Backyard cookouts, springtime gardening — even the sight of a colorful rainbow — are being ruined by the nauseating odor of rotten garbage in rural Lee County, a federal jury was told Monday.
The county’s mountainous landfill, a destination for tons of East Coast trash, faces a legal challenge from six Bishopville-area residents who want to shut down the megadump and make its owners compensate them for the way the disposal site has been operated.
Rancid odors rise on the breeze without warning, often on otherwise pleasant evenings, landfill opponents said during the opening day of testimony in their federal lawsuit.
“It’s almost like this living monster that haunts us,” Bishopville native Debbie Babb said.
Babb’s lawsuit against Lee County Landfill SC LLC is significant because it is one of the first believed to have reached a federal jury in South Carolina that focuses specifically on how odors are affecting people’s use and enjoyment of their property. If the lawsuit is successful, Babb, her husband and four of their neighbors could encourage others to challenge landfills, or even farms, that fail to control odors.
The trial likely will continue until sometime next week. Lawyers did not specify how much in damages the families want, but the amount could be hefty, perhaps in the millions of dollars.
Once the jury has heard the case, Babb’s lawyers are expected to ask U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson to either order the landfill closed or force it to strictly control the smells that leave the property.
Lee County’s landfill, South Carolina’s largest, typically takes more out-of-state waste than any other dump in the Palmetto State. In peak years, the landfill has taken in more than 1 million tons of waste from other states, including New York, North Carolina and Massachusetts.
Easily visible from Interstate 20, motorists have begun to associate the 140-foot-tall landfill more with Bishopville than the small town’s most famous citizen, football Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard. At times, people driving on the highway have noticed odors as they whiz through Lee County.
Lawyers for Lee County Landfill SC LLC, a division of waste giant Republic Services, didn’t deny that odors were a problem in 2008. But they said the landfill operators have taken steps to address the issue, including adding a second flare to burn off stinking gases. Many landfill gases are also piped to a power company to make energy, they said.
Things have improved so much that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control’s top environmental official recently decided that the agency doesn’t need to conduct weekly inspections, said Steven Weber, a Charlotte attorney representing the dump. Weber also noted that a landfill worker, Bryan Mickens, lives closer to the dump than many of the people who have filed suit.
Republic Services, headquartered in Arizona, has about 190 landfills nationally, including one in lower Richland County.
Weber noted the Lee landfill is good for the local economy. Since its opening in the early 1990s, the landfill has contributed millions of dollars in revenue to Lee County, a poor farming community about halfway between Columbia and Florence. If the landfill closes, every citizen of the county could see a $100 rise in his or her tax bills, Weber said.
But Gary Poliakoff, a lawyer for those suing the landfill, said the Lee County landfill remains a poorly run operation that smells worse than most dumps in South Carolina. Garbage brought in by train can stay on rail cars for seven to 10 days from the time it is loaded until it reaches Lee County — and then it can sit several more days awaiting burial, he said.
Donald Mathis, a retired teacher who moved from Columbia to Lee County a few years ago, said the smell of garbage often mars his drive into Bishopville when he rolls the windows down to enjoy the spring weather — despite pledges by the company that it has improved operations.
“The odor is still there,” Mathis said. “I jokingly ride down the road and say ‘I smell those tax dollars.’”
Babb, whose husband, Perrin, also testified, said living near the dump has proven to be frustrating and sickening. They built their home off S.C. 15 about five years before the landfill opened, just a mile or so up the road. Sometimes, odors have been so strong the smell has seeped through the walls of their brick house and awakened the Babbs at night, she said.
“It burns your nose; it is a nauseating smell,’’ she said. “You say, ‘How can I get away from this?’”
Babb, who was born in Bishopville, recounted Monday how she has spent hours creating a backyard garden filled with hydrangeas, camellias, wax myrtles, tea olives, daylilies and live oaks. It’s an oasis of sorts, and one of her special places, she said. Landfill odors ruin the experience, she told the jury.
Last weekend, on their son’s 23rd birthday, the Babbs noticed a rainbow through a window, she said. When everyone at his birthday party went outside to look at the sky, garbage odors sent folks scurrying back in the house, she said. “The very place we enjoy being, home, . . . has these smells coming to it that we didn’t ask for,’’ Debbie Babb said. “It makes us feel helpless.’’