Saturday, March 6, 2010

Herald Flies Over the Landfill with Wathen, Southwings, and CNN

by G. Travis Vaughn
Since last summer, many of us have learned more about landfills than we ever wanted to know. Our first experience with the Arrowhead Landfill was in July. John Allan Clark and I were given a tour by Eddie Dorsett of Phill-Con in the days before the decision was finalized to bring millions of tons of coal ash to Perry County. Since then, allegations of environmental misconduct and the bankruptcy of the landfill owners have further complicated this sordid tale.

My most recent visit would be a much different experience. John Wathen, a Tuscaloosa-based environmental activist and the “Creekkeeper” of Hurricane Creek, invited me along for a flight over the landfill. He had arranged the flight especially for Stephanie Smith, a medical producer for CNN, who often works with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. CNN is producing a new series with the working title of “Toxic Towns,” and Uniontown and Marion have the dubious distinction of being the first subjects.
We were scheduled to fly out sometime around 8:30 Sunday morning. The pilot called to tell us the weather was not cooperating; he was waiting for the cloud cover over Perry County to improve. That gave Wathen, Smith, and I time to drive on down to the landfill to do some other investigating.
  When we arrived at the landfill, we parked at one of the neighboring houses. Wathen had previously talked to the lady who lives there, who agreed to let him park there anytime. Smith set up her camera equipment and began filming what Wathen and I were doing and discussing. 
  As soon as we got out of the car, the odor and the noise hit us. The smell, ammonia-like, came and went with the direction of the wind, but the noise was ever-present. Earth-moving vehicles and large dump trucks were busily transporting coal ash and broken “burrito wraps” to the top of the coal ash heaps. One pile was easily 50 feet tall with burrito wraps and other garbage intermingled with the ash. We saw one of the trucks stop near the top. It was evidently stuck in the muck since a bulldozer came behind it and gave it a nudge. While we were there, we also saw approximately three leachate trucks come and go.


The ditches outside the landfill were full of water, which was not surprising since last week’s rainfall amounts neared four inches. We also observed water flowing from the landfill site, down a bank, and into the ditch along the road. Wathen took several water samples from the ditches outside the landfill property. He said he had previously taken samples from the same locations, and those test results indicated elevated levels of arsenic.
 We then moved to a different location on County Road 1. Smith interviewed Wathen with the mountain of coal ash behind him. Security guards from the landfill drove by a couple of times and once stopped in the middle of the road, appearing to take pictures of us. Even though we made sure to stay in the county right-of-way at all times, security seemed very interested in what we were doing.

 We drove back to Vaiden Field. Our pilot, Dick McGlaughlin, from SouthWings, was waiting on us. The cloud cover had risen enough to allow us to safely make the flight and to be able to photograph the landfill. We took off from Vaiden and made the quick flight to the landfill site. The scope of the project is amazing from the air. As the photographs we took reveal, the recent rains have made parts of the landfill resemble ponds. 

Workers were continuously bringing truckloads of ash from the rail spur up to the landfill cells and then pushing the ash into place and compacting it. Meanwhile, train cars sat on the tracks while workers hosed them out.   We saw another group of leachate trucks onsite at the time, bringing the total of leachate trucks we observed to around six. We made several circles around the landfill as we took pictures and video. Wathen said he took over a thousand pictures while we were in the air, and Smith videoed the entire flight. After about 45 minutes in the air, we returned to Vaiden.

The landfill has grown quite a bit since July. Hundreds of train cars loaded with coal ash come almost every day, and the site is fast becoming one of the tallest locations in southern Perry County. Meanwhile, the questions about the safety and ethics of the project also seem to grow daily as more and more environmentalists and journalists try to uncover the truth in our county.

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