Landfill lawsuit pits waste against wetlands

Garbage or other waste from many South Carolina counties ends up in Oakridge Landfill.

With 300,000 acres of freshwater wetlands across the coastal counties, a proposal to fill 14 of them in upper Dorchester County wouldn’t seem to be much. The state thought so when it issued a permit in 2014 for the expansion of the Oakridge Landfill.

However, an environmental advocate is challenging the permit in court, not because of how many acres but where they are located. Filling these 14 acres with landfill would block a protected tract of habitat-rich headwaters wetlands from a creek draining into Four Holes Swamp.

“It’s not big but it is important. These are such dynamic wetlands that 14 acres becomes a lot more,” said Katie Zimmerman, Coastal Conservation League program director.

Waste Management, the landfill owner, disagrees.

“There’s been no impact on Beidler Forest, no impact on Four Holes Swamp, in 30 years of operation,” said spokesman Russell Hightower. “There’s been no evidence of any leaking, no evidence of anything failing. This is the highest technology that’s been provided to us.”

The real battle in this legal fight, though, is over your trash can. Waste Management wants to expand Oakridge because the current landfill might have as few as five years from maxxing out and closing. The new 83-acre tract is estimated to give it another 20 years, according to Hightower.

This isn’t about just Dorchester County solid waste. The landfill handles more than twice as much waste per year from Charleston County, 245,000 tons, as it does for Dorchester, 100,000 tons. It also handles more from Berkeley County, 129,000 tons, according to S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control statistics.

Almost all other South Carolina counties put in at least some tonnage; the landfill takes the third largest amount of waste in the state, according to DHEC.

If it closes, disposal costs could well rise for Lowcountry customers and maybe for customers across the state.

“Our expansion is critical to the region and without it there will be more than $10 million per year in increased costs to our customers,” Hightower said.

But wetlands are a key habitat and water quality filter along the coast, research has shown. They are being lost incrementally as the coast develops.

The Beidler Forest sanctuary, mostly upstream in Four Holes Swamp, holds outparcels along the swamp near the landfill and the protected acres in the expansion footprint. The sanctuary is the heart of what might be the largest remaining virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest in the world. It’s prized internationally as habitat for birds, other wildlife and plants.

The landfill “is the wrong type of activity in the wrong location. This facility should never have been built,” said Amy Armstrong, the South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney arguing for the league, because state law mandates that landfills be built in uplands not wetlands.

Landfills across the state are taking in less than their annual state-required capacity limit and the trend is less waste being generated, due to recycling and other measures, she said. The legal standard for DHEC to approve a landfill expansion is to demonstrate there are no alternatives and overwhelming public need. “DHEC failed to apply the legal standard,” Armstrong said.

DHEC could not comment because it’s an active legal case, said spokeswoman Cassandra Harris.

Both sides argued the case last week in front of a state administrative law judge, and a decision isn’t expect for a number of months. No matter which way the decision goes, both sides expect it will be appealed.

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.