Billy Maness doesn't want to live in the big city, but he loves big-city garbage. He is the general manager at Uwharrie Environmental, the 117-acre landfill in Montgomery County that accepts trash from Durham County and, soon, from Orange.
Each time a truck makes the winding dirt path to the landfill's zenith and the driver lifts the lever and watches his cargo slide down the back, Republic Waste, the owner of the site, is collecting $31 per ton.
Maness is proud of it.
"We might deal in trash," he says, "but we don't look like it."
The solid waste cemetery sits in between Mount Gilead and Troy. It ranks third statewide in the amount of garbage it handles each year, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. In fact, 3,000 tons arrive every day, hauled by trucks from Greensboro, Durham, Asheboro, Randolph County, Richmond County, Moore County and Scotland County.
On a crisp, sunny Wednesday afternoon Maness and landfill division manager Joe Reynolds idle in an SUV on the hill and identify trucks from afar. That one is from Thomasville. The other one is from Greensboro. The red, covered truck hauling 24 tons of waste is from Durham.
The truck from the Bull City is making its first of two round-trips, two and a half hours each way, from the Durham Transfer Station to Uwharrie; it stopped shipping trash to Virginia two years ago. All told, the driver will log 460 miles today at the wheel of a truck that gets just four miles per gallon. And on each trip the truck passes the same sign, "Welcome to Montgomery County: A Golden Opportunity."
Orange County officials took advantage of that opportunity in February when the board of commissioners decided to close the county's 40-year-old landfill on Rogers Road on June 30, 2013. It is nearly full. Residents expected it would close years ago, but thanks to recycling, the pace of trash has slowed, and thus, it stayed open longer.
But the commissioners—and officials in several Orange County towns—lack a long-term garbage plan. Commissioners settled on shipping trash to Montgomery County via Durham's transfer station as a temporary solution after failing to find a new location—residents did not want a landfill in their neighborhood—for a place to put the trash. But Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough have yet to commit to this agreement; so far, only trash from areas outside these towns will go to Durham.
The county operates the Rogers Road landfill under an agreement with Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough. In 2011, these municipalities produced 70 percent of the waste in the county landfill: Chapel Hill, 42 percent; Carrboro, 19 percent; and Hillsborough, 9 percent. And none of these towns is ready to commit to the Durham transfer station. The commissioners' decision applies only to the rest of the county.
The towns and county governments convened in late January, attempting to find a solution. Although Hillsborough leaders said they would go along with whatever the group decided, Chapel Hill and Carrboro officials were blunt.
Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, whose proposal that a transfer station be built in Orange was shot down at a later meeting, said the Durham solution was "neither fiscally nor environmentally sustainable."
Chapel Hill and Carrboro officials estimate it will cost a combined $750,000 in additional gas, manpower and maintenance to make the 40-minute round-trip to Durham's site.
Chapel Hill ran a pilot program to Durham and is hiring a consultant to study its options. The town hopes to have a report in July.
"We are going to find a better solution than trucking our stuff to Durham for $600,000 a year," Chapel Hill Councilman Gene Pease said at the meeting. "There just has to be one."
Leaders also worry that Durham and Uwharrie don't have the same environmental standards as in Orange, where truck drivers must pay double if the county finds corrugated cardboard, which should be recycled, in their load.
Orange County trash is Durham's treasure. Chris Marriott, solid waste department manager for the City of Durham, says the facility, in operation since 1993, will "accept trash from whomever brings it to us, assuming we are allowed to accept it." The facility processes waste from Durham, Person, Chatham, Wake and Orange counties.
At the waste transfer station, trucks are weighed and then backed into a covered building with a cement floor. They dump their trash, mound it and push it into a corner where it is passed through a hole, compacted and then loaded onto Montgomery-bound trucks. Durham processes and transports 500 tons each day and can handle double that. Marriott expects an additional 100 to 200 tons daily from Orange County.
Without a contract, Orange County will pay Durham County the standard $42.50-per-ton tipping fee. In turn, Durham pays $31 per ton to Republic Services, which owns the Uwharrie site.
Marriott says the solid waste transfer station smells no worse than the trash bin in your driveway because the facility is cleaned daily and the garbage never sits for long. It's far better than having a landfill nearby, from a stench standpoint, but he admits he sometimes wonders about the impact on Montgomery County residents.
"You don't want to live right beside one," Marriott says, "but then I also have a mental dilemma of 'Why should I have the right to dump trash on counties with less money?'"
Montgomery County is poor. Twenty-three percent of its 28,000 residents live at or below the poverty level, compared to 15.5 percent statewide. The median household income is $33,861, $11,700 less than the state average, according to the 2010 census.
Garbage helps the county's economy stay alive. In fiscal year 2010–2011, the most recent data available, Uwharrie accepted 857,923 tons of waste, double the amount chucked in Southern Wake. Orange deposited 46,524 tons in its landfill in the same period.
The county government collects $2.30 per cubic ton dumped, which, Montgomery Board of County Commissioners Chairman Jackie Morris projects, will generate $1.6 million to $1.7 million this year—6 percent of the county's $26 million budget.
Reynolds, the Uwharrie division manager, says the landfill has another 22 years' worth of space. As we tour, he points to Cell 14, an area being cleared by yellow Volvo dirtmovers that shuffle and build mounds of clay. It's similar to building a swimming pool, Reynolds says.
Reynolds and Maness detail the safety precautions at the site, including poly-glass tanks to handle liquid, GPS devices to track the waste as it settles and wind sensors to predict which way the odor will blow. They are also working on a waste-to-energy project that, when finished, could heat 2,300 homes by burning refuse.
"That's the good stuff," Maness says, pointing to the flame.
Republic contributes to a recreational fund as part of its agreement with the county. This year the company paid $80,000 to support baseball and soccer leagues. Montgomery County residents can use the facility for free. Reynolds added that residents of Landfill Road have his cell number and can call whenever they have noise or smell complaints. He's employed a lot of them, too, he says.
But neighbors we talked to said they haven't seen much benefit from the landfill. "If it all came from Montgomery County, it wouldn't be so bad," said one longtime neighbor, whose wife didn't want him to be identified. "They started out just as Montgomery County landfill and added all those others ... They try to do a lot for the neighborhood, but that still doesn't make up for all the garbage they bring in here."
He doesn't like the noise, smell and frequency of the trucks.
Beverly Crouse, who grew up on Landfill Road and was home visiting with her three children, said she doesn't think it's fair for other counties to bring their waste to her mother's doorstep.
"They need to build their own damn landfill, because our landfill is going to get overcrowded and then, guess what, people over here are going to be forced to sell their land to make room, and that ain't right."
But Morris says so long as Republic complies with state and federal rules governing waste, he's happy to have them in town.
"They have been good neighbors for us. Anytime you talk about waste, it's always controversial. Both sides make great points, it's just the way it is."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Garbage in, garbage out."