Amber Kirby, who works from home for a database marketing company, lives in the heart of dairy farmland in southwestern Orange County. She and her husband are raising their two children on their homestead, which the Kirby family has owned for generations.

“One of the reasons we wanted to live back here is it’s nice and peaceful,” she said. “We have herds of deer we’ve named.”

Yet the ancestral land in Bingham Township also has the distinction of being sandwiched between two sites the county is considering for a 250 ton-per-day waste transfer station. Six days a week, roughly 45 dump trucks from Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough and the University of North Carolina would pass her house on the two-lane N.C. 54 en route to the station. From there, semi-trailer trucks would haul the trash to an undetermined landfill, as the Orange County landfill will be full in 2011. As Kirby put it, her family lives “between a rock and a hard place.”

That phrase could also apply to Orange County, which like any government, has to wrestle with the sticky issue of where to put its trash.

Over the past 10 years, the commissioners’ failure to solve the waste issue has spawned intense opposition in Orange County: Citizens’ groups have formed to fight the landfill and waste transfer station, threatening to file an injunction against the county over the site. The federal government investigated racial discrimination claims over the landfill on Eubanks Road. And other town councils and appointed boards, alienated by the county’s actions, or lack of them, are fighting to protect their turf.

As for the recent controversy, 16 months and $254,000 laterthe amount the county paid to Charlotte-based consultants, Olver Inc., to search for the best location for the waste transfer stationthe final two sites are, at best, imperfect solutions to the uglier problem of a county with nowhere to dump its garbage.

“As far as Bingham sites, I think I’ll keep my opinion to myself on how wise it is for those to be the final sites,” said Orange County Solid Waste Management Director Gayle Wilson. “However the Board of Commissioners’ criteria that they developed is what led us to those sites. It wasn’t a staff recommendation. It was their own set of priorities that resulted in those properties being identified. Are they open to reconsideration? I don’t know. Maybe. I even hope so. But that’s where we are now, and we’ll see where it plays out.”

However, local activists and some solid-waste experts argue that Orange County doesn’t have to accept the two sitesat least not yet. And in recent meetings, commissioners have seemed reticent to move ahead on the transfer station. In response to a report prepared by the citizens’ group Orange County Voice, commissioners instructed county staff to research a “parallel track” of alternative options, including regional waste-management partnerships, private trash hauling companies and a future waste-to-energy facility.

“I want to keep an open mind as long as I can,” said County Commissioner Barry Jacobs, who voted for the two sites in December. “I think we followed a rational process to get us to the place where we are, so I’m comfortable with that as an alternative. But I’m willing to consider what citizens have brought forward, with alternative constructions, and explore them until I have no more time to explore.”

To the Kirbys’ chagrin, a tract of land nearby is the preferred site for the station. Dennis Howell, who manages West 54 LLC, owns the heavily wooded parcel, which is within a half-mile of several wetlands. At 143 acres, it is also roughly seven times the size the county needs to site a transfer station, according to Olver’s environmental assessment of the property (PDF, 1.8 MB). And Howell has pledged to make the county pay for every inch of it.

Last November, Howell wrote a letter to Wilson (PDF, 124 KB) demanding $3 million for the landmore than triple its assessed tax value. He also wants the ability to rezone a strip along N.C. 54 to commercial “for immediate development within three to five years,” thus changing the area’s rural character.

The second site, which commissioners have framed as a bargaining chip for negotiating the Howell purchase, is 100 acres smaller. However, it is owned by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, which uses the site for dispensing wastewater sludge. In two strongly worded letters to the county, OWASA has made it clear they don’t want to sell.

“OWASA is using this site, and plans to continue to use it, for purposes essential to OWASA’s operations,” wrote OWASA board chairman Randy Kabrick, in a Jan. 23, 2009, letter to county commissioners (PDF, 216 KB). Kabrick added that the OWASA board of directors “reaffirmed that this land is not for sale” and voted 8-0 to deny the county access for a land survey.

The conflict over the two sites is the latest impasse for Orange County. Wilson said he first advised the commissioners to build a waste transfer station in the early 2000s, when the county approved a waste master plan anchored by the Orange County landfill on Eubanks Road. Today, that area in northern Chapel Hill serves as headquarters of the county’s solid waste operations, including offices and a recycling facility. However, the transfer station part of the plan never materialized. County commissioners delayed approving it, Jacobs said, because there were questions about the type of facility to build, and at the time, they didn’t feel it was a pressing issue.

“I think the assumption was all along that we would end up on Eubanks Road, because that’s where we had had a model transfer plan that included having a transfer station on that site back in the beginning of the decade,” Jacobs said.

