With the recent revelation of Tennessee law allowing the disposal of low-level radioactive waste into Middle Point landfill with no public knowledge, some wonder just how the landfill came to Rutherford County.
With the recent revelation of Tennessee law allowing the disposal of low-level radioactive waste into Middle Point landfill with no public knowledge, some wonder just how the landfill came to Rutherford County. The landfill has plagued with controversy from the start. No one wants a landfill in the backyard and it's no different here. But trash has to go somewhere. In 1987 Rutherford County found itself in a dilemma. The county landfill was almost full and troubled with new federal and state regulations. It went from being a model landfill to being inundated with violations within a few short years. Charles Rowlett and Eddie McCrary of ROMAC Inc. stepped in and proposed placing a landfill on the adjoining property they had purchased from Red Rose Dairies in 1986. In late 1987 the state granted ROMAC a permit for a Class I sanitary landfill, which provides for the safe disposal of household, commercial and approved special wastes, on 200 acres of the property located on Jefferson Pike. And the county commission approved its plans. "It was approved out of committee to be sold to two individuals," recalled County Commissioner Bob Bullen who was beginning his first term, "so I didn't see any problem with it." However, ROMAC was planning a sale to Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI). In Jan. 1988, ROMAC sold its 200 acres to BFI for $10 million. "I was stunned and realized that the political world was a pretty rough place," Bullen said. "That event was the last that anyone expected. ... People were totally stunned." BFI opened Jefferson Pike (Middle Point) landfill's gates to local trash in the spring of 1988 with an expected lifetime of 20 years. The safety of Stones River and the prospect of becoming the trash pile of the state were foremost among community concerns at the time. However, the standards for sanitary landfills require "a flexible membrane overlaying two feet of compacted clay soil lining the bottom and sides of the landfill, protect groundwater and the underlying soil from leachate releases," according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Landfill operators are also required by the state to monitor groundwater quality on a quarterly basis, according to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC). So, landfills are relatively safe for the water supply. Moreover, BFI had promised that no trash from outside the county would make it into the Jefferson Pike landfill, but by 1989 it said outside trash was needed to make the business profitable. BFI started trucking in trash from Coffee, Wilson and eventually Davidson counties. In 1994, Nancy Allen was elected to County Mayor and she found herself negotiating a contract with BFI to take the County's trash for free. "The county landfill was closing," Allen recalled. "It had reached its life and we were in discussions to figure out how to handle our sold waste." In 1995, Rutherford County struck a new deal with BFI and Middle Point that allowed for the county to dump its trash in the landfill for free. As long as the county didn't interfere with the operations at the landfill, according to the Host Benefit Agreement. Murfreesboro also entered into a similar agreement, which saved the city $1,456,746 in fees for the fiscal year 2006-2007. Rutherford County undoubtedly saves as much, if not more from their contract. According to the contract, "the County ... will not limit or restrict in any manner any waste delivered to the Middle Point landfill regardless of whether it is generated from within of outside of the count." As said in previous articles by County Mayor Ernest Burgess, there is no way for the county to renegotiate this contract. All enforcement is up to the state. The 1995 agreement also states Middle Point "shall furnish the County with a monthly report showing the total tons disposed of at the Middle Point landfill during the month." However, it doesn't have to tell the county what types of trash are coming in every month. BFI, nor any other Middle Point official, told the county government of the possibility of dumping low-level radioactive waste into the landfill. "I never remember that word being used. We were dealing primarily with household waste. It was never in the discussions of any committee meetings that I remember," Allen stressed. In 2001, shortly after Metro-Nashville's thermal plant burned down, the city signed a 20-year contract with Middle Point to dispose of more than 280,000 tons of trash per year. Along with Davidson County's trash came sludge from its sewerage treatment plant and many complaints from landfill neighbors. The odor from the landfill increased greatly with the introduction of the sludge and complaints from the community eventually stopped the practice in 2005, said Dana Coleman, communications director with TDEC. TDEC receives between 15-20 complaints per year about Middle Point landfill, most of which is related to odor, traffic, noise and litter, Coleman explained. "The largest number of complaints they received about Middle Point were odor complaints related to that sludge disposal, which I believe stopped in 2005. Since then, complaints have decreased. There have been no recent Notices of Violation (NOVs) or enforcement actions against Middle Point," Coleman continued. Beginning in 1997, Tennessee developed a framework for disposing of low-level radioactive waste. Prior to this point, all radioactive waste was disposed of on a "case-by-case basis." "In 1997, Tennessee standardized its process for analyzing these types of waste to determine what's appropriate for disposal in a Class I landfill and what is not, ... this has come to be referred to as the Bulk Survey for Release (BSFR) program," Coleman explained. BSFR program was implemented to deal with some of the waste that was already finding its way into Tennessee landfills. Low-level radioactive waste is generally accepted in commercial landfills across the country. But Tennessee's requirements are "extremely conservative," Coleman explained. "The sampling and measurement processes must indicate that any materials to be disposed of as part of the BSFR program meets the strict criteria that has been established in Tennessee's regulatory framework," Coleman explained. "Most states would simply exempt this material from further regulation for unrestricted disposal, but Tennessee does not." Any waste that exceeds the criteria would need to be disposed of in a special radioactive waste dump, like Yucca Mountain, Ariz. "There are four licensees in Tennessee under the Bulk Survey for Release Program, but landfills are not licensees. The four licensees are IMPACt, RACE, Toxco and Duratek/Energy Solutions," Coleman said. Only Toxco and IMPACt dispose of low-level radioactive waste in Middle Point. "Tennessee is unique in that we have more waste processors than other states, due to Oak Ridge Reservation in East Tennessee," Coleman said. Both Toxco Material Management Center and IMPACt Services, Inc. are located in Oak Ridge and specialize in recycling and disposing of materials that have low levels of radioactive contamination. "(Toxco) was the earliest authorized waste processing licensee authorized by specific license amendment to dispose of spent ion exchange resins at Middle Point," Coleman explained. Ion exchange resins are by-products of water treatment at power and drinking water plants. "But Toxco did not begin utilizing the program for disposal at Middle Point until March 2006," Coleman said, even though it had been licensed since April 1991. IMPACt Services was licensed in 1997, Coleman said. However, calls were not returned as to how much waste they have sent into Rutherford County. It processes waste from construction sites, power plants, pharmaceutical and other research labs, protective clothing, tools and equipment that has been exposed to radioactive material, according to its website. IMPACt has recently launched a website explaining its role in this controversy, which can be found at www.factsaboutbsfr.com. In late 2004, BFI proposed expanding the landfill by 70 additional acres, adding up to 15 years to its lifespan. The proposal was approved in early 2006, expanding the landfill from 139 to 209 acres, making more room for more trash. That same year approximately 1.2 million tons of trash found a home at Middle Point, said Jim Zeumer, vice president of communications for BFI's parent company, Allied Waste Industries.