The waste land | News Feature | Indy Week
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The waste land 

The people of Lincoln Heights live among three city dumps. This is the story of their war on trash.

When you enter Lincoln Heights, you may not see the old dumps festering beneath the weedy vacant lots. But you will see trash—lots of it. And abandoned homes, their skeletons riddled with overturned furniture, old mattresses and other garbage that mars nearly every corner. Drive along Branch Avenue, Lincoln Heights' main drag, and you soon cross Chockoyotte Creek. Its sluggish waters are choked with yard debris and discarded blue barrels.

For the past 70 years, Roanoke Rapids, a small city in Halifax County near the North Carolina-Virginia border, has regularly dumped on its neighbor, Lincoln Heights, a historically African-American community of about 400 people. Although Lincoln Heights has always been outside the Roanoke Rapids corporation limits, it is home to three of the city's former, unregulated dumps and an existing yard waste facility. Most recently, city officials targeted the area to be the site of a proposed 7,000-square-foot waste transfer station, where trucks would unload garbage and temporarily store it before shipping it to regional landfills.

While many Roanoke Rapids officials, including the current mayor and most council members, have declined to be interviewed by the Indy, meeting minutes, documents and reports show the city's disregard for the people living in Lincoln Heights. In addition, documents reveal that a waste transfer station is unnecessary and even financially unwise.

However, a few community activists have not only battled the waste transfer station but also are lobbying state, federal and local officials to help them clean up and rebuild their area. Florine Bell, who lives in Roanoke Rapids, is the de facto ambassador for Lincoln Heights, organizing neighbors, talking to property owners and monitoring conditions in the community.

"It's a jungle here," Bell says, as she drives through Lincoln Heights. "You've got burned-out houses everywhere, and a waste transfer station will only bring trouble to this community: roaches, rats and buzzards."

It's not surprising that the city of Roanoke Rapids chose Lincoln Heights, which encompasses seven square miles, as an ideal location for its waste transfer station. National data indicates that poor and minority communities are often targeted for landfills, hazardous waste sites and waste transfer stations. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 47 percent of all waste transfer stations in the U.S. are located within one mile of African-American and Latino neighborhoods; 42 percent are within three miles.

Although 2010 census data is not available for Lincoln Heights on the block level, the area is overwhelmingly African-American and low-income, according to the UNC Center for Civil Rights.

A 2000 report conducted by the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, a federal advisory committee to the EPA, stated, "Waste transfer stations are disproportionately clustered in low-income communities and communities of color."

The committee also reported that waste transfer stations increase these communities' vulnerability to health and sanitation issues. "In addition to quality of life issues such as noise, odor, litter, and traffic, waste transfer stations can cause environmental concerns associated with poor air quality (from idling diesel-fueled trucks and from particulate matter such as dust and glass) and disease-carrying vectors such as rodents and roaches," the report states.

Mildred Abernathy, who is white, has lived on Hinson Street for 32 years. Her home is a small brick-covered house that sits diagonal to the Old Roanoke Rapids Landfill. At the mention of a waste transfer station, she shakes her head in indignation. "I feel like its being put there because the residents of Lincoln Heights—well, we poor." Abernathy's son, Ricky, lives with her. He is worried about the smells, sights and sounds that accompany waste transfer stations. "I think we have had more than enough trash in this community," he said. "That's my answer. We've had enough."

Ultimately, the city's desire to build a transfer station—regardless of the burden it places on those who will get to call it their "neighbor"—is about money. Several city-commissioned reports concluded that a transfer station is unnecessary considering the proximity of several nearby facilities. But city leaders said they want to build a waste transfer station to generate revenue to expand and improve trash facilities—services that Lincoln Heights does not have.

In general, Roanoke Rapids needs money. Six years ago, the city borrowed $21.5 million from Bank of America to build an amusement complex along Interstate 85 that could hold 1,500 people. North Carolina borrowed an additional $6 million using tax increment financing to help Roanoke Rapids fund the project.

The city went into partnership with Dolly Parton's brother, singer-songwriter Randy Parton, with the idea that he could bring to Roanoke Rapids what Dolly brought to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

However, within a year of opening the theater's doors, relations between Parton, who had been contracted to manage and perform at the theater, and the city had grown tense and distrustful. The theater was a flop. In January 2008, the city terminated its $1.5 million contract with Parton, renaming the Randy Parton Theater the Roanoke Rapids Theater. And now Roanoke Rapids owes $2 million annually on the theater, plus approximately $5,000 in monthly maintenance costs.

