Chad Friar sorts through items in the back of his pickup truck to drop off at the current Lee County Landfill Saturday afternoon. The safety of the former landfill site has been at the center of concern for citizens following recent inaccurate media reports.
LEESBURG -- A little more than a half-decade after Lee County officials determined it made economical and environmental sense to close the county's then-26-year-old Municipal Solid Waste Landfill just off State Highway 32, testing showed significant levels of particular contaminants in groundwater near the site.
The state Environmental Protection Division ordered in August of 2004 that more extensive testing be conducted to determine the extent of the contamination and to make sure none of the dangerous chemicals had leached into nearby drinking water.
Tests, which included the construction of monitoring wells near the site, showed that there was no occurrence of contaminated drinking water in the immediate area. Subsequent testing, conducted every year since as one of the EPD's required actions, have shown that there is no danger of contaminated water.
Yet inaccurate media reports following a recent required yearly report by monitoring firm TTL stirred up a bit of hysteria among citizens and had county officials scrambling to reassure them.
"What's ironic is that TTL makes that report before the county commission as a courtesy," Lee Public Works Director Mike Sistrunk said. "They actually monitor the area monthly and make a quarterly report to this office and to EPD.
"Never during that time has there been a glitch where they felt they had to notify citizens about the quality of the water in that area. It has gotten nowhere near the aquifer, which is where we get our drinking water."
County Administrator Tony Massey noted after the furor over the erroneous reports had died down that Lee County was not the only community that closed its landfill during a period in the late 1980s and 1990s. During that time, the federal Environmental Protection Agency made a big push to regionalize waste management.
"I saw it happen in Tennessee and Kentucky during that era," Massey, who worked in both states before taking the position in Lee County, said. "There was a big push by EPA to close local landfills and go to regional waste management. A lot of it had to do with environmental concerns at that time.
"The Lee landfill closed around 1993-94, and the county entered into an agreement with Crisp County to collect solid waste. It was just more prudent to shut (the landfill) down."
The Lee Municipal Solid Waste Landfill opened on July 27, 1977, was given approval for vertical expansion in 1992, and formally closed on April 8, 1994. Lee County reached a 25-year agreement with the Solid Waste Management Authority of Crisp County in 1996, and agents of the Crisp County authority have collected garbage in the county since.
The landfill site, however, is still open and receives construction debris and inert organic materials. The latter is buried at the site, while the construction debris is loaded into dump bins. That material too is eventually collected by solid waste removal agents (currently Veolia Environmental Services) and taken to a landfill in Taylor County.
"We really shouldn't call this facility a landfill," Sistrunk said. "It's really a transfer station. Except for inert materials -- which we have a permit to bury -- nothing has been dumped on the ground here since 1993."
Veolia collects materials at the site and, along with weekly household garbage collections, takes it to a transfer station in Dawson. From there, the waste is taken to Taylor County.
After required testing exposed the presence of contaminants in groundwater around the landfill site, that red flag led EPD to require constant monitoring that has continued since.
"That monitoring is an expensive operation, but we have no choice in the matter," Sistrunk said. "TTL has done an excellent job of monitoring the site to assure the public's safety. And there's no question of any deceptive practices; every report they make is filed in this office and is open to the public."
Massey said that tests have shown that not only is there is no danger of drinking water contamination around the former landfill site, time is taking care of the contaminants that first alerted EPD to potential danger.
"There is not now, nor has there ever been, any evidence of leachate reaching the aquifer," the county administrator noted. "Actually, as time has progressed, there is evidence of further biological breakdown of the (potentially hazardous materials).
"Mother nature's taking care of that area."