Waste Management sues Davidson County over landfill expansion rejection

By: - May 6, 2021 4:01 am
A Nashville landfill, not operated by BFI. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A Nashville landfill, not operated by BFI. (Photo: John Partipilo)

A fight over the future of a controversial landfill in Nashville’s predominantly Black Bordeaux neighborhood has now landed in court.

Waste Management, the owner of the Southern Services Construction & Demolition landfill, filed suit in Davidson County Chancery Court after an oversight board rejected its plans to expand its 77-acre landfill by an additional 17 acres.

That rejection came from Nashville’s Solid Waste Region Board in March. The 11-member board concluded the expansion plans were “inconsistent” with the city’s long-term Solid Waste Master Plan, a comprehensive roadmap that calls on the city to achieve near zero-waste to landfills by 2050. The board noted that health concerns, livablity, home resale values as well as environmental impacts all weighed against an expansion.

In its lawsuit, filed April 22, Waste Management asks the court to overturn the solid waste board’s decision, or for the court to remand their application for expansion back to the board for a favorable decision.

The lawsuit also asks the court to invalidate the city’s Solid Waste Master Plan entirely, calling it “unenforceable, unlawful and based on unlawful procedure.” Waste Management is asking the court to order a new amended master plan be developed.

A week after the board’s rejection, Waste Management officials told the city it could not accept debris cleared by Metro crews after floods swept through portions of Nashville.

The filing of the lawsuit has already succeeded in postponing a vote on legislation by Council Member Jonathan Hall that was designed to get Metro Council to also formally veto the expansion. Hall on Tuesday said he was withdrawing his proposal indefinitely while the legal case plays out.

And it underscores growing tensions between the landfill operators and the city since the board rejected the expansion request. A week after the board’s rejection, Waste Management officials told the city it could not accept debris cleared by Metro crews after floods swept through portions of Nashville.

The Southern Services landfill, for decades, has been the final destination for commercial and residential construction waste, which has only increased in volume as Nashville’s economy has boomed. It is currently the only landfill in the city that accepts such waste.

The landfill has also been a sore point for residents of the largely African-American neighborhoods nearby, who have complained of odors, declining property values, health problems and the eyesore of a massive dump nearby.

In the days leading up to the board vote against Waste Management’s expansion, Black elected officials from the neighborhood spoke in personal terms about the impact of landfills in their neighborhood.

“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,” said Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville. Gilmore took over the senate seat occupied by the long-serving Sen. Thelma Harper who famously led protests in the 1980s against a now-closed landfill in Bordeaux. Harper died last month.

Waste Management’s position is that the expansion is an important step to ensure the city has access a nearby facility while it moves towards its goals of reducing landfill use in the city going forward.

“Waste Management believes the proposed 10 – 12 year expansion of the Southern Services Landfill is consistent with the region’s solid waste master plan and was disappointed with the Solid Waste Region Board’s decision to deny the expansion application,” a statement from Waste Management on Wednesday said. “The expansion of Southern Services provides a critical bridge to achieving the plan’s stated 75% C&D diversion goal, which the plan acknowledges will take a minimum of 20 years.

The lawsuit argues that events unforeseen when the city created its solid waste plan in 2019 have fundamentally “altered the calculations underpinning the plan’s recommendations” against new or expanded landfills.

A pair of 2020 disasters — the March tornado and the Christmas Day bombing — generated huge amounts of debris deposited in the  Southern Services landfill, shortening the time until it will reach capacity. The closure of a second construction and demolition landfill in late 2020, which the master plan had anticipated would instead expand, similarly creates new circumstances that warrant the expansion of the landfill, the lawsuit argued.

The lawsuit takes also takes aim at the authority of the Solid Waste Region Board to approve or deny landfill expansions, pointing out that the Metro Council has not yet authorized the board to act as an official “authority,” instead of an advisory body, to implement the long term plan.

And the lawsuit claims that the findings of the board about health concerns, livability and home resale value are “not supported by any substantial and material evidence,” instead relying mostly on public comments at board meetings.

The lawsuit also makes procedural arguments, claiming that the board waited more than 90 days to render its decision after receiving Waste Management’s expansion application.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee. She is a graduate of Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Berkeley School of Journalism. Wadhwani lives in Nashville with her partner and two children.