Elected officials add voices to debate over Nashville landfill in Black neighborhood
A Nashville landfill, not operated by BFI. (Photo: John Partipilo)
A public oversight board will meet Wednesday to weigh the future of a landfill in northwest Nashville that takes in 90 percent of all construction waste generated in the city but will reach capacity within the next three years.
For decades, the Southern Services landfill has been the final destination for debris from commercial and residential construction — debris that has only increased in volume as Nashville’s economy boomed.
For just as long, landfill operators have also been the targets of anger from frustrated residents of the largely African-American Bordeaux neighborhood, who have complained of a constant stench, the eyesore of a 77-acre dump, declining property values and reports of higher than average health problems in the area, where each household is home to, on average, two chronic illnesses among the individuals who live there.
Now Southern Services — owned by Waste Management, Inc., the nation’s biggest landfill company — is seeking to expand its footprint by 17 acres and community leaders are gearing up for a fight.
“We will not be overlooked this time,” said Rep. Vincent Dixie, a Nashville Democrat who lives less than a mile-and-a-half from the landfill. “We will not go down in saying this is the status quo, and we will fight for what we believe is right, what we know is right.
“This area was built because the middle and upper class professional black people had nowhere else to build homes. The land and dirt were not good, but we made the best use of what we had. And we made it a thriving community. This issue of the landfill continues to depress the values of our homes, in most cases our biggest asset so we have to do something about this.”
The upcoming battle over the the landfill is likely to play out over multiple stages in the coming months, with one key question still in dispute: who has the ultimate authority to approve or deny the landfill’s expansion?
The Metro Solid Waste Region Board, meeting Wednesday, has the authority to make recommendations under a simple test: is the expansion plan consistent with the region’s long-term solid waste, adopted in 2019? The plan calls for no new or expanded landfills as part of a broader “zero waste” goal.
The Metro Council could also vote to approve or deny the expansion plan by invoking the so-called Jackson Law. The law gives local communities the right to public hearings and local legislative bodies the authority to veto new or expanding landfills — after they have proactively voted to adopt the Jackson Law rules, which Metro Council did in 2017.
Then there is Waste Management’s anticipated argument, bitterly disputed by landfill foes, that the landfill’s existence predates the 1989 Jackson Law and makes its expansion plan immune from local government oversight. The Jackson Law grandfathered in landfills that existed prior to 1989. The site of the current Southern Services landfill, before its takeover by Waste Industries, was at one time a local dump operating without a state landfill permit.
I'm 48 this year and my entire life has been near a landfill. I live in a community that is disproportionately been devastated by COVID-19. But it's because we have chronic illness issues, because we have issues with breathing, with COPD, with lung diseases, with different rates of cancer.
– Jonathan Hall, Metro Nashville council member
And finally there is the The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the state’s environmental regulation agency, which has come under criticism by Bordeaux community leaders for siding in the past with landfill corporations over neighborhood residents.
TDEC can overrule the waste board’s decision if it finds it to be “arbitrary and capricious.” While it has not done so yet, the agency could also weigh in on whether the landfill is subject to Metro Council’s authority under the Jackson Law.
A spokeswoman for Waste Industries did not address a specific question about whether company officials believe the landfill is subject to the Jackson Law, instead sending a statement that said, in part:
“This review by the Davidson County Solid Waste Region Board is just the first step in the expansion process. TDEC is the primary governmental agency that regulates the permitting and operation of solid waste disposal facilities.”
A spokeswoman for TDEC answered questions about who has the authority to approve or deny the landfill’s expansion plans and whether the plans are subject to the Jackson law with a statement that said:
“When the Jackson Law was passed, it contained a ‘grandfather’ provision for landfills that existed on June 2, 1989, including expansions of these existing landfills,” the statement said. “At this time, no landfill expansion application has been filed with TDEC, and so it would be premature for the state to draw any conclusion as to whether a potential applicant has sufficient proof of legal existence on June 2, 1989 or not.”
On a Friday call with reporters, Dixie, Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville and Councilman Jonathan Hall — who are all African-American elected officials with roots in the Bordeaux neighborhood — described the landfill in personal terms.
“I’m 48 this year and my entire life has been near a landfill,” said Hall. “I live in a community that is disproportionately been devastated by COVID-19. But it’s because we have chronic illness issues, because we have issues with breathing, with COPD, with lung disease, with different rates of cancer.
“Being a kid who grew up and learned to walk and talk on Lagrange (Drive) near the Bordeaux landfill, off County Hospital Road then moving over to the Kings Lane, Ashland City Highway only to be placed right next to another one — you can understand that this is something we’ve watched in real time for generations now and it speaks to a larger concern,” he said.
The Bordeaux landfill, separate from the Southern Services construction waste landfill, operated for years in the neighborhood before then Councilwoman Thelma Harper — who would go onto become the first African-American woman elected state senator in Tennessee — helped lead protests that resulted in its eventual closure in the 1990s.
“For decades, the people of Bordeaux have had to put up with a landfill in our neighborhood,” Sen. Brenda Gilmore said. “The elected officials change in that area, but the issue is still the same year after year after year.”
“The community just feels like they have carried the burden of trash for this city for years and now it’s time for the Mayor, the Metro Council and the city of Nashville to step up and share in this burden,” she said.
The Davidson County Solid Waste Region Board meeting begins Wednesday at 4 p.m. and can be viewed here.
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