MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday approved legislation that clarifies landfills’ ability to use materials other than dirt to cover new garbage each day. Previously approved “alternative cover” materials have included shredded vehicle components from scrapped cars, contaminated soil and coal ash.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management said Thursday that it no longer allows the use of coal ash as cover and while a Walker County landfill still has a permit to use it, it soon will not.
Sponsor Rep. Alan Baker, R-Brewton, said House Bill 140 is needed to codify what ADEM has allowed for about three decades.
“It would be up to ADEM to decide in permits what covers are allowed,” Baker said on the House floor.
Federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations say landfill operators must cover disposed solid waste with six inches of earthen material at the end of each operating day for safety and health reasons.
The EPA also says approval of alternative covers is allowed by directors of state environmental agencies if the landfill operator “demonstrates that the alternative material and thickness control disease vectors, fires, odors, blowing litter and scavenging without presenting a threat to human health and the environment.”
But late last year, some landfills had to stop using the alternatives after communities near two sites filed a lawsuit that argued ADEM wasn’t making landfills demonstrate the effectiveness of their covers.
The Alabama Court of Civil Appeals ruled in October that ADEM should not have allowed the alternatives, the Associated Press reported. The court was responding to a lawsuit filed by people who live near Arrowhead Landfill in Perry County and Stone’s Throw Landfill in Tallapoosa County.
The lawsuit claimed that the use of waste covers including tarps has led to a foul smell and vermin around landfills. The judges overturned a lower court that dismissed the lawsuit.
Current state law defines a sanitary landfill as a “controlled area of land upon which solid waste is deposited and is compacted and covered with compacted earth each day as deposited…”
House Bill 140 now allows for alternative coverings besides just compacted earth on the landfills.
It was approved by the House 102-0 on Thursday and now moves to the Senate.
Rep. Proncey Roberts, R-Mount Hope, said he got positive feedback on the bill from managers at the Decatur/Morgan County landfill, which is in his district, and the Lawrence County facility.
“The expense and time involved in everyday covering the waste with six inches of dirt — you’re filling your dump up pretty quick,” Roberts said.
Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, said that now the environmental concerns have been addressed he was more comfortable to vote for the bill.
“The arguments against it made a great deal of sense but I do think now they’ve tightened up the language,” Ball said.
House speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said that once house members were more clear on what the bill was doing, then it was an easy decision to support it.
“This is a cost savings to many of the municipalities and local governments that have landfills and it's also a safety measure for environmental needs,” McCutcheon said.
Rep. Rex Reynolds, R-Huntsville, like how the bill ended up and said he had heard concerns from constituents about the safety of the alternative covers.
“I’ve heard from many constituents on this bill mainly about the use of the coal ash,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, materials change all the time and I think you’ve got to keep up with the bill to make sure we address all those issues.”
The bill was debated for about an hour earlier this week before being carried over to Thursday, giving supporters time to work on an amendment that specified alternative covers that “shall be approved by the Department of Environmental Management in compliance with federal law and United States Environmental Protection Agency rules or guidance to achieve a level of performance equal to or greater than earthen cover material.”
That amendment seemed to satisfy Democrats, who earlier in the week expressed opposition to the bill.
On Tuesday, House members voted down an amendment from Rep. Pebblin Warren, D-Tuskegee, that would have required public hearings before an alternative cover is approved and prohibited the use of coal ash.
The advocacy group Conservation Alabama had lobbied against Baker’s bill and had multiple concerns, including the health impacts on neighborhoods when nearby landfills use alternative covers.
On Thursday, Conservation Alabama Executive Director Tammy Monistere told Alabama Daily News the group is pleased with language added to the bill to specify alternative covers have to be “equal or greater” than earthen cover.
"We definitely feel like it was a positive amendment,” Monistere said.
While she said she wishes a ban on coal ash as cover had been added to the bill, Monistere said she was glad to see ADEM publicly say it’s being phased out.
Coal combustion residuals, commonly known as coal ash, are byproducts of the combustion of coal at power plants by electric utilities and independent power producers, according to the EPA. Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic associated with cancer and various other serious health effects, according to the agency.
Last year, the TimesDaily reported that the Court of Civil Appeals ruling meant the Colbert County Landfill could no longer use paper waste, or sludge, from a nearby paper plant as cover dirt.
“We got several tons daily, it kept our garbage from moving,” landfill manager Mike Shewbart told Alabama Daily News this week.
The paper sludge was trucked in daily and was easier to use than earth, especially in rainy weather like the areas experienced recently.
“It’s not dirt, it’s mud,” Shewbart said. “(Paper waste) allows us to cover in wet weather.”
Shewbart said the sludge is also applied to crop land and pastures in the area.
Some landfills are “dirt poor,” not having access to a lot of earth to use on a daily basis. That’s not the case at the Colbert County landfill, but the paper byproduct was going into the landfill everyday as garbage, Shewbart said, so it made sense to use it as cover.
He said the landfill hasn’t considered any other alternatives.
“We’ve been very blessed with a lot of sludge , so that helps us out,” Shewbart.
State Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Green Hill, said he was initially concerned about the Baker’s bill, but supports it after talking to ADEM staff this week.
He said most of the alternative covers are tarps. Using them keeps six inches of material out of landfills each day.
And regulations say dirt must cover landfills at the end of each week.
“In the long run, they still have to cover it,” Pettus said.
Lynn Battle, ADEM's external affairs chief, told Alabama Daily news that when a landfill wants to use an alternative cover, it sends the department a permit modification request, including a justification for the change. The department’s approval process includes research on the material and whether it’s used elsewhere and a decision is issued based on the material’s ability to meet requirements like controlling odor and disease vectors and holding waste in place.
Battle said the approval process won’t change under Baker’s bill.
Advanced Disposal has five landfills in Alabama and while at least one, Turkey Trot Landfill in Washington County, had been permitted for coal ash but never used it as cover, Gerald Allen, Georgia-based Advanced Disposal South region landfill manager said.
He said most Advanced Disposal sites use 50’ by 50’ tarps, like patching a roof, at the end of the work day. The next morning, they’re picked up and more garbage is put down.
“You still have to cover with earth at the end of the work week,” Allen said.
Advanced Disposal owns the Stone’s Trow site in Tallassee, which was part of the lawsuit settled last year. That landfill was in 2015 named ADEM’s landfill of the year.
But Phyllis Gosa said her family and others have been fighting that site for years. Gosa doesn’t live in the area anymore, but her brother and his children and grandchildren are near it and smell it from their property.
“There is a sweet, chemical smell that’s nauseating,” Gosa said. “… My brother has a granddaughter who’s 2, she’s never smelled clean air.”
Gosa, who is black, said her family doesn’t want to leave the property that they can trace back to the 1870s and ancestors who had been slaves.
“That is our inheritance, because they understood the value of property,” Gosa said.
Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.