RALEIGH, North Carolina — In 2007, the General Assembly passed tougher rules for new landfills, giving eastern North Carolina community activists worried about out-of-state trash getting shipped to their counties a victory over the waste industry.
The law effectively shelved four proposed large landfills, including a potential site in Scotland County opposed by local farmer Marcus Norton. He's worried the project would give his area, already facing high unemployment, another strike against it.
"When you think of Scotland County, I didn't want people to think, 'Oh, that's the location of the mega-landfill in eastern North Carolina,'" said Norton, chairman of a group that fought the proposed project. "Perception is real."
Now Norton, other rural activists and environmental groups are organizing again quickly after a bill moving in the Republican-controlled Senate could scale back many restrictions contained in the 2007 law. The law was passed when the legislature was led by Democrats.
The measure expected in the Senate Finance Committee this week comes as state regulators report there's been a 30 percent increase in capacity since 2007 at the 40 traditional landfills that take household garbage. Current landfills aren't projected to run out of space for nearly 30 years, according to the state Division of Waste Management.
Still, a representative for a trade group for waste collection and disposal companies, said new landfills will be needed sooner rather than later in a rapidly growing state. State regulators last approved new private landfills in 2000, according to officials.
"It was hard enough to site a solid waste landfill prior to 2007. It's basically impossible now," said Sandy Sands, a veteran legislative lobbyist representing the National Solid Wastes Management Association. Sands said repeatedly it's not the intent of association members to pass the bill so they can immediately build landfills. "What the association is trying to do is make it feasible to site a landfill if it's necessary — if it's economic necessary and environmentally necessary."
A version that passed the Senate environment committee earlier this month would narrow reasons why the Department of Environment and Natural Resources could reject a permit application. An environmental impact report wouldn't be required on commercial landfill applications, removing an opportunity for public comment.
The maximum height of landfills would increase from 250 feet to 300 feet. The buffer lengths between a landfill and state parks and gamelands and national wildlife refuges would also be reduced dramatically — for wildlife refuges, the distance would be lowered from 5 miles to 1,500 feet.
These buffers helped squelch the proposed construction of the Scotland County landfill and a 1,000-acre landfill in Camden County near the Great Dismal Swamp. Both projects originated from Raleigh-based Waste Industries USA Inc. or its subsidiary.
Waste Industries and other industry companies have hired several registered lobbyists. The state Court of Appeals upheld the 2007 law last year following a lawsuit by Waste Industries challenging it.
Landfills, without proper monitoring, can leak liquid into groundwater. Citizens also are concerned about odors.
"The bill is an engraved invitation for mega-dumps, mega-landfills to come into North Carolina," said Molly Diggins, the Sierra Club's state director, adding that "instead of focusing on how to have a balance among competing interests, it puts landfills first before people or natural resources."
First-term Sen. Trudy Wade, R-Guilford, the chief sponsor of the bill, said modifications were being made to the bill in discussion with state regulators. Wade said there's other data showing only 15 years of landfill capacity remaining in the state.
"In essence, our capacity is filling quickly and we need to take a comprehensive approach and decide what we intend to do about it," Wade said.
Drew Elliot, a Department of Environment and Natural Resources spokesman, declined to discuss the agency's problems with the bill, which would have to pass both the full Senate and House before going to Gov. Pat McCrory's desk. With changes, Elliot said, "the bill can provide solid waste disposal options without compromising environmental concerns."
Landfill capacity has increased recently because existing landfills expanded their current sites, while the sour economy and increased recycling brought on by a $2-per-ton fee for landfill waste in the 2007 law reduced projected waste, Eliot said in an email.
Changing the 2007 law would be politically sensitive for McCrory.
His views on the legislation became the subject of an effective — McCrory would say extremely misleading — television ad against him during his first run for governor in 2008.
Then-Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic candidate for governor, ran a commercial that showed images of garbage bags and trash barges and a narrator saying McCrory wanted to let "New York and New Jersey dump their garbage in North Carolina."
Perdue's campaign cited McCrory's comment that the 2007 law was an example of the kind of bill he would veto as governor. McCrory, then Charlotte's mayor, said the ad was untruthful. He said he and other mayors opposed the bill because it had included a new tax on cities. McCrory narrowly lost to Perdue.