The waste transfer station recently began to look more promising as a revenue generator—even though an October 2002 report presented at a Roanoke Rapids City Council meeting stated otherwise. Bill Dreitzler, current engineer for ms consultants, inc. (then with Marlow, Dreitzler Associates) cautioned that building and operating a transfer station might be more expensive for the city than hauling its waste to another location.

Fast-forward seven years to November 2009, when preliminary estimates for a transfer station on Hinson Street total $700,000—costing the city nearly $50,000 annually for 20 years. City officials hoped annual revenues would cover the station's debt payments, plus add a few thousand dollars to the bottom line. But those revenue estimates were based on the assumption that the city would handle a lot more garbage than it does now. A February 2010 report produced by the Roanoke Rapids staff stated the city could generate $80,000–$130,000 annually, based on projections that the waste transfer station would manage at least 28,000–35,000 tons of garbage each year. (City Manager Paul Sabiston estimated the city's net revenue from the station to be $102,000.)

Yet the tonnage estimate is nearly four times the amount of trash Roanoke Rapids generates each year—7,200 tons.

In April 2009, Roanoke Rapids Public Works Director Richard Parnell told City Council that it "is not cost-effective for us to build a transfer station just for our trash," according to meeting minutes.

Less than three miles away, the town of Weldon has a waste transfer station that would compete with the one proposed for Lincoln Heights. From July 2008–June 2009, Weldon's station handled more than 50,000 tons of waste. Underscoring the abundance of waste transfer stations in the region, a Roanoke Rapids city staff report notes, "Presently, viable landfill sites exist in both North Carolina and Virginia."

Furthermore, the city assumes that commercial waste haulers in Roanoke Rapids will use the new facility rather than the existing facilities they have used for years. Sabiston's December 2010 memorandum on the transfer station mentions legal issues, yet to be explored by the city's attorney, about what franchising rights Roanoke Rapids has, if any, to require all garbage haulers in Halifax County to bring their waste exclusively to the city's transfer station.

At the city work session last fall, the council and staff discussed the criteria for locating the waste transfer station. But those criteria did not include the social and environmental costs to Lincoln Heights—only the amount of money the city could save if it built the facility on city-owned land.

Councilman Carl Ferebee said, "We will need to have some criteria to say this is the site."

Dreitzler, the engineer, assured him that after his firm's evaluations, "we will see very clearly which are the best sites."

Mayor Emery Doughtie's primary concern was to keep construction costs down while borrowing as little money as possible. "We need to educate the public that we are trying to do something positive to generate revenues," he said at the work session.

In a Sept. 13, 2010, letter addressed to Doughtie, Mark Dorosin, senior attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, asked the city to reconsider the site selection. "It is past time for the city to stop burdening this excluded African American community, already denied basic municipal services and lacking representation in the city government, with the adverse health and environmental effects of the city's waste disposal," Dorosin wrote.

Doughtie never responded to the letter, but three months later at a council meeting, he appeared defensive when questioned about the siting selection.

Winston Leonard, an elderly African-American man whose Lincoln Heights home is walking distance from the old Roanoke Rapids City Landfill, asked Dreitzler, lead engineer for the consulting firm, how many sites for the waste transfer station he had considered within the Roanoke Rapids city limits.

Dreitzler stammered and said he wasn't sure.

"Now wait a minute," Doughtie interrupted. "I'm in charge here, and we have spent years on this issue."

Leonard bowed his head. "Whatever environmental problems you create will be a nightmare for the community in the years to come," Leonard told Doughtie.

Then he left the podium.

For nearly 100 years, until the textile companies moved their jobs overseas, Halifax County was a flourishing mill region. African-American and Native American families—some whose livelihood depended on the mills, others who worked in nearby tobacco, cotton and pea fields—cobbled together shotgun houses made of tin and timber and settled in Lincoln Heights.

When Roanoke Rapids incorporated in 1930, the city limits stopped at the intersection of Hinson Street and Branch Avenue in Lincoln Heights. But that didn't stop the city from buying land and dumping its waste into a gaping maw.

