Future of controversial Stonecrest recycling plant remains in legal limbo

This is an aerial photo of the Metro Green Recycling plant site in Stonecrest.
Caption
This is an aerial photo of the Metro Green Recycling plant site in Stonecrest.

Credit: Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment

The case has languished for months but the judge expects to issue some rulings in May

The future of a controversial concrete recycling plant in south DeKalb County has been in question for months, and neither residents nor construction crews have gotten many answers on what will happen next.

Metro Green Recycling, which is building a plant on a 50-acre property near neighborhoods in Stonecrest, is being sued by a citizen activist group and the city. They’re trying to stop work on the site, claiming the company improperly received authorization from a state regulator to move forward with a facility that could expose residents to pollution. Metro Green disputes those allegations, arguing it followed the proper channels to get its solid waste handling permit.

The case has stalled in court with no real action. DeKalb Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie voiced her frustrations at how the complex case continues to be drawn out with new motions and arguments. To cap off Monday’s three-hour hearing, Barrie set aside May 19 to solely work on making decisions on this case, starting with whether work at the site can continue.

“I was hoping to get through more of these motions today,” Barrie said after she heard testimony on only one motion, which remains unresolved. “We just have to figure out how to get these done though as quickly as we can.”

To help navigate the case, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution compiled background on what led up to this point and what each side is arguing now.

Undisputed facts

Metro Green operates two concrete recycling plants in the Atlanta area and began trying to expand into DeKalb in 2018. The company liked a large property near Snapfinger Woods Drive and Miller Road in Stonecrest, a city chartered in 2017.

Metro Green asked DeKalb for approval, which was denied because county officials said the proposal didn’t comply with its Solid Waste Management Plan. Metro Green then pitched the project to Stonecrest city leaders, who ultimately greenlit it. The proposed site was already properly zoned for industrial use.

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Following the endorsement from Stonecrest’s mayor and former city manager, the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) approved Metro Green’s application for a solid waste handling permit, which allows facilities to take in unsorted construction debris for processing and recycling. The permit is not required for facilities that only process sorted recyclables.

DeKalb elected officials, the Stonecrest City Council and environmental activists decried the permit’s approval and the facility’s groundbreaking. Last August, Stonecrest filed a lawsuit against Metro Green. A citizen activism group, Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE), would later be allowed to join the lawsuit against Metro Green.

Both Stonecrest and CHASE filed motions to try to stop ongoing and future construction related to the work allowed by the permit. They ultimately want the permit revoked by the EPD, which is why the agency and its director are also defendants in the case.

Several countermotions were filed, and Metro Green is trying to end the case without changing its plans for the facility. A completion date for the plant has not been set.

The first motion the court will consider is CHASE’s plea to stop ongoing construction until the full case is settled. (Story continues below timeline.)

  • Nov. 8, 2016

    Residents in south DeKalb County voted to form Stonecrest. Jason Lary would soon be elected as the city’s first mayor.

  • June 17, 2018

    Metro Green Recycling contacted Tracy Hutchinson, the DeKalb Sanitation Division Director, to pitch a construction and demolition recycling facility project. She denied the request, saying it isn’t consistent with the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan.

  • Oct. 31, 2018

    Michael Harris, Stonecrest’s former city manager, wrote a letter to the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) that said Metro Green’s plans complied with the city’s zoning laws and county’s solid waste plan. Lary previously sent letters approving the project in May 2018.

  • Dec. 3, 2018

    The EPD received Metro Green’s application for a solid waste handling permit, which includes references to the Stonecrest letters of approval.

  • Oct. 1, 2019

    The EPD, overseen by Director Richard Dunn, issues the permit.

  • July 1, 2020

    Lary issued a stop-work order on the construction on Metro Green. However, he removed the stop-work order 13 days later, citing fears of potential legal action.

  • Aug. 6, 2020

    At the request of the City Council, Stonecrest filed a temporary restraining order lawsuit against Metro Green and DeKalb County to try to stop ongoing construction. The EPD and Dunn would be added as defendants in September.

  • Dec. 30, 2020

    The Citizens for a Healthy and Safe Environment (CHASE), a citizen advocacy group, was added as a plaintiff.

  • Feb. 5, 2021

    CHASE files a motion for a temporary restraining order, attempting to stop current and future construction at the Metro Green site.

  • April 27, 2021

    A lengthy motions hearing took place, but DeKalb Superior Court Judge Tangela Barrie didn’t make a ruling on CHASE’s motion. Barrie sets the next motions hearing for May 19.

CHASE’s arguments

April Lipscomb, CHASE’s attorney, argued Metro Green went behind the county’s back to get their facility approved, circumventing the purpose of DeKalb’s Solid Waste Management Plan, which she said was developed in part for racial justice reasons.

CHASE claims the site would expose neighbors, who are mostly Black, to air and noise pollution. Stonecrest, which has a population of about 54,000, is nearly 93% African American.

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Lipscomb also argues Stonecrest did not have the authority to approve Metro Green’s project. The city had not officially adopted the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan when the letters of approval to the EPD were written.

Lipscomb said CHASE would be OK with Metro Green proceeding with work that doesn’t require the permit.

“If Metro Green can demonstrate that there are certain activities that it can do in the absence of that permit altogether, then CHASE is not moving to enjoin those activities,” she said.

Metro Green’s counterarguments

Matt Benson, Metro Green’s attorney, argued the county was incorrect when it said the project didn’t comply with the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan. The county cited one section of the Solid Waste Management Plan when denying Metro Green’s request, but Benson said that provision only applies to unincorporated DeKalb.

Benson also argued Stonecrest is the “host jurisdiction” for the Metro Green facility, since the entirety of the site is located within the city limits. He said the EPD was correct to rely on Stonecrest’s letters of approval to issue the permit.

“The fact that (Stonecrest) did not belong to a solid waste management plan is immaterial,” he said, citing Georgia law that has exceptions for newly formed cities.

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Benson pushed back on the pollution claims and said no evidence was presented to the court about potential environmental or health determinants.

“We’ve heard people testify that they’re sad they can’t hear birds anymore. They did not like dust when the facility was being constructed. They’ve heard noises from an industrial site. And I’m not making light of that,” Benson said, “... But that’s the evidence. That has nothing to do with whether or not harm is going to result from Metro Green’s use of its solid waste handling permit.”

Benson went a step further and argued the Metro Green facility is “unquestionably environmentally beneficial” for DeKalb, since the recycled concrete won’t end up in a landfill.

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