Kick-ash campaign sways vote on proposed coal landfill

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Westbourne coal ash dump appears less likely after leaders vote 15-0 to take control from state regulators

By Brent Schanding

 JACKSBORO—Commissioners united Monday night to invoke a measure empowering them to oversee the development of a proposed coal fly ash landfill in the Westbourne area.

Dozens of landfill opponents applauded and waved signs as Mayor William Baird announced in the courthouse a 15-0 commission vote in favor of Jackson’s Law. 

It’s a stop-gap measure that will transfer authority from state permit regulators to local leaders on whether to accept or reject South Carolina-based developer Ketchen Land Company’s plans to operate a 300-acre dumpsite in the northern part of the county.

They plan to import up to 600 cubic tons of fly ash to the site by rail over the next 20 years. The county could receive up to $1 per ton for the ash, under one proposal. A permit to operate the facility has already been filed for state review.  

The landfill plans have been a point of contention since they were publicly announced in August. Many citizens who live near the proposed site fear the environment and public health could be compromised because of the operation. 

Scores have campaigned and complained at three public forums, calling for commissioners to dump the dump. The ash-kicking campaign peaked Monday night following the commission’s verdict. 

“To the citizens opposed to the landfill, I want to compliment you on what an exemplary audience you were,” District 5 Commissioner J.L. Davis told opponents following the vote.

Davis said the protestors — which totaled between 75 and 90 — remained calm during Monday night’s proceedings, despite their obvious passion about the issue.

For protestors, the commission’s decision was a major milestone in their nearly two-month long crusade to block the landfill.

Jim Bolton, one of several who lobbied commissioners to vote for Jackson’s Law, said he’s now optimistic about the momentum behind the protest. 

“I believe commissioners felt the seriousness of the problem we’re facing,”  Bolton said after the vote. “I hope and pray they will not let it come in.”

While commissioners now have final say on the development, a final vote on the matter has not been scheduled. 

Ketchen developers were noticeably absent for the commission vote.  It’s unclear what they plan to do. A Ketchen geologist on Tuesday referred calls seeking comment to the South Carolina office. A voice message left for developers at that site was not returned by press time. 

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office told the LaFollette Press the plans were likely dead due to the perceived resistance from commissioners. 

But dump developers could continue with their plans and seek approval later from the commission and opponents seem prepared for that fight. 

“It could be the beginning of a long process,” said protestor Tom Chadwell, who lives on Habersham Road, about 1.35 miles from the entrance of the proposed landfill. 

Chadwell and others said they’ll continue to press commissioners to stop the dump, even if landfill developers persist with their plans.

He said protestors have already researched how Cumberland County officials were able to block a coal fly ash landfill from locating there. 

“We’re not plowing totally new ground,” Chadwell said. 

Cumberland County officials invoked Jackson’s Law several years ago and elected leaders there eventually rejected a developer’s plans to operate a coal fly ash site outside  of Crossville. 

A 2009 opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General found their denial could potentially be unconstitutional — a point Campbell County Attorney Joe Coker acknowledged early in local debates.  And while the attorney general’s finding has yet to be argued before the courts, dump opponents say they’ll fight that battle if, and when, it’s needed.