The Swannanoa River has borne the brunt of human activity for many generations — particularly in the stretch that runs along Azalea Road in east Asheville. Before 1900, people dammed up the river not far from what is now the WNC Nature Center, in order to create Lake Craig. By the middle of the 20th century, however, the lake — the pride of a little community called Azalea — was gone, silted up by a sand-and-gravel mining operation upstream.
But if you ask the folks who live on Azalea Road today what they consider to be the worst thing to happen to the river, many will answer: John Moyer‘s landfill.
Nearly 40 years ago, back when you didn’t need a permit for such things, Moyer opened a landfill on the banks of the Swannanoa River. For years afterward, Moyer allowed construction and demolition crews to dump waste on his property on the banks of the river. In 1963, he accepted debris from the clearing of the I-40 right-of-way. Later, when the new Veterans Administration Hospital was rebuilt in nearby Oteen, the remnants of the old building were trucked in and deposited there. Today, Moyer’s steep-sided pile is some 40-45 feet high, and is so wide that it has narrowed and altered the course of the river.
Now, the city of Asheville is in the final process of buying Moyer’s mound, and on either Feb. 13 or 20, City Council will decide whether to approve staff’s plan to open a landfill site on top of Moyer’s. The new site would replace the city’s near-capacity facility at the old White Fawn Reservoir, near McCormick Field. Additionally, the land under consideration includes a swath of corn fields next to the mound — the silted remains of the old lake — which would be turned into soccer fields (see “Jailhouse blues,” Jan. 31 Xpress). The property also includes an historic cabin in which Thomas Wolfe is said to have worked on Look Homeward, Angel.
The city’s plan calls for establishing a “beneficial fill” on the site. As defined by state law, a beneficial landfill can accept only “inert debris”: concrete, brick, concrete block, uncontaminated soil, rock and gravel. About 14 years from now, when the new mound has risen another 40 or so feet, the city projects that it will close the fill and transform it into a park.
But the prospect of a new dump on top of an old one, right next to the river, is upsetting Moyer’s neighbors, who claim that Moyer allowed everything from old tires to dead cows to be buried in his fill. The neighbors are questioning city staffers insistence that the landfill plan is feasible and safe.
The city is basing its position on an $86,232 study by Woolpert LLP, a national consulting firm, which was publicly presented to city staff and Azalea Road residents on Jan. 10 at a rancorous meeting.
“The city is planning to put this [fill] on the banks of the Swannanoa, on top of a landfill that no one has looked into, and there’s all kinds of issues as far as sedimentation and erosion, possible pollution, and other things which everyone seems to be just basically ignoring, and the city’s just going to fill on top of it,” declares Azalea Road Task Force member Deborah McKenna. “This whole thing reeks of environmental violations.”
A close look at the known history of Moyer’s dump and at Woolpert’s feasibility study lends some credibility to McKenna’s allegations: The consultants overlooked or minimized evidence of environmental and structural problems with the dump.
Is Moyer’s mound stable?
At one point, the consultants’ report asserts that Moyer’s landfill can support the debris the city wants to pile atop it. But elsewhere, the consultants note that a separate analysis, conducted by Mike Connor, found failure cracks running parallel to the fill’s slope, suggesting that the mound is slumping toward the river.
At another point, the study adds, less optimistically, “The stability of the existing fill area must be further defined by geotechnical testing to be sure that it will support additional material.”
The problem with this is that the city doesn’t plan any geotechnical testing until the after the project’s “design” phase is in place — which is to say, after the project has been approved. Moyer’s mound sits in the midst of the Swannanoa River’s floodplain. One lifelong resident of Azalea Road, Shirley Odom, vividly remembers the destructive power of the river, back when there was a town called Azalea:
“There used to be a railroad station, a little, small grocery,” she remembers. “There was a chair company, Azalea Lumber Company. But when the flood came in 1940, it washed all that away. It washed out the railroad tracks — they were just hanging, suspended, until 1944. I saw this. I was 5 years old, and I watched the trees across from Grove Stone [the mining operation, next to where the landfill is now] wash down.”
The consultants report fails to address the effects a flood might have on the landfill’s steep, already cracked slopes. Doug Jewell, Woolpert’s floodway expert, told residents that such an analysis was unnecessary because the latest federal floodplain maps show the mound as an “existing condition” — thus officially excluding it from the floodplain.
It’s OK, it’s inert
The consultants assured city staff and residents that the contents of the old dump do not pose an environmental hazard — basing their conclusion primarily on the Moyer’s statements to them about what’s in it.
