ANDERSON, S.C. (WSPA) – From the smell to the unsightly view and constant noise, living near a landfill can be a raw deal.
What’s worse, is finding out an expanding landfill is taking in out-of-state trash from as far away as New York.
In this Consumer Investigation, 7NEWS learned for one county in particular, that violates a written agreement, and dozens of irate homeowners nearby have filed a lawsuit against the landfill.
When Brad Johnston moved to the Belton area of Anderson County 30 years ago, he was seeking a more peaceful life away from the city.
“When we moved there was nothing there and now as you can see, the mound is growing and that’s probably less than 2,000 feet away from our property,” Johnston said.
The growing hill of trash and the noise that comes with it is just the start of Johnston’s problems.
“It smells like spoiled milk. Occasionally we would get a smell in the house, and now it’s all the time,”
Across town, the Cooley family, who have owned property along Big Creek Road since the 1950s, have watched and heard the landfill grow with heavy hearts.
“The trucks are going by here constantly,” said Carolyn Cooley, a business owner who explained how trash, including diapers and even needles, constantly flies out of the trucks whizzing by and lands on her lawn.
Unfortunately for Cooley, her stretch of Big Creek Road is the only allowed entrance into the landfill for nearly all the trucks hauling waste every day.
“It’s unsafe for the children to play outside, there’s trash and debris outside. Somebody has to take the trash, I understand that. But enough is enough for this community,” Cooley said.
Her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Cooley, told 7NEWS sleep is constantly interrupted by the sounds of the dump trucks.
“Yes!, boom, boom. So, if you are trying to sleep, you’re not going to sleep,” Elizabeth Cooley said.
Anderson Regional Landfill’s recent growth
The landfill used to be owned by Anderson County but in the 90s it was sold to private owners, changed hands a few times and has grown ever since.
The county said, no more so than in the last 5 years.
7NEWS obtained the landfill’s 2020 tonnage increase request report, and the table on page 13 shows Anderson Regional Landfill had nearly doubled the amount of waste it took in over the prior 6 years.
In that table it is also important to note the zero “out of state trash” reported prior to 2020, because after the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (DHEC) granted that tonnage increase, 7NEWS learned the zero out-of-state trash jumped by more than 66,000 tons.
How to find data on out-of-state trash
DHEC told 7NEWS every landfill in the state is required to report the origin of all waste to its agency every year.
That data is compiled by DHEC each fiscal year into a “Solid Waste Management Annual Report.”
7NEWS tracked down the 106-page FY 2021 report and discovered Anderson Regional Landfill had taken in 66,600 tons of out-of-state trash with the following breakdown in tonnage by state:
- Georgia: 19,033
- Massachusetts: 419
- North Carolina: 22,719
- New York: 3,704
- Other: 20,725
Twin Chimneys Landfill in Greenville County also reported out-of-state trash, though significantly less, and only one neighboring state, 12,000 tons from North Carolina.
Upstate Regional Landfill in Union County took in more than 204,000 tons from North Carolina, according to DHEC.
The annual report also showed on page 22, a map of the only eight counties in the state that took in out-of-state trash that year, totaling nearly 795,000 tons of trash outside South Carolina.
Anderson Regional Landfill, Twin Chimneys and Upstate Regional were the only three in the Upstate on that list.
By far the biggest offender in South Carolina was Lee County, taking in nearly 330,000 tons of out-of-state trash that fiscal year. 234,787 tons of which were from New York and 94,812 tons from Massachusetts.
Why Anderson Regional violated an agreement
Still, what puts Anderson County in the spotlight is that 7NEWS learned Anderson Regional Landfill has a long-standing written agreement with Anderson County not to take out-of-state trash.
7NEWS used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain that “Purchase Sale and Operating Agreement” that said in clause 9(iii), “without the prior written consent of the county, the Operator shall not knowingly accept for disposal at the Landfill any waste originating outside the State of South Carolina.”
Through multiple emails and calls over a period of three weeks, 7NEWS requested a comment from Anderson Regional Landfill’s parent company, Waste Connections, to find out if the landfill knowingly took in the out-of-state waste.
Waste Connections declined to comment, but according to Anderson County officials, Waste Connections told them they did not know the processed waste originated out of state and will no longer do business with that company.
Anderson County reaction
When 7NEWS reached out to Anderson County about the annual report out-of-state data, Solid Waste Director Greg Smith, admits the county had been unaware and was surprised.
“I don’t want anything coming from out of state, that is our stand…I have stated that already with the landfill folks,” Smith said.
The full interview with Solid Waste Director Greg Smith is below.
Why reporting of trash origin can get tricky
So how did it happen?
It’s important to note, from the perspective of DHEC, taking out-of-state trash is not illegal, and it can be reported in a few ways.
In the case of Twin Chimneys and Upstate Regional, that trash was reported directly by the landfills to DHEC for FY21.
However, according to DHEC, in the case of Anderson Regional Landfill, it was a processing company that had reported it to the state.
That middleman had taken in the out-of-state trash, processed it at its facilities in Greenville and Spartanburg Counties, and then sent the new form of trash to Anderson Regional Landfill, so at that point, the landfill was not required by DHEC to label it as out-of-state trash.
However, Anderson County officials and residents said that just because the trash is altered, doesn’t mean the true origin is “made in South Carolina.”
“I feel right now that we are going to watch to make sure everything is coming from where it’s supposed to be coming from so, we are going to do more inspections,” Smith said.
The county said after the waste origin was revealed, Waste Connections told the county it is investing half a million dollars into systems to tackle the smell, as well as road improvements and more roadside trash pickup.
Still, even before 7NEWS exposed the out-of-state trash, Greenville Attorney Rodney Pillsbury said he was contacted by a number of homeowners in the Belton area who are fed up.
Pillsbury filed two lawsuits on their behalf representing more than 40 clients.
“There’s a significant amount that is coming in, and that doesn’t benefit the people of Anderson County, and it certainly doesn’t benefit the people that live around the landfill. That benefits one party, and that’s the defendant,” Pillsbury said, referring to Waste Connections.
This is not the first time that the landfill has been sued by homeowners.
In the early 2000s, a group of roughly 20 homeowners filed suit.
It came to a settlement that reportedly not only included an undisclosed lump sum payment but annual supplemental checks each year based on the tonnage taken in at the landfill.
Neither the Johnstons nor the Cooleys were included in that settlement.
What makes them even more nervous is the landfill’s 2022 purchase of 99 acres, right across from Brad Johnston’s house.
“It’s not a good sign when they are buying land up around it. I mean, it looks like just based on what they’ve done they are just continuing to grow and grow and grow and this is going to get nothing but worse,” Johnston said.
“We are put in a position that we’ve got to live with other people’s trash and that’s not right,” Carolyn Cooley said.