Why you should care

Progressive waste laws are playing a game of “pass the trash” that falls mostly on poor, rural, minority communities in the South.

   

 

In northeast Georgia, Donnie Smith spends slow mornings at his auto shop, watching Netflix and counting the trucks passing by his window. You can hear the 18-wheelers from a mile away, barreling down the picturesque Appalachian countryside as early as 4 am. Hundreds of them carry toxic coal ash and a sterile stench daily to the landfill next door, which leaves residents nervous about drinking the tap water from their otherwise pristine lake. “There is another one,” Smith points out every minute or so. “Once they got the foot in the door, you couldn’t get them out.” 

You’ll find the same book, just a different verse, in downstate South Carolina, where Uncle Sam and private industry have left the Savannah River with radioactive cesium levels that are among the world’s highest, according to the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements. Already saddled with at least $35 million in cleanup costs from now-bankrupt companies, the region’s burden comes with radioactive alligators and disturbingly high cancer rates that shot up by as much as 25 percent in some counties between the 1980s and the 2000s. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m not worried,” says Audrey Lofton, a former Savannah River Site janitor. “What can a little nobody like me do but talk about it?” 

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Former Savannah River Site janitor Audrey Lofton.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Stories like these are piling up as surely as the growing landfills in their backyards. Individual trash dumps in the South have drawn national attention in the past. But an in-depth investigation by OZY reveals a previously unreported, persistent trend of Northern waste being systematically shoveled onto Southern shoulders. Seven of the 10 states that export the biggest chunk of their municipal solid waste — commonplace trash — are from the North, according to thousands of pages of trash data and public records from all 50 states, analyzed by OZY.

(WATCH this OZY mini-documentary: How a giant coal ash dump is impacting a rural community in Georgia.)

Meanwhile, we found that five of the 10 states that receive the most waste as a share of their total trash burden are in the South: Virginia, third in the nation, followed by South Carolina in sixth, Mississippi in eighth, Kentucky in ninth and Georgia in 10th place, according to their latest data. Sure, Oregon and Pennsylvania lead the country, with 41.3 percent and 39 percent of their managed municipal solid waste coming from other states, respectively. However, those states are solitary islands of rubbish in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast. The South carries an outsize burden: No other region has more than one state in the top 10 receiving waste.  

 

The Bible Belt’s outlook is worse when you consider less common trash. South Carolina has become the epicenter of America’s radioactive waste, only expected to grow with President Donald Trump’s plans to expand the country’s nuclear arsenal. Georgia is becoming a depository for millions of tons of coal ash — rife with toxic chemicals that are known to cause everything from ulcers to lung and kidney cancer — that its neighbors have declared too dangerous to keep.

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The 2,700-acre heap nicknamed the “Cadillac of Landfills” in Sumter County, near Emelle, Alabama.

Source Google Maps

And Alabama, which doesn’t even keep a count of statewide imports, has emerged as a particularly odious example. In the western suburbs of Birmingham, locals were furious after trains carrying 10 million tons of raw Northern sewage sat festering for months last summer, breeding swarms of mosquitoes. “I never dreamed somebody could flush a load in New York City and have it run into my backyard,” says Charles Nix, the mayor of the city of West Jefferson in Alabama.

The procession seems never-ending. Even if one trash fight is won by locals, another sprouts in its wake. But in a place where allegory is impossible to shake, the pain isn’t only economic and environmental — it’s also spiritual.

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The “not in my backyard” mentality has inspired the acronym NIMBY and is perhaps nowhere more prevalent than when referring to waste. 

Municipalities across the U.S. are facing disposal challenges, but particularly in the Northeast, which has little space thanks to the highest population density in America. Still, part of the southward trash shift is also about political belief. Northeastern lawmakers are tightening environmental and licensing regulations that make it harder to open new landfills or expand existing ones. In the past two years, the Northeast has raised its average landfill-tipping fees — the per-ton cost for anyone dropping off waste at a processing facility — more than any other region, increasing them by $7.26 to total $67.39, data evaluated by OZY show. Only the Pacific, at $68.46, is costlier, according to studies by the Environmental Research & Education Foundation (EREF).

Consider that the final keynote speech at a Solid Waste Association of North America conference in Boston in February was titled “Shrinking Capacity, Rising Cost in New England Waste Management.” Boston was a fitting setting as the capital of Massachusetts — a state of nearly 7 million people that produces almost 5 million tons of trash a year. The state’s environmental agency has admitted that by 2021 it may only have one available landfill left. But leading the pack among waste exporters are New York and New Jersey, which both sent nearly two-fifths of their trash to other states, their latest data show. 

