Still a heap of questions

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lancaster county officials discuss economic development, e-mails

IN PART ONE: In Wednesday’s edition of The Lancaster News, Lancaster County Council members Larry McCullough, Kathy Sistare and Rudy Carter weighed in on the transparency of a proposed sanitary waste landfill deal that would transfer the Palmetto Landfill in Spartanburg County to the Mining Road Landfill in Lancaster County. Here, several other leaders discuss the process.

Christopher Sardelli
With plans for a controversial sanitary landfill now temporarily on hold, many county residents are digging for answers about who was involved in the process.
Several County Council members have already addressed their actions, but who else was involved?
Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. (LDEDC) President Keith Tunnell refutes rumors that he had a large role.
Tunnell said he first learned of the landfill idea when he was approached in July 2010 by Billy Boan, a lobbyist who works with state government relations for McGuireWoods Consulting, LLC. At the time, Boan was representing Griffin Brothers Enterprises, the property owners of Mining Road Landfill, who asked Boan to introduce them to Tunnell and members of County Council.
“He contacted me about an economic development project and wanted someone to meet me and asked Jack Estridge to be there too,” Tunnell said.
Tunnell met with Boan and representatives from Griffin Brothers on July 14 at Leigh Anne’s Restaurant for an initial discussion about the landfill proposal. He  said they described a plan, that included setting up an industrial park and a methane collection process at the landfill site.
“At the time I listened and took notes,” he said.
In a follow-up meeting in August, Tunnell requested more information.
“I needed due diligence, like who’s going to put the infrastructure in? To have an industrial park which collects methane is great, but you gotta have gas, water, sewer out there,” he said. “I needed to see a plan, but nothing was presented.”
After another meeting with Griffin Brothers in November, Tunnell decided he didn’t have enough information to move forward.
“I hadn’t received information about the industrial park, so I felt it wasn’t an economic development project,” Tunnell said. “I told Mr. Griffin he should just work with county staff because this is a solid waste issue and not an economic development project. It was an economic development issue but not a project that goes through LCEDC because an industrial park wasn’t part of it. That’s been my extent of involvement in this.”
And what about those special County Council meetings in December where it discussed and approved a host agreement between the county and Waste Management, the waste firm looking to operate the proposed landfill?
“I was not involved with those special meetings,” Tunnell said. “By then, I wasn’t supportive of it.”
Residents question e-mail records
What about the role of Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis?
While searching through a publicly accessible file at the Lancaster County Planning Department, Heath Springs resident Gary Horton found a copy of an e-mail sent by Willis last year.
Dated July 22, 2010, the e-mail contains a conversation between Willis and Wendy Bell with the Catawba Regional Council of Governments.
In the e-mail, Bell references a previous message from Willis about the expansion of the Mining Road Landfill and said she thought the demonstration of need for the county was already met by other landfill facilities.
In his response, about 40 minutes later, Willis describes first hearing about the landfill idea from Boan only one day earlier.
“The new partners (we think Waste Management but are not sure) have an existing landfill in S.C. that is near capacity,” Willis said in the e-mail. “Billy advises that DHEC therefore exempts them from going through the new location process; they only must meet local zoning and DHEC technical requirements like liners and monitoring.”
In the rest of the e-mail, Willis says Boan informed him residents were told about the issue, but there was no opposition.
“They reportedly have already smoothed things with the area residents,” Willis continues, in the e-mail. “We could always end up with an outside group protesting but it seems the area residents are on board.”
Willis said in the e-mail he had not spoken to county council nor the residents at that time, but heard of their approval from Boan.
Willis also asked Bell in that e-mail if the county’s solid waste plan was up to date.
“Presuming Billy and his clients have done their homework and the rezoning goes through in short order, how does our old plan come into play? Would state law be in force by default if we are out of date or do we need to rush the revision?” Willis asked.
Horton said he was concerned since Willis previously said he didn’t know until recently about Waste Management’s plans to relocate the Palmetto Landfill in Spartanburg County to Lancaster County.  
“Willis is openly discussing bringing the landfill,” Horton said. “It infuriates me that a man with his stature would stand up and say that he didn’t know.”
Horton said he’s spoken to several council members about the e-mail, but they didn’t comment.
“I think Billy Boan brought this thing to the county and sold it to Steve Willis and Steve Willis bit on it hook, line and sinker,” Horton said. “The staff is in it so deep, they don’t know what to do.”
Horton takes offense to the transfer process because he said Waste Management does not have to show a demonstration of need for Lancaster County.
“We’re not getting back at anybody here, we just want to get the landfill away from our friends in the Flat Creek area,” Horton said.
Willis said he doesn’t remember sending the e-mail because it was sent while he was out of town on business more than six months ago.
“It obviously didn’t stick with me,” Willis said. “The only thing I can say is Billy mentioned it and it didn’t stick with me.”
Willis said the e-mail shows he was out of the office when he answered it, because it shows it was sent from his BlackBerry.
Checking his calendar from last year, Willis said he was at a government finance officers session with members of the county’s finance department in Columbia on July 22.
“I probably got a quick phone call from Billy and then I forwarded on the information to Wendy,” Willis said.  
Willis said he does remember wondering last year if the county had an updated solid waste plan.
At the time, Willis said he thought the county’s plan, adopted in 1994, was only good for 10 years. He worried the county would be open to legal problems if it didn’t update its plan, though he later learned the county’s plan is valid for 20 years.
“Billy must’ve asked the question, but I don’t remember it,” he said. “He was probably questioning how the solid waste plan plays into the process and I probably thought ‘I’ve got to send it to the COG’ and then Wendy probably followed up with Billy.”
During the landfill process, Willis said he was not involved in any rezoning decisions and also did not go to Georgia with several County Council members last fall to see another Waste Management-run landfill.
And what about those S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control requirements council thought it had to meet by changing the county’s codes? Willis said his involvement in that issue stems from a memo he sent last fall.
“The Griffin Brothers contacted me after the landfill area was rezoned and they said we (the county) were not in compliance with DHEC in our Unified Development Ordinance,” he said. “So I sent a memo to planning staff.”
In the memo to planning director Chris Karres, dated Sept. 15, 2010, Willis asked Karres to check the UDO “for needed updates to bring it into compliance with the new S.C. DHEC regulations regarding the disposal of solid waste.”
From there, Willis said planning staff researched the changes and the planning commission presented a revision of the county codes to County Council. Council then voted on it as ordinance 1073.
“But I don’t recall anyone saying it’s a mandate,” Willis said. “From day one, it boiled down to the fact requirements were different from DHEC. And if we had a court challenge out of all of this, the county’s requirements likely would not stand.”
What about Boan?
In response to questions about his involvement, Boan confirmed last week the Griffin Brothers was a client of his firm at that time. Boan said Griffin Brothers asked him to introduce the company to Lancaster County Council.
He said Griffin Brothers wanted to see if the county had an interest in expanding the Mining Road Landfill to include sanitary waste, as a potential revenue stream for the county. Revenue would be generated by saving on the cost of transporting Lancaster County’s trash to Lee County and the tipping fees the county would receive, Boan said.
In looking back, Boan thinks the county didn’t do anything wrong.
“They (council members) saw an opportunity to do something good for the county,” Boan said. “That’s what council is supposed to do – look for opportunities for revenue. Maybe they should have gotten public input sooner. But the county was going to realize a cash savings because this company was not asking for a penny from the county.”
Boan praises council’s decision to listen to the landfill opponents and reverse the buffer requirement that was changed.
“I applaud the county,” Boan said. “They listened to the people and they responded. Sometimes we  mess up and we have to say we messed up.”