A Hall County landfill and composting operation owned by Gov. Nathan Deal’s business partner has violated its zoning, officials said Monday.
But county officials have imposed no penalties on the owner and said they will allow the operation to continue.
The officials spent a week investigating Gainesville Waste and Recycling, a landfill on Gainesville’s south side owned by businessman Ken Cronan, after repeated complaints from residents that the stench from the site made them miserable.
In a three-page memo on Monday, County Administrator Randy Knighton said Cronan violated zoning ordinances by accepting food waste and by digging up part of an old municipal landfill on his property. The landfill property is adjacent to an auto salvage yard Cronan co-owns with Deal.
“Based upon the county ordinance definitions of landfills and conditions of the zoning as outlined above, the county position is that food waste is prohibited on the site for use in composting or disposal,” the memo states. “Food waste has been deemed to be the predominate source of odor from the site.”
Cronan did not respond to a call seeking comment on the county’s investigation. Deal was a co-owner of the landfill site until 2003 when he sold his interest to Cronan, although he was still listed as an officer on state documents until 2007. A spokesman for the governor has said all of Deal’s business interests are in a blind trust and he has no direct association with the landfill.
The results of the county’s investigation were released Monday at 5 p.m., after which the county officials who drafted it left for the day. The memo leaves many questions unanswered, including what Cronan has been composting on his land aside from food scraps.
“I couldn’t tell you, and I don’t think that’s important,” county spokesman Katie Crumley said.
Crumley said the odor problems were caused by the tons of food waste Cronan began collecting this summer. And that part of the composting operation has been removed, she said.
“It has already gone through the process and it’s been sent off,” she said. “He’s still composting, just not food.”
Yet a strong and pungent aroma of rot was detectable near the site as recently as Friday.
Esco Riley, a neighbor of the landfill who has complained about the stench, said of the county’s findings, “That’s not good. For them to be doing that and dumping illegally, the county should shut that landfill down. It should be shut down right now and excavated. They need to remove the food that was put in there and they should be fined.”
But Riley isn’t holding his breath that Cronan will be fined. “The ones who got money can do what they want and not obey the law, and we end up paying the price,” he said.
Some of the food waste in Cronan’s landfill came from the Georgia Dome and Georgia World Congress Center, which are part of a “Zero Waste Zone” downtown. But that material is now going to a landfill, according to Frank Buckman, whose company had the waste hauling contract. In an e-mail, Buckman said he stopped hauling waste to the Gainesville landfill immediately after concerns were raised.
The Georgia World Congress Center Authority has proudly advertised its environmental policies, including its recycling of food waste.
“We are diligently looking for other options but we haven’t found an immediate solution,” said Christy Petterson, spokeswoman for the authority, on Monday.
Speaking before the release of the county memo, Knighton, the county administrator, said the landfill’s zoning “did not address composting” but defined the property as a landfill for construction and demolition debris and inert material only.
County ordinances define construction and demolition debris to include bricks, wood, wall board and similar material, while inert debris includes rock, asphalt, yard trimmings, stumps.
“The issue was they were bringing in food to be used in composting,” he said. “We said food items based on our county regulations … was not something consistent with a C&D/inert landfill.”
Cronan had the necessary local zoning for construction debris and inert material for years. He applied for a state environmental permit to begin a composting operation a year ago, but there are no records that he applied for any additional permissions from the county.
In a Nov. 8, 2011, letter to the state, County Commission Chairman Tom Oliver wrote that the proposed composting plan complied with all local zoning ordinances.
Campaign finance records show Cronan contributed $1,000 on Aug. 13, 2011, to Oliver’s re-election campaign. The next day, Oliver posted a picture on his Facebook page of one of his campaign signs in front of Gainesville Salvage Disposal, the auto salvage lot Cronan and Deal own. The picture carried the caption, “I’m honored by Ken Cronan’s generosity.”
A week later, Oliver lost his re-election bid, falling to former Hall County Sheriff Dick Mecum in the Republican primary runoff. Oliver has not responded to repeated requests for comment about the landfill.
Knighton said no additional zoning was required for Cronan to start composting.
“A composting operation, as I understand it, entails a number of different things. It can entail leaves and sticks,” he said.
State records show a large part of Cronan’s composting operation is municipal waste water and sewage sludge. In the third quarter of this year, Cronan reported to the state Environmental Protection Division that he took in 2,374 tons of “sludge” for composting.
Knighton said Monday that the composting operation itself is not a zoning violation.
“We’re talking about treated waste water that has already been processed. It’s not septic waste solids,” he said.
As a result of the investigation, Knighton’s memo states the county marshal’s office will conduct random visits to the property “to monitor activities on the site.”
Cronan’s operation sits atop an old county garbage dump closed in the 1970s, which does not meet today’s standards for ecological safety. Concern over that old landfill is evident in instructions from county officials to Cronan’s rezoning requests for the past decade not to excavate the landfill except under state supervision, but Monday’s letter made passing mention of the violation.
Crumley said Cronan is not required to clean up the damage.
“But he is not allowed to do that anymore,” she said. “Hall County officials believe they have addressed that.”