The study includes no core-sample drilling of the mound to determine its contents, noting that such work was “outside the scope” of the study. Nor does the study report any interviews with neighbors who would have reported what they saw being trucked in to the dump.
One neighbor told Xpress that he complained numerous times to officials about illegal materials being placed in Moyer’s landfill.
In the report, the consultants acknowledge a history of “some uncontrolled dumping violations,” but go on to note that a state regulator had indicated that the problems had all been corrected, and that no current violations remain.
The consultants acknowledge that they never saw the actual records of those violations. Officials told them that the files had disappeared during the course of moving the state office to a new location. The consultants minimize this omission, noting that the site isn’t on any state list of hazardous landfills.
Those violations apparently go back to the late 1980s, according to copies of the state’s missing files, which McKenna has in her possession. An official at the state’s Solid Waste office, who requested anonymity, confirmed the violations with Xpress.
Most of the violations appear to result from allowing the dumping of construction and demolition debris. No fines were issued, the state official said, for any of the violations.
In the state’s eyes, “that is not supposed to be a landfill; it’s supposed to be a beneficial fill,” explained the official — which explains why it doesn’t appear not on any official landfill lists. The state doesn’t require a permit for a beneficial fill — the purpose of which is, according to state law, “to improve land use potential or other approved beneficial reuses.”
The city recently dropped its plans to bury old asphalt at the Azalea Road site. Used asphalt, though not “inert debris,” is allowed as beneficial fill, said the state official, “mainly because the state of North Carolina has so many roads, that they had to do something with the used asphalt. So, what can you do with it? Use it for beneficial fill.” The city’s Solid Waste Department has now decided to recycle the old asphalt instead.
“I’ve been called out there only a few times over the last several years for violations — some contractor or whatever taking a house or building out there and dumping it,” remarked the official, “which actually is like spitting in the ocean — I had them take it out. … It wasn’t that I saw a lot of stuff — what I saw was a great amount of inert debris. I didn’t see a lot of construction and demolition, except at those times when I was called out. When I saw it, I verified it, and had it removed.”
Both the official and the consultants noted the protrusion of scrap metal from the fill’s surface. Metal is not considered “inert,” and thus is illegal in a beneficial fill.
The state’s files show that in 1992, the North Carolina Department of Transportation applied to the state for a permit to bury — or “landfarm” — on Moyer’s site soil contaminated with gasoline and diesel fuel from the former Perry Alexander Construction Company site on Sweeten Creek Road.
In 1994 and 1997, Moyer was cited by the state for “operating an unpermitted solid-waste disposal site/open dump.” The 1997 Notice of Violation ordered him to “comply [with state law] by removing and transporting the following wastes, including buried wastes, to an approved facility (Buncombe County Landfill) for disposal,” followed by a lengthy list that included roofing materials, wiring, insulation, floor tile, plywood and particle board, painted wood, carpeting, furniture, and burned ash.
But that’s merely the tip of the iceberg, claims Homer Sams, a farmer and retired employee of the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, who has been Moyer’s next-door neighbor for 55 years.
“He’s [put] everything in the world … in there,” Sams claims — including dead cows. Sams’ complaints about the debris from demolished buildings being dumped there brought state officials out to the mound.
“Every time [that official’s] back was turned, [Moyer]’d let … all kinds of different trucking companies … haul stuff in there,” maintains Sams. “He’d bring a front-end loader over there and cover it up. … I’ve seen ’em bring stuff like they haul down to the city dump by the truckload — old paper and boxes and cans, and dump it in there, and he’d just cover it over.”
Unfortunately, Moyer couldn’t be reached for comment. His home telephone has been disconnected, and his son-in-law told Xpress that Moyer has moved out of town, and the son, himself, doesn’t know how to reach him.
Woolpert’s consultants published their study on Jan. 5. Three days later — as they admitted in their Jan. 10 presentation — they learned that a local engineering firm, S&ME of Arden, had drilled and analyzed eight core samples from the mound in April 1999, as part of a feasibility study for a “WNC Sports Complex” that Vic Trantham proposed to build atop Moyer’s mound. The proposal was dropped after it was determined that the mound is too unstable to support a building.
The core-sample report confirms that the mound is anything but a “beneficial fill.” Metal, wood, plastic, organic material — all non-inert materials — were found less than 10 feet below the mound’s surface. — calling into question whether Moyer complied with the state’s order to remove all unpermitted buried waste.
When asked by residents if the city could be compelled to clean up the dump, consultant Doug Jewell answered: “From the state’s point of view, they’re satisfied. Nobody is going to come back and make [the city] clean it up.”