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White Oak citizens seek well testing ahead of landfill privatization agreement

While Haywood County’s bid for privatizing the White Oak Landfill is still being considered, the site has now drawn the eye and ire of residents on its borders who fear contamination of their wells by its contents.

The citizens, led by White Oak resident Sylvia Blakeslee, have approached the county to request that 32 of the wells in their community be tested for heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Blakeslee said she and her neighbors in the White Oak community are concerned because of the recent infractions the landfill faced, including waste being found outside the liner that was, at best guess, up to 10 years old, according to Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King. Blakeslee said they’re also worried by the relatively unstable geologic structure beneath the landfill, pointing to a 1990 hydrogeologic report that warned of “high potential for groundwater contamination.”

“My well is the most critical,” said Blakeslee, who produced a topographic map marking the locations of several wells along the edge of the landfill. “That’s why I’m concerned.”

Her request, however, wasn’t granted by the county, who passed it on to the Asheville regional office of the state Division of Water Quality. They, in turn, realizing that the matter was under the jurisdiction of the state’s solid waste group, tossed it up the chain once more. The request landed with Ervin Lane, a compliance hydrogeologist for the North Carolina Division of Waste Management.

He hasn’t come up with an answer yet, but said he’s looking at testing data from the last 10 years to as recently as April to see if the wells do need to be tested.

“We just look at the data to determine if we think that there is an immediate threat,” said Lane, adding that “the landfill is not really in close proximity of where the wells are located, so we have to just take it step by step.”

King, however, doesn’t see a need for the wells to be tested. He said test wells that actually border or sit within the bounds of the landfill have never turned up any abnormal or increased results for heavy metals or VOCs, and even the ground underneath the off-liner waste wasn’t contaminated, much less the groundwater.

“There was no evidence at all that it even contaminated the ground,” said King. “The clay acted like a natural barrier. We tested a foot underneath the waste and all the way around it and didn’t even find any contamination in the dirt itself.”

But, he said, if Lane returns with evidence that the wells need to be tested, then he will take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of residents’ groundwater.

For her part, Blakeslee said her intention is not to stir trouble. However, when she heard of a possible plan to privatize the landfill, she shifted into gear, poring through papers and thoroughly researching the landfill’s history and possible future.

That’s when concerns about her groundwater and that of her neighbors began to surface. Fearing a rush decision on the site’s possible sale by county commissioners, she passed around a petition and forwarded the paper, with its 40 signatures, to County Manager David Cotton. Her fear, she said, is finding waste in her wells after privatization and being stuck to deal with the consequences on her own.

“I don’t think I have any contamination. I don’t want to have it,” said Blakeslee. “I just want to find out before they sell it [the landfill] off, because then what recourse do I have?”

She concedes that neither she nor any of her neighbors have found or noticed contaminated water, and King and Lane were both unsure of the residents’ motivations for requesting tests now.

But, as Blakeslee said, many of them are concerned about what will happen if site operations are turned over to a private company. Even if their wells get turned down for testing, she said, she will continue to lobby commissioners to research thoroughly any proposal to bring outside trash into White Oak.

“The way to solve it is not to throw it off on somebody else,” said Blakeslee. “Because this has got far, far reaching consequences if the wrong decision is made.”

In a committee meeting on Monday, county commissioner Mark Swanger assured staff and residents that they were in no rush to pawn off the landfill and would wait for all the information before making any recommendations or decisions.

Blakeslee said that’s all she’s asking from the county commissioners: the best, most-informed decision.

I just want them to make the right decision,” she said. “We have a beauty spot and we don’t want it to turn into a boil then a cancer.”

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