Living by the Landfill

Reporting by Casey Toth and Jane Little. Photography by Casey Toth.

The Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill, owned by Republic Services, spans 60.1 acres in Person County, North Carolina, and two coal power plants — Mayo and Roxboro — pre-date the landfill to the north of the county. Residents of Person County rely on wells that tap into the underground water table for their water supplies. Members of a local environmental group, the Person County People Rising in Defense of Ecology (P.C. PRIDE), are concerned that coal ash and other contaminants have polluted the water supply.

A landfill official who asked to remain anonymous denied that coal ash from the area’s two power plants are being brought to the Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill. Officials at the landfill have stated that the landfill has not accepted any coal ash since 2014, when 30,000 to 39,000 tons of spilled coal ash from a Duke Energy site contaminated the Dan River in Danville, Virginia.

During the spill’s cleanup, the Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill accepted 2,500 tons of coal ash to dispose of. Because coal ash is not considered hazardous by the Environmental Protection Agency, it was deposited into the lined cells of the landfill.

In 2015, a cancer diagnosis study paid for by the state was conducted in Person County and also at a location within two miles of the landfill. The study found that there was no increased environmental risk in either area, with rates of cancer occurrences similar to rates elsewhere in the state. Even so, members of P.C. PRIDE share stories of illness and other health problems.

Zoomed out shot of the landfill, including Mary Cash's house

The home of Marjorie Palmer, with the blue roof, can be seen in this photograph. The home to Palmer’s right belonged to her mother, Mary Cash, who passed away in 2007 at age 82 from pancreatic cancer.

Betty Blalock, a member of P.C. PRIDE, said she knows of 35 cancer cases in the area immediately surrounding the landfill, with a higher concentration to the east of the landfill.

Blalock said Cash lived closest to the landfill. Cash grew her own vegetables, hardly ate any meat and did not not smoke nor drink alcohol.

“She was a healthy person,” Palmer said of her mother. “She was never sick.”

A garbage truck on the road viewed from within Flora Peed's house.

Local resident Flora Peed watched in September as a garbage truck passed by her home, located near the landfill.

“I had a good life, except for fighting the landfill,” said Peed, who is also a member of P.C. Pride. The organization works to minimize the impact of the landfill on the surrounding community.

The Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill is allowed to accept up to 240,900 tons of trash per year. Once the trash arrives at the landfill, it is put into one of the five current cells.

“The only thing we care about is air, water, land and health,” P.C. Pride member Betty Blalock said. “I’m almost 80 years old, and I’m tired of fighting them.”

Closeup of a scar from chemotherapy on Randy Blann's chest.

“I don’t doubt it,” replied Randy Blann when asked about the connection between his thyroid, prostate and colon cancers and the landfill located near his home in Person County when he was visited by the photographer in September. Blann displays the scar from a port formerly implanted in his chest for receiving chemotherapy treatment. In April 2015, Janet Clayton, Person County health department director, requested for the state to conduct a study of cancer diagnoses in the county, as well as the area within a two-mile radius of the landfill. The study concluded no heightened environmental risk was present in either area. However, about 10 percent of the cases occurred within the two-mile radius of the landfill, in a county measuring 404 square miles.

Betty Blalock speaking from a podium at a public hearing.

Last September, Betty Blalock addressed the Person County Board of Commissioners during a public hearing regarding the funding of a study to determine whether the landfill’s original 20-year contract should be extended. The contract negotiations are still ongoing as of last month.

Frances Blalock, another member of PC Pride and Betty’s sister-in-law, explained the Granville County landfill has agreed to take in Person County’s trash. Though the county would lose about half a million dollars in revenue, she’d be eager for the Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill to close.

“They haven’t lived with it for all these years,” she said.

Betty Blalock gesturing to a garbage truck driver from inside her car.

