November 23, 2012

Stench from SC landfill prompts more lawsuits

Legal complaints against the state’s largest garbage dump are mounting like the trash piled high above the landscape of eastern South Carolina.

Legal complaints against the state’s largest garbage dump are mounting like the trash piled high above the landscape of eastern South Carolina.

Eight more people have sued Lee County landfill operator Republic Services Inc., claiming that odors from the company’s waste disposal site are making them miserable.

The lawsuits were filed recently in state court, just months after a federal jury ordered Republic to pay $2.3 million in damages to six neighbors who claimed the company’s landfill smelled so bad it was ruining the enjoyment of their property. The jury’s award was rare, if not unprecedented, because it required a landfill company to pay damages for nuisance odors that affect people’s quality of life.

In the most recent lawsuits, the mega-landfill’s neighbors say odors are making them nauseated and interfering with outdoor activities. The legal cases ask a court to shut down the landfill if the bad smells aren’t stopped and to require Republic to pay damages.

One of those who filed suit is Randall Gooding, who said he is closing his Alpaca farm because the landfill’s odors are driving tourists away. For years, his farm has attracted visitors from around the world to see the llama-like animals, Gooding says. He lives just down the road from the big landfill.

“It just smells like trash, like your garbage can if you didn’t dump it for a month,” Gooding, 68, said. “If (landfill officials) lived in the area where they would have to smell the thing, they would know it’s not being cared for properly and managed properly.”

Peg Mulloy, a spokeswoman for Republic Services of Arizona, declined to discuss legal issues involving the landfill. Attorneys for the national waste giant have said state regulators did not find serious odor problems after the company acquired the landfill about four years ago. In fact, they said Republic had made changes to try and cut down on odors.

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which regulates how the landfill operates, has received 19 complaints about odor from the landfill during the past year, agency spokesman Mark Plowden said. The landfill, however, has not had any compliance violations during the same period, Plowden said.

All told, at least 14 neighbors have sued Republic and its local subsidiaries in the past two years over landfill odors. Most of them own property near the dump just outside Bishopville, less than an hour’s drive east of Columbia.

Gary Poliakoff, a Spartanburg attorney who won the $2.3 million verdict last March, said the landfill’s odors are hard for anyone living nearby to ignore.

“Our previous clients and the newer clients all report that odors continue to be frequent and terrible since the trial ended” in March, said Poliakoff, who also is representing those in the most recent round of lawsuits.

“There is a good bit of discontent,” he said. “This has been a horrible situation for years for the people who live in a one- to two-mile radius of that landfill.”

Republic’s landfill has gained a certain notoriety in South Carolina through the years as it has grown into a major destination for East Coast trash. The landfill is permitted to bury as much as 1.9 million tons of garbage – more than any other garbage dump in South Carolina. Much of the waste is from other states, including Massachusetts, North Carolina and New York. Today, the 140-foot-tall landfill towers over the flat plain of Lee County and is easily visible to motorists on I-20.

Critics of the dump say it’s a symbol of South Carolina’s traditional willingness to accept other states’ garbage. As recently as the early 2000s, South Carolina had one of the nation’s only low-level nuclear waste dumps, a regional hazardous waste landfill and a regional medical waste incinerator. All have closed or scaled back operations, but the Lee County landfill is still open for out-of-state business.

In addition to disputes about odor, a northeastern company is embroiled in a fight to send radioactive dirt from an old industrial site in New Jersey to the Lee County dump. DHEC first approved the disposal, then changed its mind. Republic officials have said they’re not interested in taking the waste.

But Sayreville Seaport Associates has appealed DHEC’s decision not to allow disposal at the Lee County landfill unless the company accepts tougher disposal rules. The matter has yet to be heard in state administrative law court.

Meanwhile, Republic has challenged the federal jury’s $2.3 million judgment from last spring’s trial, so none of the money has been paid to the six neighbors who won the case.

The S.C. Supreme Court is weighing a number of legal questions referred to it by the federal court. Those questions could determine the amount Republic would have to pay the residents.

Poliakoff said a federal court still has not heard his motion that could force the landfill to close or, at least, establish specific procedures to reduce the odors coming from the site. That will not be heard until after the Supreme Court decides on the legal questions.

“What we’ve seen in this case is that they (Republic) have delayed and attempted to stay open,” Poliakoff said. “In the environmental law business, we see this all the time.”

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