Back in March, many members of the Fulton and Varina communities were relieved to hear that the controversial East End Landfill (TEEL) would be shut down following a 5-0 vote by the Henrico County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to revoke the facility’s conditional use permit, but their relief was short-lived.
After the board’s decision, the landfill was given 90 days notice to stop accepting waste, making their official close date June 20. TEEL, however, has appealed the BZA’s decision and will remain open until the case goes to court on July 24, and may remain open indefinitely if the court rules that the BZA acted improperly by revoking the permit.
The landfill, created in 1984, has been a hot-button issue for the community since its construction. The facility is located in the predominantly black neighborhoods of Fulton and Varina, and has been cited by many community leaders as an environmental justice issue. It is one of several landfills in the vicinity.
Donald McEachin, U.S. Representative for Virginia’s fourth district, has long been an advocate for environmental justice in the state. He currently serves as co-chair of the United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force.
“Unfortunately, there is a pattern around the country of landfills and other environmental hazards being located near poor and minority communities,” said Congressman McEachin. “Environmental dangers, from chemical spills to landfills to toxic waste sites, are not given the attention they need to keep Americans safe. As we have seen in locations as varied as Flint, Michigan, to right here in Petersburg, something as basic as safe drinking water can be problematic.”
Tyrone Nelson, who serves on the Henrico county board of supervisors, said that the landfill has been a topic of debate for years, well before he began serving on the board in 2012. The smell of sulfur wafting from the facility has been a consistent complaint, and in the late aughts, many in the area were outraged after the landfill began accepting and disposing of coal ash, which blew into the surrounding neighborhoods, covering cars and houses in nearby neighborhoods.
Coal ash is known to contain heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, and lead.
In 2010, the landfill’s owners argued that coal ash was being used as daily cover for the landfill, and was therefore not disposed of as waste. This was a point of contention for the Henrico BZA who denied the landfill’s request to use it for that purpose and forced them to remove the coal ash from the premises.
The BZA’s 2010 ruling on the illegal deposit of coal ash is relevant to the BZA’s revocation of the landfill’s conditional use permit. During the March 22, 2018 BZA hearing,Tom Tokarz, deputy county attorney for Henrico County, said that TEEL’s recent non-compliance is “eerily reminiscent” of the 2010 coal ash issue.
“This is deja vu all over again,” he said.
During a June 2017 inspection by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), inspectors observed the disposal of industrial waste on the premises in violation of its permit. The two substances observed were spent bauxite mud and precell industrial paper mill sludge, neither of which are allowed at the landfill due to its designation as a construction and demolition debris facility (CDD).
Documents submitted by the landfill to DEQ state that the East End Landfill received spent bauxite mud, also known as red mud, twice daily from a chemical production facility in Hopewell that is operated by Chemtrade, a global producer of industrial chemicals, and used it as daily cover for the landfill.
While the toxic nature of spent bauxite mud is not at issue in this case, it is worth mentioning that the it is a byproduct of aluminum refining that is high in alkaline, making it extremely corrosive, and strong enough to kill plant and animal life. In 2010, a spent bauxite mud reservoir in western Hungary collapsed and flooded a nearby village, killing ten people and injuring 120 others who experienced chemical burns from exposure to the substance.
Documentation shows that spent bauxite mud sent to the landfill was tested in March 2017 and contained lead at 5.0 parts per million and arsenic at less than 5.0 parts per million. The safe level of lead in drinking water is .015 parts per million, according the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the safe level of arsenic in drinking water is .01 parts per million.
Condition 20 of TEEL’s conditional use permit specifically states that, “No hazardous wastes, as defined by the Virginia Hazardous Waste Management Regulations, nor any biodegradable material other than woody waste from construction, demolition and land-clearing operations shall be deposited in the landfill or used as fill or cover material.”
TEEL’s annual report, submitted on April 28th, 2017 to the BZA, certified that all the materials received by TEEL met the requirements of Condition 20. This report contradicted the observations made by DEQ inspectors on June 22, 2017.
“We found that certification is not true, subsequent to our meeting in August,” said Tokarz at the March 22 hearing.
Brian Plumlee, a lawyer representing TEEL, argued that the industrial waste found on the premises are not in violation of its permit because Condition 20 “does not prohibit industrial waste used as cover, in the process of cover.” TEEL’s lawyers objected to all the violations that led to the BZA’s decision to shut down the landfill.
Towards the end of the hearing, the BZA’s Helen Harris expressed concern for the health and wellbeing of the community ahead of the vote. “The [Conditional Use Permit] is not to adversely affect the health, safety, or welfare of the community. I think we need to keep that in the back of our minds,” she said.
The stakes of this appeals case are high. The landfill expanded in 2013, adding thirty years of life to the already decades old facility. If the court decides that the BZA improperly revoked the landfill’s permit, it could have a lasting impact on the surrounding community, and neighborhoods in the vicinity will have to deal with the smell, the constant truck traffic, and the questionable dumping practices of the landfill for years to come.
“Insufficient attention has been paid to environmental hazards,” said Congressman McEachin. “We need to highlight and resolve these dangerous issues wherever they occur.”