Meanwhile, Bible Belt states have been in a race to the bottom of the heap. Since 2016, only the South (down $1.10 to $43.30) and South Central (down $1.50 to $34.80) regions have lowered their tipping fees. That makes them the cheapest dumping grounds in America. “The consideration for whether waste gets shipped further away is an economic one,” says EREF CEO Bryan Staley.

With many state lawmakers actively courting waste-management companies and incentivizing them with tax breaks, the revenue from managing waste still isn’t massive, even for states with a low GDP. Mississippi, for example, received about $5 million in municipal solid waste-related taxes in 2017, the same year its state budget eclipsed $5 billion — with a B. 

Yet local government taxes on landfills have for decades proved attractive to cash-strapped counties. In 1978, the nation’s largest hazardous waste dump — a 2,700-acre heap nicknamed the “Cadillac of Landfills” — opened in Sumter County, near Emelle, Alabama, a community more than 65 percent Black and with a third of its residents beneath the poverty line. The project brought hundreds of jobs and a few million dollars each year in county tax revenue, though Sumter County still has some of the nation’s highest unemployment and poverty rates. When another Alabama landfill was bought by New Jersey-based TransLoad America in 2007, it promised that it would raise $3 million a year for the nearby town of Brundidge, a 72 percent Black community where 31 percent live in poverty. In reality, the landfill at times brought in as little as $400,000, the town’s mayor told reporters in 2010, before ceasing most operations a few years later. 

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The Starmet CMI uranium processing plant is overrun as it awaits a decadeslong cleaning process.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

The low tipping fees make rural, low-income and oftentimes Black communities in the South particularly vulnerable as receptacles of garbage from the North. Virginia imports 26 percent of its waste, followed by South Carolina (16 percent), Mississippi and Kentucky (15 percent) and Georgia (14 percent). “It is literally a game of pass the trash, and it always seems like poor people end up losing,” says Democrat Adam Edelen, a former state auditor in Kentucky. 

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Politicians and companies haven’t been completely blind to the growing heaps — and not everyone minds them. Alabama legislators in 2017 passed a bill closing a loophole that automatically approved landfill permit applications unless counties explicitly rejected them within three months. Farmers in a northeast Alabama town called Flat Rock are using out-of-state human waste as fertilizer.

In Virginia, a bipartisan agreement was announced in January to dig up coal ash dumps and send that waste to lined landfills. Electric utilities from Georgia Power to North Carolina-based Duke Energy have started excavating ash ponds in search of safer disposal methods. Erin Culbert, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, says they would prefer not to transport coal ash “from a plant site at all,” but “the aggressive deadlines to close some of these basins left us with few alternatives.” 

Still, the mounting trash leaves many of these communities now threatened by toxin exposure and groundwater contamination highlighted amid the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Estill County in Edelen’s home state of Kentucky is an example. It bears the slogan “Where the Bluegrass Kisses the Mountains.” But in 2015, its beauty was marred after out-of-state trucks illegally dumped 2,000 tons of radioactive fracking waste in a landfill across the street from the local middle school in Irvine. Three years later, Kentucky has yet to excavate that toxic playground. It fined eight companies a total of $3 million, an amount locals complain was simply “the cost of doing business” for culprits like Fairmont Brine Processing, one of the companies fined. Fairmont Brine has raised more than $90 million from investors since 2012. 

Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat, has decided not to pursue criminal charges. “The importation of radioactive waste from any other state is a felony,” says Mary Cromer, a lawyer with the Appalachian Law Center. But she was told by the state they couldn’t prove the culprits knew what they were doing was illegal, so they couldn’t take them to court. “We were not happy with that explanation,” Cromer says. 

“It represents this tragic worldview in which we don’t know our true value as a people or as a state,” says Edelen, who lost to Beshear in the Democratic primary of the Kentucky governor’s race in May and says felony charges should have been issued. “Being a dumping ground for Yankee trash is not only inconsistent with where we ought to be in terms of our policies and values. It’s spiritually where we ought not to be.” 

The radio warns of the coming fog, hiding auto shops, trailer homes and the churches on what seems like every block. These state highways lead from Augusta, Georgia, to Barnwell, South Carolina, past the small, poor towns built after the federal government took over their lands — an area larger than Manhattan — to set up a facility to process fuel for the hydrogen bomb seven decades ago. 

