On a hot early August afternoon, Saundra Brown stands along a quaint country lane in the Creek Side Estates subdivision off East Cherokee Drive. Throughout the neighborhood, newly built homes with hefty price tags sit one next to the other, just close enough for Brown and other residents to feel like neighbors and just far enough apart to keep things quiet and private.
It’s a calm, peaceful, “great subdivision,” said Brown, who has lived in the neighborhood near Ball Ground for about nine years.
Residents in Creek Side Estates have access to a nearby park, well-kept roads and scenic views of a thriving wilderness around. But Brown and her neighbors have one amenity most Cherokee residents don’t: a clear view of the towering, 1,200-acre Pine Bluff Landfill over the horizon.
Although menacing in appearance, Brown said no one in the neighborhood notices the sight or the activity at the waste disposal facility looming through the tree line.
“They are not working at night; they don’t work on Sundays,” she said. “I don’t really mind the dump being back there as long as they keep improving.”
Waste Management, owner of the landfill, doesn’t exactly have an easy task of keeping the impact of the sprawling facility down.
Marla K. Prince, senior community relations specialist at Waste Management, said every year about 1 million tons of refuse from 15 counties make it into the ground at the facility off East Cherokee Drive.
According to numbers from the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, that accounts for the vast majority of the trash disposed of in Cherokee County’s landfills last year. In 2012, 1,091,857 tons of waste was disposed of in the 31 active landfills in the county, according to GAEPD. Twenty-eight of those landfills are “inert,” accepting natural waste like tree limbs. But even landfills like Pine Bluff, which Prince said has 28 years left before hitting capacity, can only accept so much garbage before filling up, and some say the answer is simple: recycling.
Keeping trash alive
Michael Johnson might be the only employee at the Cherokee Recycling Center on Blalock Road, but he said that doesn’t keep the county-owned facility from taking in 1,000 tons of trash a year.
Johnson, the supervisor at the recycling center, said in recent years more and more Cherokee County residents have been learning about the benefits of recycling and how simple and effective the process can be.
“If you take out everything that’s recyclable out of your trash, you really have very little left,” he said. “A lot of customers figured out there’s no sense in paying somebody to come pick up one bag of trash every two weeks.”
Johnson said the Cherokee Recycling Center takes in “just about anything household” at its facility on Blalock Road and its other drop-off point at Hobgood Park in Woodstock. Among the materials the center will recycle are plastic bottles, any type of paper, cardboard, glass bottles and aluminum and steel cans, he said.
In recent years, cutbacks have left Cherokee County’s recycling operation taking in less tonnage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean less waste is being reused, Johnson said.
“It’s kind of hard to keep track of exactly how much garbage is recycled in Cherokee,” he said, because most trash pickup companies offer curbside recycling as well and don’t report to the county.
But even with the vast line of trash being recycled today and the different options for joining in, much of the waste accumulated in Cherokee County never makes its way to a recycling center, or even to a landfill.
Jennifer Arp, of the Cherokee County Water and Sewerage Authority, said she’s seen it first hand, time and time again.
Arp is the environmental affairs supervisor at the Water Authority, and said she is routinely disappointed to find that residents have disregarded all care for the environment and thrown trash out into the wilderness. It’s particularly distressing to find garbage washed ashore along the banks of the Etowah River, which is Cherokee County’s main source of water, she said.
The Etowah River begins its 164-mile journey in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains north of Dahlonega, winding southwest through Canton to form Lake Allatoona.
“On our river cleanups, we find a couple hundred pounds of trash in the rivers,” Arp said. “Literally, we’ve picked up 20 bags of household trash from a site before. These are people that are dumping illegally.”
Among the items found in addition to the everyday garbage, have been TVs, other electronics and even “whole living room suites” of furniture, Arp said.
But Arp said the most popular item to illegally dump in Cherokee seems to be used tires.
“Nobody wants to pay to have those taken off, and the cheapest thing to do is to drive down some country road and throw them out,” she said.
Often, when cleanup crews find trash along the Etowah River, Arp said they call the county’s most active refuse management company, Waste Management.
She said the company is a “huge help” in these incidents.
“Waste Management has been instrumental,” she said. “When we find a huge load of tires, they’re the ones who come and make sure they go to the right place.”
Prince said her company has a “dedicated” team focusing on recycling, and works hard in general to keep the amount of trash ending up in landfills down.
“We are the leader in sustainable recycling solutions,” she said. “WM has had a history of leadership in the recycling industry, as the first major company to offer private homes paper and metal recycling, or as the company testing the latest in innovative sorting technology.”
Besides making an effort to keep residents recycling, Prince said Waste Management has also made improvements to the Pine Bluff Landfill.
Michael Shaffer, homeowner’s association president for nearby neighborhood Governor’s Preserve, said the company’s efforts have helped.
But things haven’t always been good between the landfill and its neighbors.
In 2009, Waste Management was planning an expansion, which reportedly would have increased Pine Bluff’s footprint. And residents in Governor’s Preserve weren’t exactly happy about the proposal.
“We were a neighborhood divided back then,” Shaffer said. “We had people looking to move out.”
At the time, residents were concerned with odors, pollution and, Shaffer said, had even caught employees not properly covering up garbage.
Shaffer said he and his neighbors were given little information on what the true impact of the expansion would be and were asked for “blind” support from officials. Shaffer, who said he is a physicist, did his own research to determine what pollutants were being released from Pine Bluff.
“First, I wanted to figure out what was coming out of the place, so I actually created my own mechanism for calculating fugitive emissions for a landfill,” he said.
He said he was actually pleased with what he found.
“I’m still here,” Shaffer said. “I don’t think it poses any health threat to anyone on this side of it, with the proximity that they live to it.”
And despite the turmoil in 2009, Shaffer said things are now as different as “night and day.”
The planned expansion of the landfill never went through, and Shaffer said Waste Management dealt with members of staff who had previously caused conflict with the neighbors.
“The biggest issue was the management they used to have in place, which they remedied,” he said. “My biggest barometer is all the people and the community around it. And I haven’t had a phone call in two years. Honestly, they’ve been really good neighbors since.”
Shaffer said things are better in many ways since 2009, but “I can promise you, if it ever isn’t that way, you’ll hear me screaming.”
Brown, Shaffer’s nearby neighbor in Creek Side Estates, also said the landfill has been bringing its impact down, with odors from the garbage and noise from operations progressively becoming less noticeable every year.
“Ever since we’ve been here, it’s been constantly improving,” she said.
An expansion on the facility’s gas collection system has made a “huge improvement,” on smell, said Prince.
The Pine Bluff Landfill is once again in the process of an expansion, but Prince said, “No area will be added.”
“This expansion will move the landfill back 2,000 feet from the closest home and will lower the height,” she said. “We are reconfiguring the land which will allow us to gain airspace.”