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Existing Virginia landfills and gas operations should face renewed scrutiny

Photo Credit: Waste Management’s Charles City Landfill. (NBC12)

Virginia Mercury 02/01/22 Guest Post By Beth Kreydatus In recent years, residents of Charles City County have been battered by two massive gas plant proposals, proposed pipeline projects and most recently, the proposed expansion of the landfill owned by Waste Management into previously approved, but not yet permitted, trash cells.

This landfill dominates the county landscape in many ways. As one of eight mega-landfills in Virginia, it can accept more than 3,500 tons of waste a day. It is over 1,000 acres in size, with 289 acres allotted to garbage. Since it began accepting waste in 1990, county income in this majority minority rural community 30 miles east of Richmond has been heavily dependent on the fees gathered from the landfill and landfill proponents in Charles City contend that the struggling local public school system depends on those host fees. Clearly, there are significant ethical problems with a state that tells children in this rural, majority-minority county that they must live next to a mega-landfill in order to be afforded a public education.

The facility plans to continue accepting garbage for another three decades. The landfill sits adjacent to wetlands that ultimately feed into the Chickahominy River, and Charles City residents rely on groundwater for their drinking water. This landfill has a track record of violations, most recently documented in 2019, leaching toxic substances into those surrounding wetlands. Like most American landfills, in a nation that fails to compost organic materials, it generates significant quantities of dangerous landfill gas, some of which is burned up in controlled flares, to avoid explosions.

Since 2003, Ingenco, a waste-to-energy company based in Richmond, has been converting landfill gas into electricity in a facility staffed remotely across the street from the landfill. As WM’s application to expand 16 new cells in the landfill works its way through the regulatory process, Ingenco has also applied for an expansion seeking to build a new leachate concentrator system. Comments on this permit are due to the DEQ by Wednesday.

Converting landfill gas to energy seems to fit into America’s fantasy of innovation solving all environmental ills, what science writer Elizabeth Kolbert has called “techno-optimism.” But as Kolbert convincingly argued in her book, “Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future,” these techno miracles are much better at soothing public anxieties and padding corporate pockets than they are at actually remedying the environmental problems they claim to address. Ingenco, and landfill gas generally, profit from their ability to distract our attention from the compounding problems we’re creating with our waste management policies.

Almost everyone, especially nearby residents, would recognize that a mega-landfill results in living with an intolerable degree of toxicity. The WM landfill in Charles City produces an alarming degree of leachate: hundreds of thousands of gallons a week are collected in three giant tanks at the landfill and then transferred by tanker trucks that run daily to treatment plants in Hopewell, Petersburg and another WM facility. The landfill smells bad, particularly during hot summer days. In addition to the aforementioned leachate and erosion problems, residents live with a plume of toxic air emissions.

The landfill, with its flares and millions of tons of decaying waste, obviously produces significant emissions. Even with such dirty neighbors, the Ingenco facility, which can generate 16 MW for the PJM grid, still manages to stand out as a local polluter. The facility, first permitted in 2002, “recycled” 48 used Detroit Diesel tractor trailer engines built between 1994-1998 to run the Waste-to-Energy facility, and therefore burns hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel oil, in addition to the landfill gas. The company implies that this choice was thrifty environmentalism, but residents living next door to a facility that spews particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides and volatile organic compounds 24 hours a day, seven days a week deserve a cleaner, more modern process. The plant was already permitted to emit 69.4 tons of particulate matter annually before the addition of the proposed leachate concentrator, which is projected to add another 17.2 tons of particulate matter each year.

Ingenco and WM profit from a mutually beneficial partnership; and Ingenco’s leadership argues that this collaboration benefits the community at large. A recent article from Waste Today cites Sam Lewis, Ingenco’s manager of commercial strategy and data engineering: “Ingenco’s most important partners are the landfills we work with. An opportunity to help reduce their costs, protect the environment and also achieve a financial return is an ideal project.”

But how is this toxicity “ideal” for the community of Charles City County? Residents there will bear the burden of increased air pollution. It appears that the county garnered $46,775 in taxes from Ingenco operations in 2021 ($16,455 in personal property taxes, $4,055 in real estate taxes and $26,265 in WM gas sales to Ingenco) and the facility is managed remotely from Richmond, so it offers only limited, if any, employment opportunities for Charles City residents. Other communities, such as Roanoke, have negotiated “host community fund” provisions with landfills and Ingenco, but Charles City residents do not receive these benefits. Instead, the residents, mostly people of color, who live near the landfill are clearly bearing disproportionate environmental burden. With the passage of the 2020 Environmental Justice Act, this disproportionate burden clashes with Virginia legal standards.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act considers landfill gas to be a “renewable” gas, which affords it significant advantages as the state transitions away from coal and gas. During a time when the mantra of the new Republican administration is that the state should embrace an “all of the above” energy policy, environmentalists might feel that our only option is to play defense, leaving communities like Charles City at the bottom of a long list of priorities. But already, Ingenco owns and operates 18 LFG facilities mostly within the PJM grid, mostly within Virginia.

Scholars such as Mary Finley-Brook, at University of Richmond, point to the heavily fragmented nature of environmental policymaking, or the way that decision making is intentionally broken down into narrowly focused decisions over “air,” “waste” or “water,” as if individual permits aren’t interconnected. During this particular permit process, the DEQ will only make a decision about the leachate concentrator’s impacts on air quality – they won’t consider the cumulative impacts that the Ingenco facility or the landfill have on the community as a whole. Even with dedicated and knowledgeable DEQ professional staff, it is nearly impossible for citizens concerned with the degradation of our air, land, water wildlife and our very lives to challenge highly polluting projects, given the very narrow regulatory silos in which the DEQ and other governmental agencies function.

But we must look at the broader consequences of our decisions: The state of Virginia accepted more than 5 and a half million tons of out-of-state solid waste in 2020, in addition to 16 million tons of our own garbage. Less than 10 percent of this waste was diverted from landfills by recycling, mulching or composting. Over 653,000 tons of waste was landfilled in Charles City in 2020 alone. This means that the residents of Charles City, and all the other communities living next to mega-landfills throughout the state of Virginia, will deal with toxic leachate, and the landfills will continue to generate landfill gas. Companies like Ingenco will rake in a tidy profit, while claiming that they are environmentally friendly. However, the DEQ is currently reviewing their landfill policies, with a comment period that also ends Wednesday.

Virginians should challenge the existing process, which allows facilities like Ingenco and WM to rake in additional profits with serial modified permits, without having to update the appallingly outdated technology or acknowledge the cumulative impacts on surrounding communities. Otherwise, the residents living nearby will face the increasingly toxic burden to their water and air.

Beth Kreydatus is a volunteer with the Richmond chapter of Mothers Out Front, an organization working for a livable climate for all children, and an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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