When Betty Blalock sees a truck she believes to be going to or from the landfill, she follows it to find its origin

Betty Blalock summons the driver of a Republic Services truck and requests he disclose the contents of his load on Monday Sept. 7, 2015, in Person County, North Carolina. He replied with “ash from Haw River.” Blalock believes the load carried medical ash from Stericycle’s Haw River Incineration Plant.

She said she can tell which trucks contain coal ash because they’re coated in black ash.

A view of the landfill coated with a layer of gray.

Many residents of Person County believe coal ash is mixed with soil to create “alternate daily cover,” which is used to cover the trash at the landfill. Coal ash is not an approved cover, and a representative for the landfill denied claims that it had been used before.

To create the liner used at the Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill, 4 feet of virgin soil are covered with 2 feet of clay material. A large plastic liner is placed on top of that. Then 2 feet of “protective cover,” usually soil material or stone, is placed on top of the liner. Then the first 8-to-10-foot layer of trash is added, called the “fluff layer.” The landfill workers avoid putting sharp objects that could break through the liner.

Flora Peed pouring bottled water on her toothbrush over the sink.

Flora Peed, who lives near the landfill, drinks bottled water and uses it to brush her teeth. Peed said she had the water in her three wells tested and found high levels of arsenic. She now has a water filtration system.

Ervin Lane, a scientist in the N.C. Division of Waste Management, said the Upper Piedmont Environmental Landfill has not reported high levels of volatile organic compounds, like formaldehyde, which easily evaporate and can lead to smog. As a result, the landfill has not been required to undergo environmental remediation efforts.

A July 2015 groundwater monitoring report from the N.C. Division of Waste Management found there were certain elements found in the groundwater at above-standard levels on the landfill site, though they were largely consistent with historical data. Many of the elements are naturally occurring, such as iron, manganese and lead.

Quality monitoring at the landfill occurs twice a year, and both ground water and surface water samples are taken.

Betty Blaclock hanging up laundry on a clothesline outdoors.

Betty Blalock said in addition to cancers, residents living close to the landfill have experienced respiratory problems as well.

“I can’t even go outside. I always hung all my clothes out — winter and summer,” she said.

“I have not hung any out except on Sunday or Saturday afternoon after they finish bringing garbage.”

Flora Peed holding a photograph from her husband's funeral service.

Flora Peed’s husband, Lindsey Peed, passed away in 2010 from Shy-Drager Syndrome, a rare degenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Betty Blalock said Flora has since closed two of her wells. She believes his death resulted from pollution from the landfill.

Board of Commissioners members Tracey Kendrick, Jimmy Clayton, and B. Ray Jeffers praying at the table.

The Upper Piedmont landfill contract is up for renegotiation in 2017. The Person County Board of Commissioners recently decided to renew the solid waste contract with Republic Services.

From left, Tracey Kendrick, Jimmy Clayton and B. Ray Jeffers bow in prayer before beginning the September 2015 meeting of the Person County Board of Commissioners, in Roxboro.

Currently, the county receives about $530,000 in host fee revenues annually, an additional $25,000 in funding for promoting recycling and $30,214 in tax revenues from the landfill. Many proponents of the landfill believe it to be a great economic driver for the county. The owner of a convenience store near the landfill, Tracy Hawkins, said, “The county can’t afford for them to leave.”

Closeup of Irene Harrelson's profile, tears on her cheek.

Tears dampen the eyes of Irene Harrelson as she looks at an album of photographs showing the horses she recently became unable to care for, on Friday Sept. 18, 2015, in Person County. Harrelson experiences pain in her back due to osteoporosis, which is a side effect of inhaling Spiriva to treat her breathing difficulties. When asked about the connection between her illness and the landfill, she said, “It sure isn’t helping.”

Irene Harrelson rests on a tractor while feeding her guineas on Friday, Sept. 18, 2015, in Person County. Due to her breathing difficulties, Harrelson cannot walk from her home to the barn and must drive a golf cart. Like Harrelson, many of the residents surrounding the landfill are retired yet also hold strong familial ties to the area. Flora Peed, who built her home in the 1950s said, “I’m too old to move.”