At the county’s request, the Solid Waste Advisory Board, a citizen-led committee, considered the feasibility of the Eubanks Road location. “We weren’t in the process of looking for a site; we were told we had a site,” said advisory board member Jan Sassaman.

In a March 2006 resolution, the advisory board recommended the Eubanks Road location because the landfill was already there. In addition, the advisory board said, it would be cheaper than buying more land, and Orange County “would not have to initiate a divisive and arduous siting process.”

But that’s exactly what has happened.

The Eubanks Road decision generated enormous controversy. The nearby Rogers Road neighborhood is largely African-American and is already saddled with the Orange County landfill. A waste-transfer station near that neighborhood would make it, literally, the county’s dumping ground.

At a March 2007 public hearing, county commissioners approved the advisory board’s recommendation to locate the transfer station on Eubanks Road. Olver, the same company that recently conducted a countywide search for a new site, was hired to design the transfer station.

According to the minutes, Commissioner Alice Gordon stated, “This is not something that she has any pleasure in doing, but they are pushed in this direction.”

North Carolina has no transfer-station siting requirements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency merely recommends a set of ranking criteria, which the advisory board loosely interpreted when analyzing the Eubanks Road site.

Chris Heaney, a postdoctoral fellow in UNC’s Department of Epidemiology, is conducting a study of odors and gases near the landfill. He said the commission’s original decision to site a transfer station on Eubanks Road “ignores the history of the burden the community has been bearing for the rest of the county. It’s a perspective that doesn’t take into account the benefit the majority is gaining by that community bearing a disproportionate burden, going on 37 years now.”

Steve Wing, a UNC professor of epidemiology, co-authored a study that found that, in North Carolina, solid waste facilitieswhich include transfer stations and landfillsare 2.8 times more likely to be found in neighborhoods where more than 50 percent of the population is of an ethnic or racial minority group, compared to communities with less than 10 percent minority population. For transfer stations alone, this figure increases to 3.5 times.

“I think the landfill is there because it’s a low-income black community, just given the history,” he told the Indy. “That’s the general history that anyone reading the newspapers about it could understand, or if they go visit. This is a pattern that exists across the state, and therefore it’s not a big surprise.”

The big surprise is the reaction of the federal government. The Department of Housing and Urban Development dismissed a discrimination complaint (PDF, 2 MB), based in part on a finding that grouped the nearly all-black neighborhood adjacent to the landfill with newer developments. That led HUD to the odd conclusion that Rogers Road was “not a predominantly black neighborhood.”

Jacobs acknowledged that commissioners had not “adequately considered” all ramifications for the Rogers Road neighborhood, and said that not having a systematic approach was a “legitimate criticism.”

Eight months later, the commissioners reversed their decision.

“We said, OK, let’s start over,” Jacobs said. “We’re running out of time, but in the interest of fairness, openness and completeness, let’s look at what our alternatives are, in as abstract a process as we possibly can.”

Two years later, that process has failed again. This time, commissioners determined the technical and community criteria, and their weighting, then directed Olver to follow them when judging potential sites. Yet the consultant’s puzzling results pointed to larger flaws in the evaluation process.

“It was a total mystery to me where the sites were going to come from. I had some of my own ideas of where they would be, but they weren’t where the consultants found the best alternatives,” Jacobs said.

“Some magic black box produced these scores, and they don’t make sense,” said Bonnie Hauser, a member of Orange County Voice, which opposes the Howell and OWASA sites.

For example, Olver didn’t disclose the formula for the scoring of a potential site’s acreage and availability, which pose problems for the Howell and OWASA properties.

Nonetheless, those two tracts qualified under the county’s “exclusionary rules,” which eliminated all sites less than 25 acres, and more than 12 miles from the solid waste management department headquarters, which is near the Orange County landfill. (Although the landfill would be closed when the transfer station opens, county staff estimated the growing area of northern Chapel Hill would be where most of the county’s waste would be generated, on average.)

Commissioners established the 12-mile rule because it is expensive for the dump trucks to travel long distances. Both the Howell and OWASA sites fall within the distance limit, but barely. In a personal letter to the county commissioners, OWASA board member Alan Rimer, a professor of planning at UNC and of public policy at Duke, wrote that an estimated additional 74,000 miles per year would be traveled by Chapel Hill trucks alone, adding that “the development of a sustainable solution” was not a “significant enough criterion in the last selection process.” Rimer asked commissioners to instruct Olver “to go back to the drawing board.”

Truck traffic will make the road unsafe for people, especially children, walking along the road, said Kirby. “If you’re looking at 20, 30, 40 transfer trucks coming up 54, and driving by our houseit’s just going to severely impact our entire lifestyle. It’s going to severely impact the community as a whole.”

