JACKSBORO—Dozens of residents decried an indecision by county commissioners Monday to thwart a proposed landfill that potentially could dump as much as 600 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash on a Duff mountainside.
Most wanted to know why commissioners suddenly reversed their seemingly united front against Ketchen Land Company and Davis Creek, when just weeks earlier, Mayor William Baird incorrectly advised them nothing could be done to prevent the South Carolina-based group from operating a dump in Campbell County.
At that time, commissioners grandstanded and ceremoniously resolved to stand against the dump in a non-binding vote.
But when empowered Monday with a potential “wild card” measure — known as Jackson’s Law — that would stymy the controversial operation, the 15-member commission failed to muster the necessary 2/3 vote to enact it and stop the landfill.
Two officials were absent. Three commissioners abstained from voting — one of whom said he failed to read the measure and wasn’t educated enough to act. The lone dissenter said his interests were ultimately swayed by the county’s historical coal connections.
That meant the nine voting supporters of Jackson’s Law couldn’t tip the vote for a raucous crowd who appeared en masse at the courthouse Monday night to pressure officials to dump the dump.
Many in the crowd complained they couldn’t hear officials as they debated taking action against the landfill. Several questioned the voting procedure. None were permitted to address the commission — many of whom had their own questions about the vote.
District 2 Commissioner Bobby White said he hadn’t researched Jackson’s Law and didn’t know enough to vote for it.
Other officials said they’d analyzed it, but still had lingering questions.
“I’ve done a lot of reading in the last four to five hours and I still don’t have clear answers to this,” said District 1 Commissioner Marie Ayers. “The way I read it, my concern is that if we adopt it, it takes the permit (granting) from the state level to the county level. What knowledge do we have to know anything about a landfill?”
Ayers joined White and District 4 Commissioner Charles Baird in not casting a vote.
Ayers said it was difficult to obtain sound advice on the proposal because County Attorney Joe Coker had acknowledged his own conflict of interest in advising officials. While Coker is retained to provide legal counsel to the commission, he’s also the registered agent for Ketchen Land Company and Davis Creek — the would-be operators of the proposed landfill.
“It’s not just a simple voting and we’re done,” Ayers said before abstaining. “Does anybody have any further guidelines? What’s the legality? It’s not cut and dry. It’s not really clear.”
While Coker initially said he would recuse himself from advising the commission, he told officials they could be sued if they ultimately refused to allow the dump.
When asked if the commission was “rushing to a ruling,” Coker also advised commissioners the permit process for developers could take up to two years.
“But politics moves things a lot faster,” said District 4 Commissioner Sue Nance.
Nance joined commissioners Johnny Bruce, J.L. Davis, Alvin Evans, Beverly Hall, Tom Hatmaker, Steve Rutherford, Terry Singley and Bob Walden in supporting a vote for Jackson’s Law.
“I wouldn’t want [a dump] in my backyard,” Nance said before voting.
Her remarks drew an “amen” from the crowd.
After the commission’s vote, Nance criticized commissioners who said they were “not informed” enough to vote.
“It’s their job to be informed,” she said, even though each of the 15 commissioners — as well as Mayor William Baird — failed to attend a question-and-answer session at Cove Lake State Park in Caryville about the proposed dumpsite, just a week earlier.
The only commissioner to vote against Jackson’s Law was District 3 Commissioner Rusty Orick.
“I’m not against the people out here in the audience,” Orick said. “But this county has always been a coal community.”
Commissioners David Adkins and Wendell Bailey failed to show up for the vote.
Officials ultimately voted 9-1 to enact Jackson’s Law — a deceiving tally that has been scrutinized by some.
Mayor Baird said at least 10 votes were needed to reach a 2/3 consensus of the 15-member commission. Abstentions and absentees were counted as “no” votes.
Baird dodged questions after the meeting when asked by The Press how we would’ve voted on the measure.
“I can only vote in case of a tie,” he said.
But some commissioners were openly critical of the mayor’s handling of landfill negotiations.
“Are we going to end up seeing contributions to your campaign [from landfill operators or their supporters]?” asked Hatmaker. “We got two emails from you this week that should’ve come from our attorney.”
It’s unclear what those emails referenced.
Reaction from the crowd
Immediately after Monday night’s vote, a few landfill opponents left the commission chambers and convened in the courthouse lobby.
One of those was Kenneth Williamson, a neighbor of the proposed dump who said he was disappointed by the commission’s indecision. He questioned why a conflicted county attorney continued to advise the commission before they voted.
“It shows he lied [on recusing himself],” Williamson said. “He shouldn’t have been there.”
Williamson was joined in the lobby by several other opponents, who rallied together about what further measures could be taken to stop the dump.
“They took our coal from us. They took our timber from us. They gave us nothing,” said opponent Linda Bolton, who believes would-be landfill operators are making the same empty promises offered by other environmentally-ravaging industries.
As opponents became more vocal in the lobby, Jim Coakley — a geologist retained by the dump developers — came to quiet the crowd and soothe tensions.
“I’m just an old dumb-ass geologist,” Coakley told Williamson and others who were upset about the vote. “But [the dump developers] asked me to be positive of everyone. We can disagree and still be friends…I’m not on either side of the fence.”
Williamson wanted to know if the geologist would proactively warn them of dangers associated with dumping toxic fly as near their area.
They got few answers.
Developers said they plan to address those questions next week at an upcoming public meeting planned for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at White Oak Elementary.