ST. PAULS — At any moment over Larry Lowery’s yard, the sky may explode with hundreds of seagulls and vultures.
Welcome to life next to Robeson County’s growing landfill. The unfenced landfill attracts all kinds of wildlife, from rats to coyotes to bears, and the smell in the morning is pretty disgusting, said Lowery’s son, Danny.
The Lowerys, who own two brick homes, and residents of approximately 25 other houses are uneasy neighbors of the landfill and, as the landfill continues to expand inside its borders, many are upset and distrustful. Two recent meetings with county officials and engineers have not helped.
“They want all this land,” said Joel Pegues. “I fought for this country in three wars, and they want to take away my piece of it.”
Pegues’ nine acres is located along Joshua Road, a neatly cared for dirt road off N.C. 20. At the corner of Joshua and Toot Toot Road, where the Lowerys live, there is a 23-acre deep gash in the ground. It’s a borrow pit the county excavated for dirt that is used to put a daily cap on its trash.
The pit is a few feet from the road and a string of trailers. There are homes on the other side of the borrow pit too.
“There wasn’t dirt enough to operate for 30 years,” Danny Lowery said. “They need clay, and they own this land.”
What seems to have soured the community is that they were never notified that a giant pit would be dug so close to their homes. The excavation was noisy, and the pit is not fenced, although the county’s plan is to build a fence during the 2018-19 fiscal year.
The county says that there are no requirements for a public hearing to dig a borrow pit. There is a requirement for a public hearing to expand the landfill. On Jan. 2, the Robeson County Board of Commissioners will hold a formal public hearing paving the way for the expansion of the landfill upward and outward — but not into the borrow pit.
The neighbors have lost trust in the county, in part, because plans for the landfill have changed dramatically. Despite assurances, they fear that trash from five counties will end up in the borrow pit and even closer to their noses.
“This is hurting our property values,” Danny Lowery said. “There’s talk of a buyout. I’ll take it and run, but daddy can’t.
“It’s not so much what they are going to do, it’s what they’ve already done,” Lowery said.
County landfill director Gene Walters said state regulations do not allow trash to be buried below the water table. Putting trash in a 25-foot deep borrow pit is out of the question, he said.
“The borrow pit will become a pond,” Walters said. “A nice pond.”
According to the original plan, the landfill was to be closed and capped two years ago. Instead, the landfill, located about five miles east of St. Pauls along N.C. 20, keeps growing. It is a guarantee against the high cost and stiff regulations of establishing a new landfill.
The Lowerys built their family home in 1986, a year after the landfill opened. It was a smaller operation then.
Today, the landfill accepts trash from Scotland, Cumberland, Bladen and Hoke counties. It may be large, but it is not a regional landfill, Walters said.
“A regional landfill operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. “We shut down at night and on weekends.”
Because it is so difficult to establish a new landfill, the Robeson County Landfill is exceptional, and extending its future is very important, Walters said.
“State rules and regulations make finding a place for a new landfill really difficult,” said Walters, who has worked at the landfill for 18 years. “Our engineers say we have another 30 years here.”
Walters said any expansion will be vertical and horizontal.
“One reason we still have capacity is that recycling has reduced the amount of waste coming in,” Walters said.
Another significant change is the county traps a significant amount of methane that is produced by rotting garbage. As the landfill grows, so will the amount of methane that is converted to electricity and sold to Lumbee River Electric Membership Cooperative.
Through the years and changes, the county and its landfill have tried to be good neighbors, said county Commissioner Lance Herndon, who represents the area.
“We got several good ideas from our last meeting with the neighbors,” Herndon said. “I felt like the meeting went well. We had people there to answer their questions.”
Herndon said the county did not give notice before beginning work on the borrow pit.
“If they did notify them, I am not aware of it. It is not a requirement,” he said.
Herndon said the landfill is a real asset to the county.
“Robeson is one of a few counties in the region with a landfill with more than 20 years of useful life remaining,” he said. “The big thing is that we have a place for our trash.”
Walters, County Manager Ricky Harris and Kellie Blue, the former finance officer for the county and now an assistant county manager, all said the landfill is not the money-maker many believe it to be.
The landfill had revenues of a little more than $7 million in 2016, but its expenses were almost $7 million, Blue said.
“Some years, there is a surplus, and some years, there is a loss,” she said.
The county is required to set aside approximately 10 percent of its current revenues for “post-closure expenses,” Blue noted. A landfill must be monitored for many years after closure.
Revenue from the landfill pays the cost of numerous staffed trash collection sites across Robeson County.
In 2015, the county netted nearly $1.4 million from sales of electricity to Lumbee River EMC. That number will go up as the landfill grows.
Improved communications, beyond required public hearings in Lumberton, might help.
“That hearing should be held here, not in Lumberton,” Danny Lowery said.
“They look at us like we’re trailer park trash,” Larry Lowery said.