What used to be the Starmet CMI uranium processing plant on Metal Road is now a giant headache for the state of South Carolina. The Concord, Massachusetts-based company declared bankruptcy in 2002 following multiple violations of its federal radioactive materials license. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spent two years removing debris and treating depleted uranium ponds that were poorly lined and in danger of spilling over. It took until 2017 for South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control to come up with a plan for removing the contaminated soil, a process expected to cost the state at least $35 million. 

“You open up shop in a small, Podunk South Carolina town. When you’re done, you close the door, walk away and who is going to make sure you actually cleaned it up?” says Savannah Riverkeeper Executive Director Tonya Bonitatibus, whose organization works to protect the area against pollution

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A train transporting waste plows through Allendale, South Carolina.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

But at least Starmet was closed down when it started polluting. The opposite is evident 11 minutes down the road, where the Chem-Nuclear Site takes waste from New Jersey and Connecticut, as well as from within South Carolina. The subsidiary of Utah-based Energy Solutions was once responsible for storing three-quarters of the nation’s low-level nuclear waste — items exposed to radioactive materials — and is now one of four low-level radioactive waste-disposal facility sites in the nation (the others are in Clive, Utah; Richland, Washington; and Andrews, Texas). 

The site has been leaking radiation into nearby water supplies for at least four decades, according to court records reviewed by OZY. Pollution levels in a nearby tributary were found in the mid-2000s to be even higher than those at the nearby nuclear weapons facility, the Savannah River Site (SRS). At least a quarter of the monitoring wells near the landfill tested for tritium levels at or above the federal water standard according to more recent data from the Department of Health and Environmental Control. 

In a statement to OZY, Chem-Nuclear blamed the tritium levels on “low-level radioactive waste from older trenches constructed when technology was not as advanced as it is today and regulations were not as strict.” It has since improved its practices, now meets and will continue to meet regulatory compliance requirements, the firm says. But the state Supreme Court earlier this year concluded that the site “has not yet demonstrated compliance” with a series of regulations — though Chem-Nuclear claimed that was because it had so far not been allowed to “supplement the court record” with changes to its disposal practices. 

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The battle over the Chem-Nuclear Site is only South Carolina’s latest as it attempts to shake off its status as a radioactive trash can. 

When the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission first selected its lands to build parts for nuclear weapons in the ’50s, locals took their cross willingly: “We felt like we were keeping the country from being run over” by the Soviet Union, says Katherine Tharin, who worked at the SRS nuclear facility for more than 40 years. Yet once that nuclear facility was here, it was hard to push away private companies that wanted to bring radioactive waste to the region too. Initially, it made sense. “We need to keep people working,” says Bonitatibus, the Savannah Riverkeeper, describing the thinking at the time. “We’re disposing nuclear waste already, so why shouldn’t we bring waste from other places?”

It did bring 100,000 jobs, turning sleepy towns like Aiken and Augusta into hot spots for engineers and scientists. Tharin says that site employees worked hard to keep it from polluting the river. The Savannah River Site facility directly employs 8,566 people and is responsible for more than 18,000 jobs in the region, making it one of South Carolina’s larger employers, according to a 2016 SRS report. 

Yet that present deal doesn’t seem so good to some locals. “It’s not fair,” Lofton, the former SRS janitor, says, suggesting other states should pitch in too. “It’s all swampland,” Bonitatibus says, referring to South Carolina’s Coastal Plain. “And so the contamination sinks, and it takes off with the water.”  

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Dink NeSmith, president of Community Newspapers Inc., with one of the many editorial cartoons his paper has published decrying plans to send coal ash to Jesup, Georgia.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

In the early 1980s, an engineer named William Lawless exposed how the DuPont company operating at the SRS had, for decades, dumped radioactive materials such as tritium and plutonium in cardboard boxes and shallow trenches, which contaminated the groundwater. In 1988, Southern Changes, the journal of the Southern Regional Council, published a report by the Washington-based Environmental Policy Institute that showed how people in the area were receiving radiation doses “50 times what they should have been getting.” They also discovered a leukemia rate among workers twice what it should have been, and worried that an earthquake — similar to the one in nearby Charleston in 1886 — could cause a rupture of the plutonium tanks that would make the Chernobyl accident “look like spilled milk.” 

