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by Mike Masterson | March 21, 2023 at 4:25 a.m.

The notoriously leaking North Arkansas Board of Regional Sanitation (NABORS) landfill, capped by the state nine years ago for serial violations and leaking leachate, is the focus of attention once again across this karst-laden stretch of the Ozarks.

Like the plot from a B horror film, waste management company Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS) seeks to purchase, reanimate, re-permit and expand the historically polluting creeper that already contains 2.8 million cubic yards of waste, while claiming this sale can make things better.

Since our state finally closed and covered 60 acres of this mess, reasonable people wonder: Why reopen and enlarge it, possibly jeopardizing the long-term water quality of the White and North Fork rivers, along with Bull Shoals and Norfolk lakes, while letting the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment (formerly the Department of Environmental Quality) off the expenses hook for managing and cleaning it?

The nonprofit environmental group Friends of the North Fork and White Rivers thankfully has been standing in the gap of this bad idea by actively resisting the sale. Environmental attorney Richard Mays of Little Rock, who represents the Friends organization, further explained the site's background.

NABORS Landfill, Mays says, has a troubled history that bodes anything but well for any future plans. It is owned by the Ozark Mountain Solid Waste Management District established in 1991. As a result of state investigations in 2010 and 2012, the state and district entered into three Consent Administrative Orders (CAOs) to address various issues, including overfill of waste at the landfill's cells and failing to have an adequate financial assurance plan for closure.

The district failed to comply with those CAOs. On Feb. 12, 2013, the state filed a complaint in Baxter County Circuit Court to compel compliance. That suit resulted in a preliminary injunction finding in part that leachate had adversely affected water wells in the vicinity and that the district's failure to collect and dispose leachate had an extremely high likelihood of causing large-scale contamination of ground and surface water surrounding the landfill. As a consequence there was a significant threat of irreparable harm to human health and the environment.

A summary judgment on May 13, 2014, authorized the state to use district funds for stabilizing the site, leachate collection and post closure care. The state shuttered the place and stopped waste from being deposited.

It also contracted with a private firm to collect and remove leachate. The last semi-annual report on Jan. 20, 2023, said during the prior six months, 180,000 gallons of leachate had been removed, and groundwater testing showed high levels of chemicals and metals that present a threat to human health.

The district's problems forced it into bankruptcy, Mays says, so the state became responsible for post-closure care. Despite this, LRS entered into a contract with the district to purchase the landfill.

The contract calls for a due diligence investigation of current environmental conditions. The Friends group says it has reason to believe LRS will pursue the acquisition regardless of the results of that investigation.

In a recent newspaper op-ed, LRS South Senior Vice President Rusty Janssen insisted his firm, despite widespread assumptions, is an industry leader willing to assume full liability for, and invest millions in, cleaning up the site, and manage it as an environmental advocate in the future rather than relying on an ill-suited regulator to operate it.

Critics of the sale disagree, asking what makes LRS an expert, and questioning whether LRS can be trusted to assumed all liability and why it claims there's no proof the landfill sits on karst when expert scrutiny by geologists, hydrogeologists and state studies show otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Baxter County Quorum Court has adopted an ordinance that prohibits the reopening the landfill.

Mays said his Friends group is concerned the state will very possibly look with favor on the sale to LRS to be relieved of the continuing drain on the state's post-closure fund.

I can see how this situation might set up a potential conflict of interest between the state's obligation to protecting our environment and freedom from the landfill's financial obligations.

My opinion: Reopening this landfill to add even more waste would exacerbate an already terrible situation. Yet I'll not be surprised from its published response to the flap if LRS elects to proceed with purchasing the landfill and attempts to obtain the state's permission to open a new cell there.

Any dubious benefit from resurrecting and enlarging a leaking landfill does not come remotely close to the tangible risk of contamination to northern Arkansas' magnificent lakes and rivers that also provide drinking water to area communities.

I'll also not be surprised should the Friends organization ask the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at [email protected]

Print Headline: Sale under fire


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