OPINION: Burden of redeveloping old landfills must be shared

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

I spend a lot of time walking around southeast Atlanta, and on a recent stroll down United Avenue, I noticed a large pile of dirt behind the chain-link fence that runs between Lester and Avondale avenues. Each day, the pile grew higher and higher until I realized it was a pile of trash.

Plastic bags, tires, rusted water heaters and God knows what else poked out from giant mounds of earth reaching well past the height of a nearby utility pole.

My colleague Zachary Hansen reported that this monstrous mound of trash was the contents of a former landfill now on its way to becoming an 8-acre Beltline-adjacent property of 63 townhomes, commercial space, parking and an apartment building with 215 units, 20% of which will be reserved for residents who make 80% of the median income in the area ($54,000 for an individual).

Fulton County officials duked it out for a year with the developer, TPA Residential, over whether to allow a $3.7 million tax abatement for the project. Part of the $8 million the developer said was needed for environmental remediation was already coming from a state brownfield program.

Some county officials opposed the assistance even though the area has been particularly difficult to develop, multiple proposals have fallen through in the past, and the Development Authority of Fulton County has been criticized for its habit of handing out tax breaks to projects in wealthy parts of the county that don’t need it.

“We have been sitting, waiting for anybody to do anything for at least 15 years to remediate this land so we don’t have a brownfield putting God knows what into the earth,” said Jason Schwartz, a longtime Boulevard Heights resident, when the agency granted the abatement in September.

Fifteen years is a long time to live next door to a dump.

The closed landfill had been emitting excessive levels of flammable methane gas into the air and toxic leachate into the groundwater, according to reports from the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

Three other landfills, at Cascade Road in southwest Atlanta, Gun Club Road in northwest Atlanta and Key Road near East Atlanta Village, had also been closed between 1995 and 1998 and were also leaking methane and leachate. The city had first been notified of leaks in 2001, but only five years later did city officials take significant action to install methane collectors and flares and contract companies to conduct annual monitoring.

State regulations only require landfill monitoring for 30 years post closure unless directed otherwise by EPD, which means in two to five years, several other closed landfills in the city will not be monitored. What happens when the owner or operator of a landfill is relieved of the responsibility for post-closure care and no one has come along to remediate and redevelop the land?

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Credit: Nedra Rhone

Georgia has 77 Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) landfills with just over 40 still active, according to Environmental Protection Agency data that tracks the majority of MSW landfills in the U.S.

At least one of the closed landfills has become a solar farm; about 19 are energy-generating landfills for electricity or natural gas. One closed MSW landfill may soon become part of a new forest preserve on the southeast side of Atlanta. But others just sit, sometimes monitored and in the case of unregulated landfills, sometimes not.

The United Avenue development is an ambitious undertaking but one that will finally relieve a community of its worry long after the city no longer has to worry about it. As more closed landfills in the metro area mature past the 30 years post-closure oversight, maybe more developers will take a chance on redeveloping those areas.

But most of those landfills aren’t sitting on prime Beltline-adjacent property, and any redevelopment would likely require even more assistance from local government agencies. Those tax breaks should always be used without hesitation for complex projects that would not get done without them or projects in areas that are historically underdeveloped.

I worry about what will happen to the low-income housing across the street on United Avenue when TPA Residential’s development is complete, but I hope the transition inspires upgrades to the complex rather than displacement of the people who live there.

Last week when I walked by the mounds of trash, I stopped to talk to a resident who moved in three years ago knowing he was living next to a landfill but confident that any potential dangers were being monitored.

He was relieved the landfill was being redeveloped even though for now it means living in the shadows of an immense pile of trash.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.