Rachel's Democracy & Health News #864, December 7, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: To get to the new world of green chemistry and sustainable business, we'll first have to end cheap waste disposal in incinerators and landfills. As we learn here, there are good public health reasons to do so.]

By Jill McElheney**

Thirty years ago, Florrie and Mamie Payne appealed to the Athens (Ga.) Clarke County government. A new landfill was being considered in their community, and they were concerned with the potential environmental health threats their families would face. These sisters were told by elected leaders in the mid 1970's that the landfill would be placed in their community because not many people lived on their Dunlap Road.

Being labeled "low target population" is a phrase government still uses today to place economic gain above the environmental values of communities which include safe air, water and soil. Robbing communities of dignity, health and their common good, "low target population" is an affront to a free society.

The Paynes had no choice but to raise their families next to the problematic landfill. Their foreshadowed nightmares have come to pass. University of Georgia football standout, Jimmy Payne, died in 1998 of bone cancer. He was Florrie's son and Mamie's nephew. Now, Jimmy's dad has cancer. The low target populations are the ones who suffer greater irretrievable losses with their pain financing economic profits.

A photo is worth a thousand words. Taken from an aerial view, the Haynes' family home shows that their garden was eerily located next to the landfill. Their daughter, Sharon, was born and raised within yards of the property line where trash often blew into their yard. She has medical problems so extensive that doctors find it difficult to diagnose her.

Research indicates that children are more vulnerable to environmental health hazards. Prenatal exposures can produce lifelong problems such as learning disabilities. Childhood contact with chemicals found at the landfill can show up as diseases in adulthood. Most recent studies inform that children who live next to landfills have elevated rates of asthma, and that some effects from chemical exposures can even be passed down to unexposed future generations through genetics. In essence, you can take the person from the landfill, but not the landfill from the person.

Another red flag that waves on Dunlap Road, which could be an indicator of exposures to toxicants from the landfill, are the children who did not make it. This includes spontaneous abortions, stillbirths, and infant deaths. The Clark family has had their fair share of this heartache. Natalie and Rozenia have lost children after full term pregnancies. Deaths unexplained.

If one counts up the babies from multigenerations that didn't survive, there appears to be a serious problem. Are we looking at a gene variant of families on Dunlap Road which put them at even a greater risk to toxicants from the landfill? Is it possible that the babies are genetically the most vulnerable of the vulnerable?

The older Clark women also have their losses to cope with. Brenda lost her 28 year old son suddenly in 2005. She can tell of relatives up and down Dunlap Road who have buried their children rather than the natural life process where parents pass first.

Science has supported Florrie & Mamie. In 2000, Georgia Public Health stated that: "some contamination might have entered the groundwater as early as 1977 when the landfill began operating." Help came over a decade late for Dunlap Road when cleanup began, but by then the damage had been done. Dr. Kevin Pegg concluded in 1997 that "it is likely that residents have already been exposed to the highest amounts of toxins that they they will be exposed to."

Community member Charles Nash believes cancer is the biggest killer on Dunlap Road. He challenges the conclusions of the local landfill management that no one is a victim of toxic poisoning. He joined the Northeast Georgia Children's Environmental Health Coalition to learn more, and to take that knowledge to improve the lives of his neighbors. He organized an environmental health fair which was attended by over 100 community members, and a walk highlighting awareness of the links between environmental health and the landfill. He believes that forecaring for future generations, a term coined "precautionary principle," should drive any decision to expand the landfill. His young grandsons Kenyada and Dornell are often by his side displaying the evidence of why he is so passionate about children's environmental health.

Dunlap Road residents and members of Billups Grove Baptist Church are allowing the precautionary principle to lead the way for change in their community. Attending a Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) public hearing this year, which renewed the air permit for the landfill, they learned a shocking fact: no ambient (outdoor) air tests were required for the permit approval. Residents questioned EPD officials how any permit can be issued before assuring the safety of the surrounding residents with tests.

Anyone who has visited the landfill can often see the powerdy dust stirring, and traveling with the wind. The odor, which trespasses and chronically lowers the quality of life for residents, is a frequent complaint. Furthermore, no indoor air sampling has ever been taken from homes near the contaminated groundwater plume, which could possibly be compromising residential air quality by vapor intrusion.

Today, Athens Clarke County has reached the time to make another critical decision about the landfill. We are running out of waste capacity in Northeast Georgia, and one of the options is to expand our Dunlap Road landfill. The values of Dunlap Road residents should be put on the table with the sketchy economic gain that comes from burying trash.

Dr. Bill Sheehan, director of the Product Policy Institute, and a waste management expert, has evaluated the landfill and concluded:

"Bottom line: the 6 to 8 year landfill capacity is simply a function of the low ($34) tipping fee -- absurdly low compared to the real environmental impact, to the future financial liability, or to the future rates we will pay without a landfill (e.g., Madison County's $60/ton). You could fill it up in 1 year if you price it low enough, or stretch it out to 100 years."

Sheehan believes there are better options including producer responsibility and greater use of recycling. He will be submitting them to the Mayor & Commissioners to encourage them in a new direction. Dr. Sheehan easily communicates just how economically unsound it is to put garbage into the ground.

Burying trash is like a bad habit. We've done it for so long without consideration for the people most impacted. It's time to examine the pain and payout of the regional waste management plan of our future, and consider Florrie & Mamie's concerns this time around.


** Jill McElheney is the founder of Micah's Mission in Winterville, Georgia.

Micah's Mission Ministry to Improve Childhood & Adolescent Health P.O. Box 275 Winterville, GA 30683 706.742.7826 (phone) 706.543.1799 (fax) website: http://babuice.myweb.uga.edu/MICAH/index.htm

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -- Micah 6:8