Drive down a dirt road to the end of Godley Street, where the Roanoke Rapids Landfill, now overgrown by weeds and grass, lies less than 50 feet from the side of Camel Lee Brinkley's front porch. Brinkley, 84, lives in the home once owned by her brother, a former mill worker who died in 2006.

"He never talked about the landfill," said Brinkley. "It was just the way things were, and he was happy to have his own place."

The Roanoke Rapids Landfill opened in 1964 and closed in 1978. It is one of 673 landfills statewide, which, prior to 1983, were not required to be lined, according to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Unlined landfills have no barrier between soil and waste, so over time the 55-gallon drums containing mill waste, bags of household trash, cans of paint, bottles containing hazardous household products, rusted metal and discarded furniture decompose and can leach contaminants into the soil. DENR now monitors all pre-regulatory landfills for soil and groundwater contamination but leaves the responsibility of annually monitoring soil and groundwater to the county. However, Halifax County could not provide any soil-testing reports.

DENR last evaluated the Roanoke Rapids Landfill in May 2003, during the Hurricane Landfill Assessment Project following Hurricane Floyd's devastating path across eastern North Carolina in September 1999.

The purpose of the assessment, according to DENR, was to determine if the landfill site had flooded during the hurricane and if the flooding had increased potential threats to public health and/ or the environment.

The report noted that the old landfill had "exposed wastes ... including white goods, furniture, rusty and empty 55-gallon drums, metal and glass wastes, and household wastes." DENR found that slopes of the former landfill were eroding. There was also "standing water, dying vegetation, stained soil, noticeable odors" and signs that people had been on the site.

These environmental issues could affect many nearby landowners and residents. A DENR memorandum dated April 2010 noted there are 226 properties within 1,000 feet of the Roanoke Rapids Landfill.

However, not a single sign—now legally required—is posted to alert residents or visitors that the site contains buried waste. Without a fence, people have continued to dump their trash there.

Last August, DENR released guidelines in its Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, detailing how the department plans to proceed with cleaning up preregulatory landfills: investigation, testing and mapping. Yet beyond the hurricane landfill assessments, DENR has not conducted any investigations or tests and has done only preliminary mapping.

A second dump, known as the Roanoke Rapids City Landfill, is on 16 acres near Little Deep Creek Road. Also unlined, it opened in 1972 and closed in 1979. The city mismanaged that landfill, according to a 1974 report by the district sanitarian for the State Board of Health, Billy Morris. He described the dump as being "in very poor condition" and noted that garbage was scattered haphazardly and was not being covered each day, as required, with 6 inches of compacted earth.

The city has no record of follow-up to Morris' report.

DENR investigated the Roanoke Rapids City Landfill in 2003, while completing its Hurricane Landfill Assessment Project, and mentioned that nearly 30 years after the dump closed, there were still "exposed wastes including household wastes, metal wastes, and construction debris ... minor erosion of the soil cap, and standing water."

At 1313 Hinson St., and to the south of Chockoyotte Creek, there is a third unlined dump, the Old Roanoke Rapids Landfill. The city leased the property from the Brickell family and opened the landfill in 1940. It closed in the mid-1960s.

DENR, Halifax County and Roanoke Rapids have no record indicating the site was ever cleaned up.

Yet the Brickells, who have since died, sold the land containing a quarter-century of waste, divided it and sold the parcels to individuals who built houses. Nine homes remain on top of the garbage.

When the Brickells sold the land, they did not disclose it was over a landfill, said Bob Lyons, who bought three parcels totaling three acres. According to city records, Lyons tried to develop the property in 2006 but ran into a startling complication—garbage, and a whole lot of it. When Lyons fired up a backhoe and began digging, he found garbage 12 feet below the surface. In May 2006, Lyons hired Terracon Consultants, Inc., to test his soil. Terracon's report recommended that because of the garbage and very soft fill dirt, Lyons should excavate the garbage and fill in the hole with new dirt.

Now Lyons needs to sell his parcels to pay his ailing wife's medical bills. The land has been for sale for nearly five years, and at $50,000 per parcel—the appraised price—he has found no buyers. In 2006, Lyons asked the city to buy the land from him for $100,000. It declined. And in a 2007 letter from Roanoke Rapids Public Works Director Richard Parnell to DENR, he wrote, "Our records find no complaints from homeowners and my office is unaware of any problem with this site."

This is the last city record that mentions the dump.

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