Those dangers have only mounted over the years. Around 37 million gallons of “highly radioactive liquid waste” — including plutonium — are currently stored in 43 underground tanks listed for EPA cleanup. Plutonium has a half-life of 24,100 years and could remain hazardous for as long as 250,000 years, scientists say.

Even Tharin, who defends the SRS, can’t deny the effects of radiation on the region. She has experienced them personally as a cancer survivor. “I had it twice, and it doesn’t run in my family,” the 86-year-old says, chalking it up to a time when, as a lab technician in 1955, she unknowingly worked in a puddle of high-level radioactive waste for days. “I did get burned out right badly,” she admits.  

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The Savannah River Site did not reply to our request for comment, but its leadership has disputed concerns and highlighted the facility’s safety. In 2007, researchers found that general death rates for SRS workers were slightly lower than the average American death rates. However, male workers were four times likelier to die from cancer of the pleura, and marginally more likely to die of leukemia, compared to the average American man. Women employed there were two and a half times more likely than the average American woman to die from kidney cancer. “It is plausible that occupational hazards, including asbestos and ionizing radiation, contribute to these excesses,” the study authors concluded. That study did not explore the health outcomes of other residents.

The region’s nuclear burden appears set to grow. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Energy has announced plans to end an Obama-era project to convert surplus plutonium into commercial reactor fuel. Instead, it has suggested using the SRS to source plutonium cores for new weapons. 

Meanwhile, the public’s faith in the state’s ability to protect them from contamination has suffered following recent water-safety scares. In Belton, city officials found lead levels nearly four times the safe amount in the water in September 2018. But they notified the public about their findings only in January, four months later — even though babies, children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable to poisoning from excessive lead. And in November, regulators ordered the city of Denmark to stop using a non-EPA-approved pesticide that they had injected into the water supply for a decade. The active ingredient in the chemical causes skin and eye issues, and some residents reported hair loss. 

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This April 12, 2018, photo shows containers loaded with tons of sewage sludge in Parrish, Alabama.

Source Jay Reeves/AP

That’s left activists comparing South Carolina’s oversight with its next-door neighbors. “We like to say that Georgia is really good about having laws on the books, not so great about enforcing them,” says Bonitatibus, of the Savannah Riverkeeper. And South Carolina? It “just chooses not to have laws,” she adds.  

Not that Georgia is unaffected. Follow the Savannah River down to Shell Bluff, a majority-Black rural community. Along Georgia’s eastern border with South Carolina, it receives both the wastewater from the SRS and regurgitated water from the nearby Plant Vogtle nuclear reactor. University of Georgia researchers have found radioactive turtles and sore-ridden fish there. The cancer death rate in Burke County — where the reactor is based — increased by 25 percent from 1987 to 2003, according to a study by epidemiologist Joseph Mangano published by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Mangano attributed the spike to radioactivity in the air, water and dirt. This, while the national cancer death rate declined by 4 percent over the same time period.

Those statistics fit the experience of Annie Laura Howard Stephens, a lifelong resident and civil rights activist who has had her father, mother, two brothers, a sister and two cousins die from various cancers. “Whole families have been wiped out,” says the 73-year-old trained surgical technician, who adds that surgeons would try to figure out what was wrong, only to find out patients’ organs were already “eaten up” by the cancer.  

The waste shuffle isn’t just radioactive, and it doesn’t always come from Northern neighbors. That’s what Dink NeSmith, a community publisher, discovered when he learned of a proposal for a new 4-mile rail line that would bring 10,000 tons a day of toxic coal ash to the South Georgia town of Jesup, with a population of fewer than 10,000 people. “In just a few years, you would have millions of tons stored there,” he remembers thinking that January day in 2016. So he took action: organizing community town halls, hiring a team of lawyers (at first out-of-pocket, later funded by donations) and eventually publishing 97 columns, 75 stories and 99 editorial cartoons on the subject.

His concern would prove justified. Each year, coal-fired power plants across the country churn out 100 million tons of coal ash, containing carcinogenic metals such as arsenic, lead and mercury. Typically, these have been stored in unlined “coal pits,” which EPA reports have concluded increases cancer risk by 2,000 times what regulators consider an acceptable amount. But in 2015, the EPA ruled that coal ash ponds would have to either be sealed off or dug up and transported elsewhere. 

