NC poised to test what critics call a ‘snowblower blowing garbage juice’

Bobbie Mendenhall and her husband live less than a quarter-mile from Brickhaven Mine, and she is worried that contaminants will end up in the air her family breathes. She was photographed Thursday, August 10, 2017, at her home in Moncure.
Bobbie Mendenhall and her husband live less than a quarter-mile from Brickhaven Mine, and she is worried that contaminants will end up in the air her family breathes. She was photographed Thursday, August 10, 2017, at her home in Moncure.

Three North Carolina landfills have the green light to collect liquid that leaks from trash and spray it into the air.

The disposal method has drawn criticism from environmentalists and some neighbors, but it could become more common if the legislature overrides a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper.

The state Department of Environmental Quality approved the spraying process for the three landfills, plus a coal-ash dump in Chatham County. The permits can be used for 90 days.

The bill passed by the legislature and vetoed in June by Cooper would require the department to approve spraying at lined landfills where wastewater is prevented from escaping into the soil. The agency would also be allowed to consider the process for unlined landfills. Certain landfills would be allowed to spray without a permit.

A pumping system takes the water from where it is stored and turns it into mist that fans direct to a contained area of the landfill. The idea is that water will evaporate and the contaminated particles fall back into the landfill.

The process promises to save millions of dollars for waste management companies in disposal costs, but has drawn questions about how the spray will be contained and whether it will drift through the air into surrounding communities.

Bobbie Mendenhall, who lives with her husband less than a quarter-mile from the Brickhaven Mine where coal ash is dumped, worries that contaminants will end up in the air her family breathes.

“I just think it’s ridiculous,” Mendenhall said. “To me they are just spraying toxic stuff into the air and ground.”

As Duke Energy digs up coal ash from near its coal-fired power plants and disposes of it, millions of tons of the ash — the byproduct of burning coal — are shipped to the mine near Moncure in southeastern Chatham County to be stored. Wastewater can be present in the coal ash when it arrives or created when it rains, or when water is added to the ash to suppress dust. Without the kind of on-site disposal under discussion, the contaminated water must be collected and taken to a disposal facility that treats industrial waste.

Since 2015, the mine has produced 600,000 to 3 million gallons of wastewater per month, according to a report by mine owner Charah.

A case for spraying

State Rep. Jimmy Dixon, a Republican from Warsaw, authored the bill expanding authority for spraying. Dixon said the process could eliminate as much as 80 percent of wastewater that landfills collect and that it would reduce some costs for the facilities.

Republic Services, in a February 2016 presentation to state lawmakers, outlined the costs of the current process for disposal of the wastewater. Setting up the process, including an evaporation pond for the waste and a system to treat the wastewater and truck it to a waste disposal site, can cost about $4 million upfront and tens of thousands of dollars more a month to operate.

The equipment used to pump and spray the wastewater costs between $120,000 and $180,000, according to the presentation. It’s designed and manufactured in North Carolina.

Dixon said he met during the legislative session with the inventor of the aerosolization technology, Kelly Houston of Cornelius, and nine officials from DEQ.

The bill was important, Dixon said, to set regulatory standards for DEQ and make sure the practice would be allowed for those that want it.

“You’ve got the executive who is opposed to this,” said Dixon. “You’ve got an industry that wants to use it, and unless the General Assembly is very clear on their instructions to DEQ, the executive might overstep and not even give it a chance.”

Dixon said environmentalists’ complaints about safety concerns, including wind drift and how the spray would be contained, are a “total exaggeration.”

“It is a pristine operation,” Dixon said, “and for the governor to say we pick a winner, he must not have read the bill.”

Safety is questioned

Brooks Rainey Pearson, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said the group had seen legislation proposed in the past on the technology, but was horrified when it saw Dixon’s bill. Pearson said the group could not find any data on whether the technology was safe.

“It really looks like a snowblower blowing garbage juice, and it’s disgusting,” Pearson said.

Courtney Woods, a lecturer at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she is not aware of any peer-reviewed studies that say the process is safe.

Woods said she is concerned about exactly what is in the vaporized water. Woods said wastewater at some municipal landfills can contain methane, heavy metals, organic compounds and other contaminants. When the wastewater is sprayed, she said there’s no guarantee that the particles and water will be separated. The particles could remain in the water and travel, she said.

“When they say that only water would be aerosolized, it just negates any basic chemistry from high school,” Woods said. “It’s just wrong.”

House Bill 576 passed in the House and Senate, but Cooper vetoed the bill in June.

“In this bill, the legislature exempts particular technologies that could potentially better ensure the health and safety of people and the environment,” Cooper said at the time in a statement. “Scientists, not the legislature, should decide whether a patented technology can safely dispose of contaminated liquids from landfills.”

The legislature returns this week for an extra session and could consider vetoes. It takes three-fifths majorities in the House and Senate to approve legislation over the governor’s objection. Republicans have supermajorities in both the House and Senate.

Charles Price of Louisville, CEO of Charah, contributed at least $22,000 in 2016 and early 2017 to North Carolina Republicans and their committees. Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore both received contributions.

DEQ is allowing the spraying for 90 days at Brickhaven and at three landfills owned by waste management company Republic Services – East Carolina Regional Landfill in Bertie County, Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill in Person County and Foothills Environmental Landfill in Caldwell County. Republic Services is one of the largest waste management companies in the United States.

Timetable not yet set

Brickhaven had intended to start the test trial by this month. But Scott Sewell, chief operating officer of Charah, said in an email the company received a permit from DEQ in April but is still looking into operations and a timetable for when the spraying will begin.

Michael Scott, director of the waste management division at DEQ, said Brickhaven revised its original plan and submitted a new request for approval on June 8, and that DEQ is looking at the new plan before Brickhaven can go any further.

Scott said he does not know when Republic Services will start spraying at its locations. The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Regarding approval of the four locations, Scott said the department did not do any independent testing or collect data from the sites. Any information it received was provided by Charah or Republic Services. Under the two originally approved plans, Scott said DEQ was planning to collect data for future reports.

“Right now, we have enough information to make a decision on approving sites,” Scott said.

The prospect of spraying adds to Mendenhall’s existing concerns about dust from the coal ash and about chemicals used at the mine. She worries that her son-in-law who works at the mine and her grandchildren who play outside are breathing contaminated air.

“You can just smell the stuff in the air and it’s bad,” she said.

“I don’t go outside like I use to,” said Mendenhall, who suffers from asthma and congestive heart failure. “I try to avoid it as much as possible.”