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Shouldering the cost of Haywood’s old landfill contamination

Underground contamination leaching from an old, closed-down landfill in Haywood County will cost millions to clean up, a burden homeowners countywide will be forced to bear through higher trash fees over the coming decade.

County commissioners got their first glimpse this month at how much each household will have to chip in over the next 10 years to pay for the cleanup.

The proposed amortization schedule wasn’t pretty.

It calls for a 35 percent increase in the trash fee for homeowners and businesses — from $92 a year to $155 a year — starting next year. The fee is tacked on to property tax bills but applies only to homes and businesses, not vacant lots or raw tracts of land.

Of the roughly $60 annual fee increase, a portion will cover projected inflation associated with the current landfill operations and convenience center trash sites.

Most of the hike, however, will be pass-along costs due to pollution cleanup at the county’s former landfill.

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“It is basically paying for the sins of the past,” said David Francis, a county employee who has been spearheading the old landfill remediation work.

Toxic pollutants seeping from the old, unlined Francis Farm landfill have contaminated groundwater and soil, spreading onto neighboring properties. The cleanup is two-fold: buy out the surrounding properties that have been contaminated and cap the old landfill with an impenetrable cover to stop pollution from migrating any further.

The total cost could be as much as $13 million, with $3 million of that already spent and the rest yet to come. State regulators have forced the county’s hand to clean up the site, and the county now has no choice but to pass the cost along.

“We didn’t cause the problem, but we are left with solving the problem. It is mandated,” Commission Chairman Mark Swanger said.

There are only two options to foot the bill. One is property taxes. The other is the annual trash fee paid by homeowners and businesses. That option seems fairer, since those who generate trash would all pay in equally, commissioners concluded.

“I hate to see it go up, but it has to be done and it has to be paid for. I see no other alternative,” Swanger said.

The trash fee is tacked on to property tax bills but differs from property taxes. It is a flat fee across the board, and not contingent on individual property values. Also, the trash fee doesn’t apply to raw tracts of land or vacant lots.

Unfortunately, the county has to pay for the cleanup work as it goes. It can’t borrow the amount and pay it back slowly over time. Borrowing money would mean putting up collateral, but offering a contaminated landfill as collateral for a loan would go over like a lead balloon.

“If we forfeit on the loan, then you can have the landfill … that just won’t work,” Swanger said.

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