BISHOPVILLE, SC — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and national trade associations are backing South Carolinas towering Lee County mega dump in its fight against people who say the landfill is ruining their quality of life.
Six neighbors of the Lee County landfill won a stunning $2.3 million court verdict last year, when a federal jury agreed that powerful odors from the dump had escaped the site and affected nearby residents.
The verdict was a major victory for people fighting the waste industry in South Carolina, but the landfills operator challenged the decision and the potential precedent caught the attention of big businesses worried about a flood of lawsuits if the verdict is not overturned.
Hog farms, chemical plants and paper mills that release odors into surrounding communities are among those that could be hurt if the 2012 ruling in South Carolina stands, according to legal briefs filed this month by trade groups for the paper, recycling and waste industries.
The case is to be discussed by the S.C. Supreme Court this morning.
Industries could be driven from South Carolina as a wider array of people file lawsuits, according to a March 8 filing from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and a local S.C. group.
The case is considered unusual because odor lawsuits dont typically go to trial for a verdict, but instead are settled, attorneys said. The case raises issues of vital concern to the nations businesses, the chambers filing says.
If the case stands, anyone who smells a paper mill, chemical facility or hog farm, including mere passersby could file suit, the trade associations legal brief said. These new plaintiffs would only have to allege they were annoyed or inconvenienced by the smell to state a cause of action.
But Gary Poliakoff, an attorney for the landfills neighbors, called those arguments ludicrous, saying the 2012 court decision is a strong lesson to industries to control odors that might affect nearby residents.
During last years trial in U.S. District Court in Columbia, landfill neighbors said the smells were so strong and nauseating that they sometimes could not have outdoor cookouts or garden in their yards. In one instance, neighbors who went outside to view a colorful rainbow fled back into the house because of the landfills stench, according to testimony. One resident likened the landfill to a monster that haunted the neighborhood.
Poliakoff said if the $2.3 million court award is overturned, people would not be able to collect more than token damages from industries, no matter how strong the odors are.
The U.S. Chamber always wants to express concern when it thinks some huge corporation is going to be hurt, Poliakoff said Monday. But the effect of these landfills, especially the one in Lee County, is they kill local business. They kill property values for people who live around them. They create economic dead zones.
Republic Services, one of the nations largest garbage corporations, is the parent company of a local firm that owns the Lee County landfill.
The mega dump, along Interstate 20 near Bishopville east of Columbia, is permitted to take more waste than any other dump in the state, much of it from other states. It is a destination for trash from states as far away as New Jersey and New York, which ship rail cars of rotting garbage to the 140-foot tall disposal site.
Landfill lawyers, who say Republic runs a clean operation, have asked the federal court to set aside the verdict. They argued last year that, while some odors had escaped, the company had worked to control the bad smells. The chamber and trade association filings mirror those of lawyers for the Republic landfill.
Efforts to reach attorneys for the U.S. Chamber and the trade groups were unsuccessful Monday.
The legal dispute centers on several fine points of a state law allowing people to sue their neighbors when the neighbors have created a nuisance.
Attorneys for the chamber and the trade groups say nuisance laws fairly balances the interests of individuals with that of businesses. But in this case, the courts verdict indicated the landfill also was negligent and negligence allows greater awards and an easier burden of proof, according to the industry court filings. Poliakoff disputed those claims.
This morning, the S.C. Supreme Court will hear arguments on this and several other issues it was asked to clarify for U.S. District Judge Joseph Anderson, who presided over the Lee County odor trial last March. Once those questions are answered, Anderson would then decide whether to throw out the Lee County verdict, reduce it or let it stand. He also could decide on a request by Poliakoff to either close the dump or require new operating practices to better control odors.
The high court is not expected to rule today.
Poliakoff and other critics of the Lee County landfill say it is symbolic of South Carolinas long legacy of catering to the waste industry. As nuclear and radioactive dumps have scaled back operations, the household garbage industry still is keenly interested in expanding in South Carolina, he said. At the same time, officials in New Jersey have expressed interest in shipping lightly radioactive soil to the Lee County landfill for disposal.