MABLETON — An abrupt change of position by the Georgia Department of Transportation could resurrect a controversial south Cobb trash site’s plans for expansion. That leaves nearby residents, who celebrated a victory one year ago when county commissioners unanimously voted the project down, with a foul odor in their nostrils. They fear that some back-room deals may have quietly put the project back on the fast track to approval. At issue is an existing transfer station that takes in construction and demolition waste but wants to expand and start accepting household garbage. County leaders met with residents
Thursday to discuss a tentative settlement agreement on a lawsuit brought by owners of the Bankhead C&D Transfer Station. A decision is expected at the Cobb Board of Commissioners meeting on Feb. 19.
“There’s still a lot of questions to be answered,” said southwest Cobb Commissioner Lisa Cupid, who represents the area that includes the transfer station.
Cupid, who took office in January, is catching up on many of the details of the proposed settlement before she can decide whether she wants to support it.
The tentative settlement offer arose after a Dec. 14 mediation with retired Georgia Supreme Court Justice Conley Ingram.
In May 2012, the Cobb Board of Commissioners denied a request by Bankhead C&D transfer station on Veteran’s Memorial Highway near Discover Boulevard, for a permit to expand operations on its 8.1-acre site. After the Cobb Planning Commission recommended approval for the permit, a GDOT report advised that birds attracted to garbage could pose a threat to planes taking off and landing at Fulton County Charlie Brown airport, located just across the Chattahoochee River in Fulton County.
“From what I’m told, birds and airplanes don’t mix,” said Rob Hosack, the county’s community development director. Hosack’s staff changed its recommendation on the transfer station expansion to denial after the GDOT report.
But GDOT has now reversed its earlier decision. Agency spokesman David Spear said the initial recommendation came from a misinterpretation of the transfer station. He said GDOT officials initially thought the proposed garbage transfer station violated Federal Aviation Administration guidelines because it would be next to a commercial and demolition landfill. But a December letter from Bankhead attorney Garvis Sams to GDOT Deputy Commissioner Todd Long pointed out that the commercial and demolition site is only for waste transfer and not disposal, asking the agency to take another look.
“We’re not solid waste experts,” Spear said when asked why GDOT wasn’t aware of the status of the transfer station, adding the caveat, “actually I used to work in the solid waste business, so I could have told them that.”
Hosack compared the waste transfer station, which is now licensed to take in material such as wood, bricks and concrete, to the county-owned facility on County Services Parkway.
“It’s a building where people bring stuff, drop it off and then bigger trucks come and pick it up and take it off site to a landfill,” he said.
After commissioners denied the request, Bankhead owners sued the county in Cobb Superior Court. Hosack said the proposed settlement includes a system designed to contain the smell of the garbage.
“It’s a lot of the same stuff they offered when the board initially turned it down,” Hosack said.
Residents decry secrecy
Area resident Shelia Edwards, director of Legacy Cares, a group formed to fight the transfer station’s expansion, said she doesn’t understand why GDOT would change its decision based solely on conversations with Bankhead’s attorney. She figures someone in the county must have asked them to do it.
“This really wasn’t GDOT’s fight to fight,” Edwards said.
Spear said he doesn’t know of GDOT hearing from anyone other than Bankhead’s attorney in advising the agency to take up the issue again.
Cupid said she doesn’t know if anyone with the county discussed the matter with GDOT officials.
“That’s the magic question,” she said. “That’s what I think has incensed some of the residents.”
Edwards said no one from the area around the transfer station was invited to take part in the mediation. She found out about it after a Mableton Improvement Coalition member drove by and saw a sign advertising the upcoming Board of Commissioner’s zoning vote.
“I don’t know if it was a conscious decision to keep us in the dark,” she said. “Sitting back, we’re asking that question.”
Before the commission vote last spring, Edwards helped rally community support against the transfer station’s expansion, bringing 42 people in opposition to the Board of Commissioners’ meeting.
The transfer station, which looks to take in 150,000 tons of garbage a year, was fined by the county in January 2011 and March 2012 after taking in household trash. Though Bankhead received a permit from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources to take in garbage in 2010, it did not get approval from the county.
“The trash was simply dumped on the ground, and they take a front-end loader and push it around,” said Mableton Improvement Coalition Vice President Robin Meyer, another opponent of the transfer station’s expansion.
Meyer said Bankhead and the county have tried to explain the site as isolated from homes and businesses. But she said it is too close to upscale subdivisions and planned development on the river.
“It is within 1,000 feet of homes, within 2,000 feet of the Chattahoochee River,” she said. “It is next door to a restaurant, it has a historic cemetery basically on its property … It’s sad, very sad.”
Sams, the attorney for Bankhead, declined comment. But in a Jan. 17 letter to assistant County Attorney Joseph Atkins, he said the proposed settlement includes stipulations that the enclosed facility would include an odor suppression system with exhaust fans and overhead misters to keep dust from spreading.
But Edwards was still concerned because Bankhead plans to have 48 truck trips to and from the property each day.
“Those doors will be open every 15 minutes,” she said. “How will they ever contain the smell?”