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Big garbage eyes South Carolina

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State bill usurps county restrictions on solid waste disposal

By Chris Sardelli

A controversial “garbage bill” that could affect how Lancaster County regulates solid waste disposal is causing quite a stink among local leaders.

Two years after the word ‘landfill’ sparked a firestorm of protest from county residents, Lancaster County Council voted unanimously Monday, Oct. 14, to support a resolution opposing two bills pending before the state’s Legislature; S.C. House Bill 3290 and S.C. Senate Bill 203.

The county’s resolution states the two bills “propose to take authority from locally elected and accountable public officials and vest the authority instead with an industry which already disposes of 75 percent of the municipal solid waste in the state.”

In a presentation to council, County Administrator Steve Willis explained the genesis of the two bills and called them “an attack on Home Rule.”

He said the issue began about four years ago in Horry County, when officials there approved an ordinance requiring that county’s solid waste to be disposed of within the county’s borders. The ordinance attracted attention from waste companies in adjoining counties who were barred from hauling Horry County’s waste to other landfills. 

“Now the companies are trying to get the law changed,” he said. “They want to have counties comply with all state codes to take care of garbage generated in the county, but (the counties) can’t make any rules about what to do with the garbage.”

As a result, two bills were developed, with the House bill gaining traction first, Willis said. 

“The House passed one and it was not too terribly bad and was only focused on the Horry County case. But then it went to the Senate side,” Willis said. “A Senate committee added language which would stamp out any kind of local control over landfills. It was then kicked back to the House and it’s now ready for approval.”

Though the House approved the bill, amended bills must return to where they originated for a review.

“In January, it will be sitting on the House floor and can be debated on Day one, hour one,” he said. “If approved, it goes to the governor and if the governor signs it, then counties absolutely cannot impede or hinder anything to do with solid waste.”

Citing information released by the S.C. Association of Counties, a non-profit organization representing the state’s 46 county governments, Willis said the bills would void any county ordinance that restricts or prohibits solid waste disposal at a permitted facility, or that could impede recycling plans. 

Willis worries the bill would turn back the clock on strict conditions Lancaster County placed on buffer zones between sanitary landfills and residential areas in May 2011. 

The conditions, approved by council as part of County Ordinance No. 1086, came after protracted debates and intense objections from residents about the proposed transfer of a solid waste landfill from Spartanburg County to Lancaster County that year. In that case, Waste Management had expressed interest in the Mining Road Landfill, off Flat Creek Road (S.C. 903). 

Willis still remembers legions of residents who crammed into council chambers that year, many donning T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “1 Mile or More” in support of the buffer change. 

“If Waste Management came back around with a landfill idea, well the county wouldn’t be able to put restrictions because then they (the county) are going against state law and we can’t impede that,” Willis said. “Back then, we were going to mirror state law of 1,000-feet buffers, but because the counties could be more restrictive under state law, that’s where the one-mile buffer came from. But if this gets passed, that won’t be the case.”

Council’s resolution is now in the hand’s of the county’s legislative delegation. 

‘A step backward’

Remembering the ruckus about landfills from two years ago, County Planning Director Penelope Karagounis said news of the bill’s potential ramifications are troubling. 

“From a planning perspective, with the type of facility that is involved, this bill would be a detriment to residents,” she said. 

Karagounis said landfills are considered a conditional use in Lancaster County, meaning they must meet a number of standards that county officials have imposed. 

“If the state forces us to not add conditions for landfill sites, that would be bad,” she said. “From a land-use standpoint, all these conditions the planning department has created are to help people and property owners from uses that could be detrimental.”

Karagounis cited a number of conditions on sanitary landfills listed in the county’s codes which could all be in jeopardy if the bill were approved. 

The long list of conditions includes requiring the one-mile buffer zone between landfills and residences or hospitals, requiring a distance of 200 feet between a fill area and surface water visible for more than six months, and prohibiting the placement of waste material on right-of-ways. 

“It sounds like the county would not be able to issue higher conditions than what the state proposes and the whole point of (Ordinance No.) 1086 was to make it a little more difficult to have landfills near residential areas,” Karagounis said. “If the bill is proposing that counties can’t have stricter standards, I think based on the past two years where the county did an ordinance with strict restrictions, it would be a step backward for Lancaster County.”

Attack on home rule?

As staff attorney for SCAC, Josh Rhodes said the issue of flow control, as it is formally known, has been on his radar for years. 

“The SCAC’s land-use committee has voted to oppose bills that weaken a county’s ability to handle solid waste,” Rhodes said. “We’ve had the position opposing that for years.”

He also called the two pending bills a violation of home rule, or a county’s ability to govern. 

“The state’s Solid Waste Policy and Management Act of 1991 mandated that county governments be responsible for solid waste. It also gave some tools through ordinances that said all trash can be disposed of in county landfills, but this bill undoes all of it and we can’t direct where it goes. It could force counties to sell their landfills to private companies,” he said. “It takes away our ability to enforce any ordinance that directs solid waste.”

He said the bill could create a ripple effect throughout the state, including Lancaster County. 

“A couple of years ago, when the landfill wanted to come in to Lancaster, a lot of residents came to County Council to express opposition to it. If a private company takes over, see how much luck you’ll have getting into a Waste Management board meeting. And there’s no accountability,” he said. “If this bill passes, it takes the citizens’ voices out of (the process).”

Though the House bill does not specifically reference the allowance of out-of-state waste, Rhodes worries that problem is right around the corner. 

“Public landfills are in the business to secure the health and wellness of the citizens, but a private landfill is there to make money, rightly so,” he said. “But I don’t want my county to become a dumping ground for trash from the North or everywhere else.”

He hopes residents who are concerned about the bills will speak with their state legislators. 

One of those legislators is State Rep. Deborah Long (R-45), who believes there’s still plenty of questions that need answering. 

“It’s one of those things where all the ‘what if’s’ haven’t been covered,” Long said. “I do like Lancaster County being able to say ‘whoa, don’t put a landfill out there,’ like near a park, but then there’s the flip side that trash has got to go somewhere.”

She said there are portions of the bill causing her concern. 

“I really don’t like the state telling counties where they can go and I don’t like the idea of the government having a monopoly,” she said. 

Though, after speaking with other legislators and reading up on the measure, Long does not believe the bill will create a plethora of landfills or establish a pipeline of trash from other states.

“It’s not my understanding that it would open up the borders to other states’ trash. I remember asking these questions to several parties and they said ‘no, no, no,’” Long said. “I was alarmed when some information came out that landfills can be everywhere and that outside trash will be able to come in, but that’s not true, we’re still limited by a radius of miles from other landfills.”

Long said she expects to see extra scrutiny on the measures before they are voted and implemented. 

“I think more legislators are aware of this and a lot of people are concerned,” she said. “I think more questions need to be asked and I think you’ll see more people paying attention to this.”

 

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416