In many cases, that “elsewhere” looks a lot like rural, small-town Jesup. A power plant in Harriman, Tennessee, sent 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash sludge into a nearby river in 2008. Hundreds of workers responsible for cleaning up the mess have since come down with lung diseases, cancers, skin conditions and “other ailments linked in medical research to the toxic stew of chemicals and metals in coal ash,” according to a USA Today investigation last year. Dozens of those workers have already died. Once the sludge was cleaned up and dried later in 2008, it was a landfill in the poor, majority-Black city of Uniontown, Alabama, that ended up taking 4 million tons (the majority) of the recovered ash.

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David Brasfield and Tammi Taylor organized town hall meetings protesting the waste sent to Big Sky landfill.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Independently, NeSmith and his team have discovered that the nearby Broadhurst landfill took in at least 800,000 tons of coal ash from Jacksonville from 2006 to 2014 without public hearings or notices (Jeremy Poetzscher, the environmental manager for Arizona-based Republic Services, which owns the landfill, confirmed that in December 2016). “Part of what upsets me is these big municipalities, these big companies, they’ll turn rural areas into sacrifice zones,” NeSmith says. “We have a right to drink clean water, breathe clean air, just as much as anybody else.” 

Republic initially resisted criticism, sending letters to county commissioners saying that the local protest was threatening jobs and money for the county. Later, it tried a charm offensive, giving tours of the landfill and spotlighting its cutting-edge technology. Since, it has waved the white flag, at least momentarily, withdrawing its permit applications. 

NeSmith, tracing over photos of his Southeast swampland that makes for leaky landfills but beautiful country, channels his Southern Baptist faith in a question that sounds more like a prayer. “Some cypress trees were growing in that water when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why would you want to poison a treasure that has been there for over 2,000 years? Do you want that in your legacy?” 

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Ironically, Georgia’s problems started when the state tried to create rules for landfilling coal ash in 2016. “By regulating it on the front end, they sent out a signal: ‘Hey, everybody, send your coal ash here,’” says April Lipscomb, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

The Peach State took in nearly 2.5 million tons of coal ash in 2017, with about 80 percent of that headed to the R&B Landfill in northwest Georgia’s Banks County. Smith, the owner of the auto shop next to it, remembers how the landfill seemed to shift overnight from regular waste until its traffic was almost entirely white-capped coal ash trucks. “They just kept growing and kept growing,” he says. 

Environmental advocates say that other landfills are likely to expand too. That’s because, in the waning moments of its 2018 session, the state legislature tacked on a rider bill to keep coal ash surcharges at $1 a ton — while regular solid waste was raised to $2.50 a ton. “That is now an incentive to take even more coal ash,” Lipscomb says. Georgia Power — the electrical utility donated $400,000 to state lawmakers in the past two election cycles — stands to benefit most, reducing costs for its own coal ash disposal project. The company denies using its lobbying influence with the bill (which passed the state Senate 42-11 and House 155-8). “We are in compliance with the law, as we remain focused on our ash pond closure plans,” responds spokeswoman Holly Crawford. 

After a spill by Duke Energy filled the Dan River with coal ash, North Carolina dug up its coal ash ponds and sent nearly 750,000 tons of excavated material to Georgia and Virginia in the 2015-16 fiscal year. Virginia has since passed its own cleanup plan, guaranteeing that more coal ash will be sent to Georgia, joining waste from South Carolina and Florida. 

Still, while coal ash is toxic, it’s a bit easier to stomach than the shit Alabama received.  

Home to a thriving food scene and an emerging startup hub, Birmingham is no backwoods. Its suburbs have blossomed too. A half-hour away, West Jefferson calls itself “the town with a future” with a recently opened interstate that folks hoped would bring new jobs, business and energy. 

But that was before the poop trains came.

Hundreds of them shuffled human waste 1,000 miles from New York to the nearby Big Sky Environmental landfill, beginning in the spring of 2017. They transferred their load to trucks, which hauled the biosolids (around 7 percent of New York City’s annual treated sewage of up to nearly 800 million pounds a year) through West Jefferson to the landfill in Adamsville. Residents complained the trucks spilled a smelly sludge that wrapped onto tire tracks. As the weather got warmer, they attracted an almost biblical plague of flies and odors. When the county was able to end the operation after it ran afoul of zoning laws, the trains shifted to Parrish, where they piled up for two months just 50 yards from homes and a youth baseball diamond — until New York City and New Jersey canceled their contract amid public uproar. (A portion of the Big Apple’s 2.4 million pounds of daily sewage is dropped off in Georgia too.)

