Odors ‘like feces’ and runny eyes: Complaints grow for Middle Point Landfill

Aluminum waste in Murfreesboro landfill could pose long term environmental and financial consequences

By: - February 11, 2022 7:30 am
A Nashville landfill, not operated by BFI. (Photo: John Partipilo)

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

More than 1,600 complaints about the Middle Point Landfill have poured into a Murfreesboro “odor reporting portal” since December, describing smells emanating from the 207-acre site as “like feces,” “a rotting, gaseous smell,” “like methane and musky shoes” and driving some residents indoors with runny eyes, scratchy throats and headaches.

On Tuesday, an attorney for the city of Murfreesboro presented the complaints to the Central Solid Regional Waste Board, an oversight body that is locked in a legal battle with owners of the landfill, BFI Waste Systems of Tennessee.

BFI wants to expand the landfill’s footprint by nearly 100 more acres. The landfill takes in household trash from 34 Tennessee counties. Without an expansion, BFI officials have said the landfill could close within seven years, leaving a third of the state without a destination for trash.

See more: While battles loom over landfills, Middle Tennessee hurtles toward a trash crisis

The board rejected BFI’s plans in July. BFI filed suit against the board in August, seeking to overturn its unanimous decision. The city of Murfreesboro joined the lawsuit in early December. Weeks later, a Nashville Chancery Court judge overseeing the lawsuit sent the dispute back to the board to weigh whether new evidence discovered since the board’s rejection should be considered in any decision about the landfill’s future.

The odors are likely the result of an ongoing chemical reaction inside the landfill that could prove to be both dangerous to the environment and costly to contain in the years ahead, an investigation publicly released Tuesday by Murfreesboro officials concluded. BFI has long been aware of the dangers, city officials allege.

About 680,000 tons of “secondary aluminum smelter waste” was deposited at the Middle Point Landfill between the mid-1990s and 2007 — information unearthed in state environmental records — Adam Tucker, the city’s attorney, told the board on Tuesday.

The waste, a byproduct of the aluminum industry, can contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium and other chemicals. When mixed with household trash — and moisture — the materials react, creating the potential for heat, noxious odors and chemical fires.

“Secondary aluminum smelter waste presents significant problems with respect to the management of the landfill, that BFI has long been aware of these problems and that the resulting exothermic reaction generates gases, odors and leachate (liquid discharges) that are not typical for municipal solid waste landfills,” a letter Tucker presented to the board read.

“How long will this reaction (go on) at Middle Point? According to BFI’s engineers, that answer is ‘not known,’ but the reaction will certainly continue for ‘many years,'” the letter said.

BFI, a subsidiary of the nation’s No. 2 waste company, Republic Services, stopped accepting aluminum dross at the Middle Point landfill in 2007 following a high-profile environmental disaster at the company’s Countywide Landfill in Ohio, where 600,000 tons of aluminum waste mixed with household trash and liquid to create odors, heat and fire. Republic Services has spent more than $80 million on clean up efforts since.

Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland sits with his face in his hands at a contentious meeting to discuss the Middle Point landfill in Murfreesboro. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland sits with his face in his hands at a meeting in May to discuss the Middle Point landfill in Murfreesboro. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The existence of the aluminum waste in the Murfreesboro landfill could pose long-term environmental and financial consequences for city officials and taxpayers, who are responsible under the terms of its contract with BFI to clean the leachate — or liquid flowing from the landfill, city officials claim. The landfill sits adjacent to the east fork of the Stones River in a rapidly developing suburban area, raising concerns about the effect of gases and runoff in the community.

Ed Callaway, an attorney representing BFI,  told the board on Tuesday that it doesn’t have the authority to consider any evidence of aluminum waste, or odors — and should therefore reject the evidence presented by Murfreesboro officials.

“BFI believes the board strays from its authority in considering these issues,” Callaway said. “Odors or other operational issues are not part of the board’s purview.”

Should the board decide to weigh that evidence, Callaway said it must also consider the company’s own expert reports. One of those reports, by an engineering expert at the University of Virginia, concluded that the issues associated by past aluminum waste at the landfill have already been addressed effectively, that any heat or odors associated with the aluminum waste are “under control” and that the source of hydrogen sulfide in the area is unknown.

Hydrogen sulfide is a gas associated with aluminum waste products. Its smell is often associated with rotten eggs.

Another company expert concluded that the levels of hydrogen sulfide that have been detected in the area are well below levels that could pose health risks to humans.  A third expert hired by the company provided a letter summarizing scientific literature about how “expectations regarding odor may play a dominant role in whether odors are perceived, how intense they are, and to what source they are attributed.”

The Solid Waste Regional Board will reconvene on Feb. 24., when it is expected to make a decision on whether to accept the evidence submitted by Murfreesboro and company officials.

 

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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.

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