WHITE OAK—Deputies were forced to rebuff at least one landfill opponent Tuesday night after tensions erupted in the elementary gymnasium here, just minutes into the second of several planned public forums aimed at addressing concerns associated with a proposed coal fly ash dump in the area.
District 5 commissioners Alvin Evans and Terry Singley were among those in the otherwise hostile crowd of more than 200 concerned citizens — most who came to protest the plans of dump developers, Ketchen Land Company.
Members of the four-person South Carolina-based group have applied for a permit for a Class 1 landfill in the Westbourne area of Campbell County, where they hope to house the sooty-ash byproducts from coal-fired plants.
Developers told locals the landfill would provide new jobs, improve the economy and clean up deteriorated water quality at the former strip mine. But they couldn’t answer several questions asked at the two-hour session.
“We came up here to try to get the facts out,” said Nat Cloer, a partner with Ketchen Land Company, although some questions went unanswered.
Ketchen developers said the group had owned the land around the site of the proposed dump — roughly 3,000 acres total — for nearly 20 years.
“It’s unusual to have these public meetings so early in the process,” said George Hyfantis, an engineer who will design the landfill on a 300-acre tract near Westbourne and Cotula roads. “They want you to know what they’re doing.”
Developers briefly explained their intentions to ship as much as 600 cubic tons of fly ash to the site by rail over the next 20 years.
Developers said they will donate to the county commission $1 per ton — or up to a possible $50 million — as part of a host fee for housing the waste.
But many in the crowd protested with screams of “We don’t want your money!” and “How can we keep you out?”
The plan is still pending state approval after county commissioners ultimately failed to intervene with the plans last week.
Developers claim the dump will add 25 permanent jobs to the county — and as many as 50 during the construction stages.
They said project engineers will patch exposed soil sites in the former coal-mining area, which they partly blame for water quality degradation.
As developers clicked through a computerized PowerPoint presentation that attempted to show facts about the proposed site, several yelled out from the crowd to challenge those findings.
“I’d like to know why you can’t answer straight questions. Would you want [the ash landfill] in your back yard?” yelled Frank Douglas, a resident in the area. “Why don’t you have a meeting when you know something. If you don’t know a damn thing, get out of my face.”
As Douglas approached developers in the presentation area, he was met by two Campbell County Sheriff’s deputies.
His brother tried to hold him back from escalating the situation into a physical fight.
“I’m an American citizen,” Douglas told his brother. “Get off my back!”
Deputies released him after developers urged Frank to continue.
Douglas added he was “sick of meetings” that didn’t provide adequate information to the public about the proposed dump.
His statements were met by the crowd with applause and cheers.
More than once, opponents referenced the dangers of coal fly ash — including the 2008 Tennessee Valley Authority ash spill in Kingston that damaged several homes and killed massive amounts of wildlife in the area, after coal sludge spilled out of its containment facility.
“If it had been filled with oatmeal, it would’ve still killed the fish,” Cloer said.
Opponent Connie Cox wanted to know if developers would be too afraid to move to the Westbourne area, if the dump is constructed.
“I wouldn’t be afraid to — but I won’t,” Cloer said. “I’m 72. My next move will be to heaven.”
Many opponents cited environmental concerns — including groundwater quality, air quality levels — even potentially radioactive materials they feared could become present at the site.
Developers largely minimized those fears, but failed to deliver on promises to provide the crowd with certain data on planned safety measures.
At one point, County Commissioner Evans — one of three officials who represent constituents in the area addressed the crowd.
“I was raised at White Oak and have a lot of friends and family here,” he told developers “As a commissioner, I’m against you putting it in.”
While fellow District 5 Commissioner Singley attended the meeting, J.L. Davis and County Mayor William Baird did not.
Another in the crowd suggested the $50 million in potential host fees generated from the dump go directly to the Westbourne area community — not the county commission.
Developers said they would compromise and instead contribute to local school improvements or other community-driven campaigns, if it forged a better relationship with neighbors in the area.
“I don’t want to be a good neighbor!” screamed one member from the audience, before a much calmer Frank returned to the developers with an invitation to an upcoming pig roast in the community.
“We don’t hate you, we hate your landfill,” Frank told them, as he extended a welcome.
Like several in the crowd — he’s still awaiting an answer from the developers.