The stench punched them in the face. People scurried across the parking lot of the Snow Hill Missionary Baptist Church, trying to escape the clammy miasma that had descended over the neighborhood.
“It’s the landfill,” neighbors told the newcomers. “Some days we can’t even sit on our front porch.”
The Sampson County landfill, operated by GFL, is the largest in the state. It ranks second in methane emissions in the U.S. and first in North Carolina for vinyl chloride. But most of the time, it just stinks.
On a recent Saturday, about 40 county residents had assembled at the church to hear from the EPA and the Greenfield Environmental Multistate Trust about plans to transport non-hazardous waste from a Superfund site in Brunswick County to the landfill.
Several years ago, the Multistate Trust was appointed by a federal bankruptcy court to clean up the former Kerr-McGee property in Navassa, where improper handling and burial of creosote has contaminated the soil, a swamp and groundwater, as deep as 90 feet.
Last year residents successfully thwarted the EPA’s proposal to ship 140 truckloads – 2,800 cubic yards – of contaminated soil from a less polluted portion of the property to Sampson County.
Now the EPA, in concert with the Multistate Trust and with input from state regulators, wants to send 3 tons of other types of waste from Kerr-McGee to the landfill: railroad ties, personal protective equipment and silt fencing.
“We know how overburdened this county is,” said Claire Woods, director of Environmental Justice Policies and Programs at the Multistate Trust. “We want to minimize the impacts.”
But moments later, residents realized for the first time that the impacts had already been inflicted on the neighborhood.
Woods and the EPA acknowledged that since 2017, 20 tons of PPE, debris, sampling waste, grout and mud have been shipped 68 miles to the Sampson County landfill – which accepted it.
Anger erupted from every corner of the room.
“But you’re telling us about it today.”
“Let’s call a thing a thing, this is a minority neighborhood and we’re guinea pigs.”
“We can’t breathe.”
“We need restrictions and rules. We don’t know what we’re smelling.”
The state is not required to notify residents of what’s entering the landfill, said Sherri White-Willamson, director of the NC Environmental Justice Community Action Network, which was instrumental in fighting last year’s soil disposal plan.
In 1982 and 1983, Sampson County Commissioners assured Snow Hill residents the landfill would be innocuous, resident Eddie Williams said.
History has proved otherwise.
“The air is bad,” Williams said. “It hurts people.”
(CleanAIRE NC recently received a $500,000 grant from the EPA to work with EJCAN and to establish a network of air quality monitors.)
Danielle Koonce, who grew up in Sampson County, said residents should demand to know what’s entering the landfill. “Black and Brown communities are overburdened,” she said.
Many private drinking water wells have also been contaminated with nitrates, arsenic, and total coliform – an indicator of fecal bacteria. However, the exact sources are unknown: Numerous unlined dumps, including one adjacent to the existing lined landfill; land application of treated sewage, the proliferation of enormous poultry and hog farms.
Koonce recalled that a county commissioner once told her that water issues “were part of living in the rural South.”
Someone chimed in: “And you’re Black.”