So many variables, so littletime.” For that reason and others, she says, she is loath to giver herprofessional opinion to a reporter. “They do not hire me formy opinion,” she says. “I do not get a vote. I give [city leaders]information so they can make a policy direction. Whatever they requestfor me to implement, I will give them the best facility in the state ofNorth Carolina.” Both former and current mayor agree that,barring impending technological breakthroughs, a regional solutionwould be best. They and others cite Randleman Dam and the PiedmontTriad International Airport as examples of regional solutions to commonproblems, and maintain that a waste authority could establish alandfill in a centralized location to provide services for Greensboro,Winston-Salem and High Point. It could provide a 70year solution to theproblem of municipal waste for the Triad while creating jobs and arevenue stream for one of the region’s cash-poor, land-rich counties. Theproblem there, though, is that High Point and Winston-Salem both havemore than 20 years of capacity left on their current landfills, givingthem little incentive for immediate change.

Youcan see the Greensboro skyline from the city landfill, about four milesaway. The landfill, which opened in the 1940s, is on the northeastborder of the city. Unfortunately, the city grew towards the landfill.

Andthe decision to phase out White Street had already been made. “Onething had to happen,” Holliday says. “Either way we needed a transferstation, no matter what we did. And we decided to build a Cadillac.”

Outby the airport, nestled among the petrol tanks of the ColonialPipeline, Greensboro’s Solid Waste Transfer Station processes between400 and 1,100 tons of MSW a day, six days a week. Out in the parkinglot, where the open-bed trailers await their cargo, the smell of rawtrash can hide behind the astringent scent of the pipeline, the funk ofjet exhaust that permeates the air.

Butinside the open structure, on the tipping floor, the stink is asoverwhelming as it is indescribable, a malodorous presence so palpableit induces muscles to clench and eyes to water. The room iscavernous, like a hockey arena, and on the floor big tractors pushmounds of MSW from seven neighboring counties down through a hole inthe floor into a waiting open trailer. A tamping crane pushes each loaddown until it approaches 80,000 pounds. On a busy day, as many as 30such truckloads will make the 150-mile round trip to the landfill inMontgomery County. The price tag for this maneuver, likeeverything else in the garbage business, can swing widely withvariances in the price of diesel, the number of trucks making the trip,even the time of day they leave. Add to that the tipping fee collectedat the landfill, which the city has negotiated to about $25 per ton.The monthly tab for hauling and disposal averages about $646,500. Barbercontrasts that with the White Street operation. “For a localgovernment,” he writes, “it is insanity to forfeit over one BILLIONdollars of value.” The caps are his. It’s true: The White StreetLandfill has always been a moneymaker, even now in its diminishedcapacity. The landfill makes money several ways. Back when itwas the repository for Greensboro’s MSW, it saved the city from payingtipping fees or outsourcing to private waste companies. The landfillstill collects tipping fees of its own — $31 to $40 a ton. Collectedyard waste is mulched and left to compost for a year before being soldto farmers, gardeners and landscapers. And a vacuum system exists amidthe piles of MSW that comprise Phase III, collecting the methanecreated by decomposition as decreed by state law. According toCovington, about 576 million standard cubic feet of methane is providedto Cone Mills by the city free of charge as an economic incentive. Therest of the annual production, about 440 million standard cubic feet,is flared off into the atmosphere. “We are burning it becauseof our contract with Duke Power,” Mayor Johnson says. “That’s going tobe up soon and we will be able to sell all of the methane.” Addyet another variable to the garbage equation: The existing levels ofMSW in Phase III will continue to passively produce methane for perhapsanother 30 years. But if the supply of trash ceases

permanently, the sustainable fuel source will eventually run out.

Atthe mulching station of the White Street Landfill, a tracked backhoepushes last fall’s leaves into tall piles. A loader grabs darkshovelfuls and sifts them down between

thespinning vertical brushes of the screener, where the mulch tumbles inwhat looks like a giant dryer drum. The good, salable mulch is conveyedon a belt to form a pile on the side; overage comes straight out theback to be shoveled up and run through the screener again. Lessthan a mile away on Nealtown Road, where residents are slow to leavetheir homes on this searing Wednesday morning, the grind and clang ofheavy machinery is lost to the ether. Lisa Neal, who livesnear the corner of Nealtown Road and White Street, gets her mail to thechirping of birds and the buzz of a pushmower. It’s a well-kept quarterof brick ranch homes, tended lawns and backyard gardens, where peoplestill sit on their porches and many of them are kin. At the June 2 citycouncil meeting, some 40 citizens from communities near the landfillcame to testify against Barber’s suggestion that the landfill bereopened. Chief among their complaints were criticisms aboutthe smell, which does not attract new business and development; theloud traffic of heavy garbage trucks on White Street; and healthconcerns about contaminated soil and groundwater. Former council memberClaudette Burroughs-White, who lived in the area and died from cancerin 2006, was quoted as calling herself a “walking time bomb” from heryears in proximity to the landfill. But Neal says the airhasn’t smelled around here since she was a little girl. And she saysshe has not seen any detrimental health issues among her family andneighbors. “My Daddy and them have been here 60 years,” shesays. “My Daddy’s fine. Nobody else seems affected around here.” Sheallows that nobody seems to miss the rumble of garbage trucks downWhite Street. “Once the trucks stopped running, it got a lotmore pleasant around here,” Neal says. “We don’t want to go anywhere —this is home. We don’t want to move and we don’t want [the landfill]back. But it don’t matter what we want.” Around the corner, her nephewAntonio Woods, 22, lazes shirtless in his front yard after filling atrailer with branches, clippings and other yard waste that will soon becontributed to the landfill. He only recently found out that thelandfill was no longer the recipient of Greensboro’s household waste,and thought it strange that we bring it so far away when the landfillis, quite literally, in the city’s backyard. “They need toreopen it,” he says. “It’s closer and it would be cheaper.” “I think itis a very divisive issue,” Mayor Johnson says. “I bet you anything youput [a landfill] anywhere in Greensboro it would be an uproar. Nobodywants to live like that.” And still the clock ticks and the garbagepiles up. “If you look at the waste streams combined,” Covington says,“[we generate] about a ton of waste per person. We process 230,000 tonsof waste per year, and our population last year was 220,000.”

‘Ifyou look at the waste streams combined, [we generate] about a ton ofwaste per person. We process 230,000 tons of waste per year, and ourpopulation last year was 220,000.’ — Jeryl Covington