July 2, 2013: The Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee took up a noncontroversial House bill concerning local solid waste planning (House Bill 321). Before approving the bill, senators amended it by adding a section that chooses sides in a specific legal dispute between a landfill operator and a local government. Sen. Fletcher Hartsell described the amendment as “grandfathering” a construction and demolition debris landfill in Union County that lost its local franchise agreement. There appears to be a bit more to the situation, including several years of litigation between the landfill operator and the local government where the landfill is located.
First, a little background on the landfill franchise requirement. Since 1994, N.C. law has required the operator of a solid waste landfill that receives household waste or construction/demolition waste to have a franchise from the local government. The franchise approach assumes that a privately-run landfill still exists largely to provide waste disposal services for a city or county. The franchise also allows the local government hosting a privately-run landfill greater influence on its operation and management.
Based on the brief description in committee (and a quick Google search), the amendment to House Bill 321 seems to involve a dispute between the Town of Unionville and Griffin Farm & Landfill, Inc. that has been going on since 2009. In 2004, Griffin Farm & Landfill, Inc. received a franchise from the Town of Unionville for a construction and demolition debris (C&D) landfill. On June 30, 2008, Griffin Farm stopped accepting waste at the C&D landfill rather than meet new state landfill standards. Both the franchise and the 5-year state permit for the C&D landfill were set to expire on February 9, 2009 and in December 2008 Griffin Farm applied to the Town of Unionville for a new franchise. The Town of Unionville denied the franchise application in April of 2009, citing Griffin Farm’s neglect of the landfill, refusal to comply with new landfill standards, and past history of state violations. Several years of litigation between Unionville and Griffin Farm followed. Griffin Farm filed suit in federal court, claiming a constitutional right to continue operating the C&D landfill. The U.S District Court for the Western District of N.C. issued a decision in August of 2012 in favor of the Town of Unionville. [Note: The background facts largely come from the August 8, 2012 federal district court decision in Griffin Farm & Landfill, Inc. & Richard S. Griffin v. Town of Unionville.]
If the General Assembly approves House Bill 321 as amended, Griffin Farm & Landfill, Inc. will be allowed to apply for a new state permit for the C&D landfill without a local government franchise. Since state law otherwise requires a franchise for operation of a C&D landfill, Griffin Farm & Landfill, Inc. would presumably become the only solid waste landfill in the state without a local government franchise. Disconnecting the solid waste landfill permit from a local franchise should not be done without considering the implications for other landfill operators, local governments and state waste management policy. At the very least, the General Assembly needs to be aware that it is both setting a precedent and intervening in a longstanding legal dispute.
Note: Like much of the state’s solid waste law, the franchise statute treats waste disposal primarily as a service to citizens rather than a commercial activity in its own right. State solid waste laws also set goals for waste reduction and increased recycling. The tension between treating landfills as a necessary service versus a moneymaking commercial activity also provides much of the back story behind Senate Bill 328 (Solid Waste Management Reform Act of 2013). In that case, the push to change the 2007 landfill standards largely comes from private waste management companies interested in a business opportunity beyond simply serving N.C. waste disposal needs. That business case is supported by a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that movement of trash from one state to another for disposal is interstate commerce, so no state can just prohibit shipment of waste either into or out of the state. (The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld state and local regulations that support legitimate public purposes — such as environmental protection or recycling — even if the regulations affect movement of trash across state lines.)