I-TEAM: Augusta is out of compliance when comes to its own landfill

Published: Jul. 13, 2020 at 6:47 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Years of problems and pollution at the Richmond County landfill have caused concern for neighbors and will cost the city millions. The issues link to broken pipes, broken systems, and allegations of mismanagement.

The I-Team began its investigation back in February, right as the state found the site to be out of compliance. Five months later, the state says it is still out of compliance. While some progress is being made, the I-Team uncovered what went wrong and why a fix is taking so long.

“It’s been rewarding to be out here, to have a place that’s an oasis from the city,” homeowner Astrid Utley says while admiring her property.

But even in all of its treasures, the land is still not without its trash.

Just off Deans Bridge Road is a forgotten community, or so Utley says they call themselves. A few dozen families with a problematic next-door neighbor: the Richmond County landfill.

“My guess is it’s out of control.” Utley repeated, “That place is out of control.”

Long before the facility operated as we know it, Ralph and Astrid Utley and their family owned much of the surrounding property. At the time, it seemed promising. Only now, they say they are met with a promise of problems.

“This is not just our problem, I want them to know that this goes beyond just us.”

In a written consent order from the state dated Feb. 24, 2020, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division found the landfill out of compliance. What’s more, the I-Team uncovered the issues stretch back more than three years. Landfill records we obtained show since 2017 state inspectors have documented repeated environmental violations.

Astrid Utley followed many of those violations.

“We’re here working at trying to just stay healthy and alive, and my children’s children—that’s my biggest concern, is the impact that it will have,” she said.

The state documents show pollution, broken pumps, and concerns of mismanagement. We found the issues date to what’s known as a leachate outbreak, which was first discovered in 2017.

“When you have a seepage of products, the by-products of the waste seeping into your water supply, you have a problem all over the CSRA,” Utley argued.

It works like this: crews dump garbage into a massive hole at the landfill. When it rains and time passes, it can result in the formation of potentially hazardous liquid which then seeps down. Federal regulations require pumps, pipes, and liners to catch that seepage. All so it does not leak in the water supply.

If those pipes, pumps, and liners are broken, it can result in what’s called a leachate outbreak -- pollution which can pose health risks to the surrounding area.

And in the case of Augusta’s landfill, the I-Team uncovered repeated leachate outbreaks. Jeff Darley with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has had to investigate the city of Augusta repeatedly.

“We felt like we had really worked with the city, giving them ample opportunity to correct the problems without getting to the enforcement phase.” But he added, “we’ve run into some of the same problems over and over and that’s why we went to the enforcement side.”

We obtained emails and letters between the city and the EPD. In 2019, alone we found public complaints about the landfill. One of which specifically claimed the leachate may have gone into the creek.

State records around that same time show an EPD visit to the landfill concluded, there seemed to be a “larger problem with the landfill itself because of outbreaks which continued to occur.”

Although the city of Augusta kept telling state regulators its plans to repair pumps and pipes to correct it, we found, more outbreaks continued to happen.

“It’s out of control,” Astrid Utley said.

“It’s like a rusted pipe, fixed one [but] another bursts,” Ralph Utley interrupted.

“It’s bursting at the seams if you will.”

By this year, we found at least five more leachate outbreaks. However, the EPD says its findings point to the leachate being captured, therefore not contaminating the drinking water.

But after so many years of problems, the Utley’s fear the worst.

“We’re going to have to do water samples on a springhead. That was something that my older brother mentioned. We’re going to have to get people in to do analysis. That’s up to us, to protect us, and we shouldn’t have to.”

We analyzed water sample results through city records. The totals indicate on multiple occasions ammonia, nitrogen, biochemical compounds exceeded the levels allowed by the state.

Again the EPD says their evidence did not show those hazards made it into the city’s water supply.

Still, this consent order between the EPD and the city of Augusta found the city “failed to operate” the landfill in accordance with the law and states “landfills shall be operated in such a manner as to prevent environmental and public health hazards.”

Mayor Hardie Davis signed the consent order which required the city to acknowledge the violations and create a corrective action plan.

“I think they’ve been in jeopardy of a perfect storm for lack of better words,” EPD’s Darley said.

While the EPD investigation revealed a “lack” of proper operations by the city played a role in the leachate outbreaks – state inspectors also agreed heavy and excessive rainfall for months was a complicating factor.

We pressed Darley as to why the state never shut down the landfill so many repeated outbreaks.

“Typically for us to make such a serious call there would have to be an imminent threat to public health.” Darley continued. “In the case of Augusta’s landfill, there had not been an imminent threat.”

“So we feel like yes, things drug out for four years -- potentially more -- but at this point, things are progressing in a positive manner.”

The city’s immediate efforts now include reducing the water flow to one of the problematic areas. Using new pumps and pipes to collect the leachate, blocking it from escaping. Plus crews are now covering trash daily to further reduce the chance of leachate outbreaks, something the EPD says the city was not doing routinely before.

But, the long term answer is an estimated 18 to 27 million dollars in taxpayer funds for facility-wide improvements.

But, can the community trust in the safety of its neighbor ever be fully repaired?

“It’s frustrating, it’s disappointing and it’s unfortunate.” Astrid pleaded. “People shouldn’t have to be concerned about what’s coming from the landfill.”

Just in the last month, Augusta commission approved about half a million dollars in emergency funding to begin making fixes over the next 4 months. The $550,000 is clearly only a drop in the bucket to the final tab of $18 to 27 million.

We did ask the mayor’s office, the mayor’s assistant, the city administrator, and the city media representative repeatedly to sit down with us and answer our questions. They have so far not approved our request, but the offer still stands for an interview.

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