Russell County commissioners Wednesday blocked a local company from starting a controversial landfill south of Phenix City, saying the site’s proximity to the Chattahoochee River caused environmental and health concerns that outweighed the economic benefits.
In a 5-1 to vote, commissioners denied an application by Earth Services to reclaim several sand and gravel mines by filling them with construction and demolition waste. The 204-acre site off Brickyard Road lies less than a mile from the river, a distance that sparked a vigorous opposition movement and touched off a debate about the potential hazards of a landfill.
While developers portrayed criticism of the landfill as unfounded, conservationists on both sides of the river worried that chemicals could seep through the sandy soil, contaminating the water and imperiling the health of local residents.
“I think the people have spoken, and the commission has spoken,” said Peggy Martin, the chairwoman of the commission, after voting against the landfill. “It’s just not a good location.”
The vote reflected the mixed feelings among commissioners and a hope among some that the county could reap a financial benefit from the landfill. The developers offered to pay the county a tipping fee -- a percentage of revenue or a dollar amount per ton -- if the landfill had been approved.
Commissioner Ronnie Reed of District 4, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said publicity of the landfill had become “a circus” that might discourage businesses from considering Russell County. He said he “wished I didn’t have to vote on this” and hesitated about 10 seconds before announcing his vote after he was polled.
“We’ve allowed people to come from out of town, dipping into our business,” Reed said, referring to the opposition. “We are elected officials. We can handle the situation. The county commission is supposed to be promoting business and industry, not kicking people out.”
Joining Martin in opposing the landfill were Commissioners Gentry Lee, Tillman Pugh, Cattie Epps and Mervin Dudley. Commissioner Larry Screws of District 7 remained on the fence until the end and abstained.
A crowd of more than 75 people filled the commission chambers about half an hour before the meeting. Ten people spoke against the landfill during a brief public comment period before the vote.
In the days leading up to the vote, opponents passed out fliers and posted yard signs urging commissioners to block the landfill. More than 100 people attended a public hearing Monday to weigh in on the debate.
“The concerned people of this district who are not willing to trade 10 jobs and a few dollars for the sake of our future existence have spoken, and we say ‘No,’” said Janet Jackson, vice president of the Citizens for Unification, Revitalization and Economic Development, an organization that has worked for about three years to prevent a landfill south of Phenix City.
In October 2008, commissioners rejected a similar landfill proposal from the same developers, known at the time as Deep South Disposal & Recycling. A few months later, the developers asked Phenix City to annex the land and approve the landfill, City Councilor Jimmy Wetzel said.
“We immediately passed an ordinance saying you couldn’t put a new landfill anywhere inside the city limits of Phenix City,” Wetzel said. “I’m very proud of the county commission and the stand they took, and that they are representing the interests of the people of Russell County and not representing special interest.”
Despite Wednesday’s vote, the developers could pitch their proposal again after waiting several months. Buster Bickerstaff, whose family owns the land in question, said in an interview last week he wants the land to be reclaimed. But it wasn’t clear Wednesday whether the developers would try again.
Hugh Sorrell, vice president of The Concrete Company in Columbus, which owns Earth Services, declined comment.
“We’re hoping we can have some closure on this because the last three years have been tough,” said Mel Long, president of C.U.R.E.D. “We hope it doesn’t ever come up again.”
For now, Wednesday’s vote prevents the developers from filing a permit application with the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. In deflecting criticism of the site’s proximity to the river, Sorrell had portrayed the state regulating agency as a safety net that would protect against environmental damage and conduct thorough studies before granting a permit.
Those assurances, however, did little to assuage the worries of opponents.
“ADEM is an agency with a lot of good people that are working very hard, but they’re underfunded, understaffed and frankly don’t have the resources to go out and be a watchdog for every site around the state, particularly when bad decisions are made,” said Mitch Reid, program director of the Alabama Rivers Alliance, a nonprofit that has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to revoke ADEM’s water pollution permitting program. “The industry knows that, and it is a little bit insincere for the industry to use that as their rallying cry. Really what they should be required to do is prove to the people of the community that it’s not harmful.”