Officials discuss landfill status, push for UNA student, community activism

A waterfall causes a stalagtite of iron and manganese deposits to drip down tree roots at the Wallace Spring location. The deposits are caused by leachate escaping from the landfill.

Cars blaze down Savannah Highway. In the woods, the air is quiet, and Wallace Spring bubbles content and clear down a hill on a warm day in April.

Charles Rose follows a familiar path alongside the brook as it separates private property from the Florence landfill. After a short walk, the water takes on a different look: a fluorescent orange hue begins to emerge in paint-like patches on the bed of the spring.

“It’s kind of unpredictable,” Rose said. “More rainfall can cause it to look better or cause it to look worse.”

The farther Rose walks downstream, the brighter and thicker the orange paint gets. It culminates in a small waterfall—the water running through an old tire and down a dark orange stalagmite.

After a few miles, Wallace Spring joins with Cypress Creek.

Rose, president of the Shoals Environmental Alliance (SEA), has been heavily involved with local environmental concerns for several decades. He teamed up with David Cope in 2009, and their data played a role in drawing attention from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM), which issued the landfill a contamination violation, Cope and Rose said.

Ultimately, their involvement impacted the City Council’s vote to close the landfill in March, said Dick Jordan, City Councilman of District 2.

“(Cope) and I have been working together,” Jordan, councilman for the district containing the landfill, said. “He goes out to the site on a regular basis. He’s been a good teacher, and it’s been a good learning experience.”

Cope is an assistant math professor who has been watching areas around the old and new Florence landfills. The old one, located in West Florence past Handy Homes, closed in 1987, which is when the new one opened, Cope said.

The old Florence landfill has been leaking leachate since its closing in 1987 and will continue to do so for another 50 to 75 years, by Cope’s calculations.

“I’m just referencing it to what I know first hand,” Cope said. “That old landfill in Florence that closed in 1987, it closed 25 years ago. It’s still discharging high concentrations of leachate. And it’s not just my visual observations; I’ve got the measurements to prove it.

“Leachate will flow from a landfill anywhere from 50 to 100 years,” Cope said. “What that demonstrates, and something everybody ought to know, is that landfills are forever.”

Leachate is any liquid that originates from or passes through buried garbage, Cope said.

Now, in the wake of the landfill’s closure, Manager of the Florence Solid Waste, Street and Recycle Department David Koonce said all garbage except for construction and demolition waste will be transferred to a regional landfill in Walnut, Miss.

“This is the way most communities dispose with waste,” he said. “This is a national trend. Most cities and counties have gotten out of their own garbage business.”

In an attempt to fix the leachate contamination of local springs, workers are planning on drilling a hole into the landfill to pump out some of the ground water thought to be buried there, Koonce said.

The procedure is expected to happen in the next two to four weeks, Koonce said.

Until then, Cope believes active participation and education are key to improving the landfill situation overall.

“Apathy is the worst enemy to the political process in this country,” Cope said. “I think we all agree that helping educate the public on this is something that would be a worthwhile goal—letting people know: don’t be afraid to stand up.”

Koonce agrees, but asserts that the problem is bigger than the landfill.

“This belongs to us all,” he said. “We all play a role. You can’t just look at one thing. You’ve got to look at the whole picture. The landfill is an issue, but there are so many other issues we all play a part in.

“It’s very far-reaching, and it has a lot of impacts way about Florence.”

Though Herman Graham, city councilman for District 3, was the only councilman to vote against the closing of the landfill, he believes in the far-reaching effects that social involvement can facilitate—especially involvement from students.

“I welcome their input,” he said. “The way they look at things differently is what we need. Sometimes their ideas go the furthest. They are our future. One day when I’m gone, this will be their town.”

Rose echoes Graham in his concern about the divide between the young and older generations.

“There are many local groups that are involved with the environment, and they do not get much participation from students and young adults,” he said. “All of those groups tend to attract older adults. They’re all looking for new members.”

One student staying active is sophomore professional chemistry and mathematics double major Alex Edwards.

Edwards has been working on a research project attempting to determine heavy metals in land and water around various springs that surround the landfill. He said the sources of pollution are not always right in the open.

“To be honest with you, if you’re just a kayaker down Cypress Creek, you can’t really—you hear news about how environmentalists are saying that the landfill is polluting the creek—but you can’t really see any evidence of it if you’re just kayaking down Cypress Creek,” Edwards said.

Some of the evidence is too small to see with the naked eye. In one project, Edwards isolated water samples from one of the springs which, when evaporated, caused metals to emerge from the water. This was caused by an oversaturation of the “unknown metals,” Edwards said.

“It’s like pouring sugar in a glass of water and it not dissolving because there is so much sugar,” he said.

Cope said the student perspective with projects like this is vital to facilitating mass education.

“Students like Alex who have taken an active interest in this have been instrumental in creating public awareness,” Cope said. “And to the extent that the public becomes aware, then the politicians become aware.”

Cope cites the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam protests of the ‘60s as epitomes of activism.

“Do college students have a common theme they’re standing up for these days?” Cope asked. “There are issues which are a lot bigger than any of us and which, in time, we realize, ‘Gosh, I wish I would’ve stood up for that.’ And this environmental thing, I think, is going to be really important.”