From the perspective of the landfill’s owner, Big Sky Environmental, the poop trains were the bogeyman for a host of unfounded citizen complaints. A spokesman, Gene Duncan, admits to the truck spills but rejects resident accusations, everything from their dogs losing hair to their barbecues being ruined by a swarm of flies (those flies, Duncan argues, would have had to travel 12 miles and through another landfill to get there). In his opinion, locals just wanted to latch onto an old narrative: that Yankees were sending their crap down here, “and we aren’t going to put up with it,” he says. 

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Even before the poop came, Tammi Taylor was skeptical of the landfill. She began a Facebook page reporting on the city council, which included both Mayor Pam Palmer (chairman of the landfill authority board) and then-Councilman John Click, Palmer’s nephew (operations manager for the Big Sky Environmental landfill). “There was no transparency,” says the African American mother of five.

Agencies tasked with oversight of waste in many Southern states also lack the funds to track it. The 2017 Environmental Council of the States report showed Alabama had the least-funded state environmental agency per capita in 2013, 2014 and 2015, at just $10.63 per person. The most funded agency, in Hawaii, received $199.69 per person in 2015. That year, Georgia had the third least funded agency ($13.77) and South Carolina had the seventh worst ($18.22).  

Although the state Legislature instituted a two-year moratorium on importing waste in 2011 and closed some loopholes recently, Alabama remains a popular dumping ground thanks to its open land, lenient regulations and low tipping fees. At the turn of the decade, the Mobile-based Press-Register reported that the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) accepted about 7.5 percent of the nation’s waste despite the state producing only 1.6 percent of it. ADEM advertises itself as being pro-business and doesn’t track waste imports, despite receiving the data from landfills (a spokesman suggests it would take too long to put together and did not provide answers to further requests for comment). 

“What we know that translates into is fewer inspections, fewer boots on the ground, an inability to respond to these emergency situations,” says Keith Johnston, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) managing attorney, based in Birmingham, who argues the agency is too permissive. 

In July, the agency renewed the Big Sky Environmental landfill’s permit without fining them, despite finding the landfill failed to annually sample its discharge and had illegal leaks while accepting that Northern sewage. “You would think that, at the local level, you could hold people accountable by banding together as a community,” Taylor says. But while Big Sky Environmental has said it will no longer take biowaste, nothing in its contract or state law prevents companies like it from doing so in the future. State Rep. Tommy Hanes, a Republican, is now hoping to force a statewide vote next legislative session on a bill that would allow voters (rather than county commissioners) to decide whether to accept biosolids from other states.

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So what’s the solution? 

Technology holds some answers. Last year, Washington State University researchers created a process for turning coal ash into concrete that, if scaled properly, could solve Georgia’s problem. In January, Berkeley, California-based Deep Isolation successfully dropped and retrieved a prototype canister (which, in practice, would hold radioactive waste) more than 2,000 feet into the Earth’s surface. 

Policymakers could also create a more equal distribution nationwide, with an emphasis on land that poses fewer environmental or health risks. Politicians have proposed Yucca Mountain, in Nevada, as an option for nuclear materials for decades, since waste could be stored far below the surface and the closest population center, Las Vegas, is 100 miles away. However, the state of Nevada and others argue seismic activity in the area could be dangerous. Coal ash could be sent West, suggests Bonitatibus, where desert environments and sparse populations would be less susceptible to the dangers of toxic waste — but companies aren’t eager to foot the bill for shipping coal ash across the country. 

Finally, regulatory agencies could standardize how waste data is gathered, experts say. Fewer than half of America’s states consistently collate their waste-export data volumes. Three states (Alaska, Idaho and Wyoming) don’t require any tracking of waste. Some states lump other forms of waste — such as hazardous or mechanical waste — with municipal solid waste, muddying the information. Kent Foerster, an environmental protection specialist at the EPA, is leading an effort to start collecting “like” data from all states, but it has yet to be implemented. Better information could lead to better solutions. 

It’s unclear which — if any — of these efforts might yield a fix. Until then, the disproportionate burden of waste on America’s South will continue to deepen a historic divide in an already fractured country, for folks like David Brasfield, a 71-year-old retiree in West Jefferson, Alabama. “They’ve got land up there,” he says bluntly. “They can handle their stuff. And we’ll handle ours.” 

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