Olver didn’t see it that way. The consulting firm determined the Howell and OWASA sites have direct access to a “major transportation route”the two-lane N.C. 54. Olver scored the Howell site with a 7 out of 10 in the highway category. Oddly, the OWASA property less than a half-mile away earned only a 4. By comparison, a site on Eubanks Road less than a half-mile from the six-lane Interstate 40, received a 2.

Olver did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

Commissioner Steve Yuhasz, who joined the board in December with Pam Hemminger and Bernadette Pelissier, told the Indy that “Everyone involved recognizes that these are not the ideal sites.” But he said he didn’t want to question the criteria, which the new commissioners didn’t help develop. For that reason, Yuhasz said he didn’t ask Olver to explain its numerical values. Other commissioners, and county staff confirmed they decided to remain in the dark about the rationale behind certain scores.

“I really thought it was inappropriate for staff to intervene and try to manipulate that process,” Wilson said.

Last October, the 10 final sites were whittled further after the Hillsborough Town Board, in an apparent defensive move, resolved to annex (PDF, 3.3 MB) three of those locations, including two with the highest technical rankings, if the sites were chosen.

“Then, it became apparent that any place that currently, or previously, had industrial uses, would not be in our purviewand if it was, it would be snatched from our purview,” Jacobs said of the Hillsborough sites.

With few options left, in December, the Commissioners voted 5-1 (Commissioner Valerie Foushee was absent) to approve the Howell and OWASA properties as proposed sites for the transfer station.

At least two grassroots organizations, Orange County Voice and Preserve Rural Orange, are speaking out against the transfer station in Bingham Township in southwestern Orange. (Neither group favors siting the landfill on Eubanks Road.) The county originally considered Bingham Township for a second landfill, according to Solid Waste Management Director Gayle Wilson, and it was nearly chosen as the location for the since-scrapped, controversial county airport project.

“Nobody felt it was a perfect decision,” Preserve Rural Orange member Laura Streitfeld told the Indy. “But this is going to have long-term consequences for this rural county that’s under a lot of pressure now. It really bears taking the time to make the right decision.”

In a December letter to commissioners, Preserve Rural Orange addressed the previous environmental sacrifices southwestern Orange County has made for the county: Farmland was taken by eminent domain to build Cane Creek Reservoir, a source of drinking water for the county. The Howell site lies near Collins Creek, which is listed by the EPA as impaired; the creek runs through the Kuenzler Wildlife Habitat Preserve/ Triangle Land Conservancy land. And constant heavy truck traffic on N.C. 54 and surrounding roads would take a heavy toll on the already fragile ecosystem.

“The impression of folks out in Bingham Township is that the site was not the ideal choice on anybody’s part, on the part of the county staff or the commissioners,” Streitfeld said, “but maybe it was the path of least resistance because there was an available seller and there was a smaller population out our way to oppose it.”

Jim Conner, a Durham attorney specializing in environmental law, wrote to commissioners in December (PDF, 416 MB) saying his clients, a group of Orange County citizens, asked him “to file suit, seeking first a restraining order and injunction to keep this facility from going forward at this site.”

Jacobs said it’s been valuable to receive the groups’ input, but also dismissed some of the arguments as inevitable: “I think a lot of the arguments that are made about Bingham Township can be made about any part of Orange County. We’re just dealing with the fact that growth brings unwelcome and sometimes unintended consequences.”

Orange County Voice has suggested an interim solution: hiring private companies to haul away the trash. But Wilson said that plan could encourage, rather than discourage, the generation of more trash.

A lot of trash and bottles
Charts of Orange County recycling and trash for Fiscal Year 2007-08

“For private haulers, in their business plan, the key is to push as much waste through that transfer station, or landfill ultimately, as they possibly canthat’s how they make money,” Wilson said. “My perspective on my landfilleven though it’s economically disadvantageousis to bury only what I have to bury, absolutely. A totally different concept. I want to defer as much from the landfill as possible, and will do so from the transfer station. Let me assure you: Unless it’s hazardous waste, a private company is not going to defer anything from its transfer station. It’s going on the scales. They’re going to get paid for it, and it’s going to go wherever they send it.”

However, Hemminger said that she doesn’t see that as a problem. “Ultimately we want to control our own situation, but we don’t have to be fearful for a short-term solution,” she said.

It’s the long-term solution that scares Kirby. “It feels like [the commissioners] think, ‘No one out here will fight us. No one in the country can fight us,’” said Kirby, among several people suing the county over the sites. “We want to do everything in our power to make sure that the waste transfer station doesn’t get here. It feels like this is going to be the dumping ground of the county, to be honest.”

Editor’s note (March 15, 2009): A clarification was made to the text per comments below.

Site selection criteria