The Heights

Nutbush fights proposed landfill near homes, school and Wolf River

At the northern tip of Nutbush between Jackson Avenue and Interstate-40 sit a subdivision and 85 acres of woods and wetlands. The neighborhood is lower income, but resident Grady Bennett said it's doing well right now. Property values are stable and the community is tight-knit.

“It’s a quiet area,” said Bennett. “The neighborhood is a mixture between Hispanics, African-Americans, and white people, and different ages as well ... the people around me are like family, and I just don’t want to see this neighborhood go down,” he said.

The woods are Bennett’s current concern. The property runs behind his home along the neighborhood’s eastern boundary and is privately owned by TI Properties.

In November, the company applied to Memphis & Shelby County Land Use Control Board to develop a landfill for construction and demolition debris to be operated by Collierville-based Blaylock and Brown Construction, Inc.

Neighborhood groups and supporters like the Wolf River Conservancy, Protect Our Aquifer and Sierra Club's Chickasaw Group are speaking out against potential safety risks the landfill could pose to residents and the environment, including Memphis’ famously pure drinking water.

The site sits roughly 1,200 feet from the Wolf River and is part of its 100-year floodplain, the area likely to be inundated during significant rains or flooding that serves as a natural barrier for the neighborhood. Roughly 24 of the 85 wooded acres are wetlands, which help "recharge" the Memphis Sand aquifer said the conservancy’s director of land conservation, Ryan Hall. 

“In addition to all the surface water quality [and] wildlife issues and benefits, you’ve got that underlying aquifer that’s just the most important thing for citizens of the Mid-South,” said Hall.

A video from the Oppose the Nutbush Landfill Facebook Page lists the proposed landfill's potential harms to the city's water. 

Stakeholders are also calling foul on what many see as the larger issue — a company exploiting weak spots in zoning laws to take advantage of a low-income, minority neighborhood.

“I’m going to call environment racism here,” said Scott Banbury, conservation programs coordinator for Sierra Club’s Tennessee chapter. “They think they can get away with it because it’s a poor neighborhood that isn’t going to have the resources to fight back.”

The Oppose the Nutbush Landfill Facebook page has more than 200 members, and an online petition started by Sheryl Sullivan, neighborhood watch president for nearby Berclair, has surpassed its original 1,500-signature goal.

Stakeholders plan to attend a December 2 meeting with TI Properties to directly voice concerns. The LUCB will review the application on December 13.

Blaylock and Brown and TI Properties did not return High Ground News' requests for comments.

The Company’s Claim

In the October application, TI Properties outlined the potential benefits of the Nutbush landfill.

They claim a portion of the property meets state requirements for landfill construction — above the floodplain, no wetlands and includes a clay layer protecting the underlying aquifer — but said they still need to confirm with surveys and testing. The landfill would be Class III — unlined, above ground and accepting animal waste, construction and demolition waste and trees and woody debris. FEMA maps show only a few acres of the site are located above the floodplain.

A map of the proposed landfill site shows the Wolf River floodplain, wetlands, and the adjacent neighborhood. (Wolf River Conservancy)
TI Properties stated it would not fill in wetland acres and would create a buffer of trees between the landfill and homes with a recreation area, like a walking trail. The land is currently used for illegal dumping and trespassing for recreational use, which securing the site would discourage.

Norman Brown III, president of Blaylock and Brown, said in a November 6 article in The Daily Memphian the landfill could aid the city’s effort to reduce blighted properties, offering a convenient location to unload demolition debris.

According to the applicants, the biggest benefit is what happens after the dump is at capacity in approximately 10 years. The land will then be at a higher elevation than the remaining floodplain and available for billboards aimed at I-40 traffic and development of parks, trails and commercial construction that would bring jobs and retail to the area.

In a March 2018 article with the Commercial Appeal, Brown said the model works. In the 1980s he helped develop a Germantown landfill that’s now home to a hotel, retail and office space.

"Memphis is focusing in redevelopment,'' Brown said in the March article. "We want to be part of that ... And it will help redevelop sites that are now not functional for one reason or another.''

The Community's Concern

The biggest concern for residents is the impact to the neighborhood itself.

The landfill application includes a traffic plan for trucks that will haul waste between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Trucks would travel from Jackson Avenue down Wales Avenue to an entrance at Davis Circle, where Bennett lives.

“It’s more traffic that we don’t need,” said Bennett. "It’s very compact due to vehicles lined up trying to drop their kids off to school."

Jackson Elementary sits at the corner of Wales and Jackson. In the mornings, cars line both sides of the residential road leaving scarce room for large trunks. Hundreds of children and parents cross the road each day creating an added safety concern.

Trucks and landfills also bring noise, odor, road damage and air pollution, which can be can be especially risky for elderly neighbors and those with respiratory concerns, Bennett said.

“With the people that I’ve spoken with over the last couple weeks, the majority have told me that they don’t want it [and] we don’t need it here," said Bennett.

Bennett attended a Berclair neighborhood watch meeting in mid-November and told Sullivan about the landfill. She started the online petition that has more than 2,000 signatures.

“There are so many houses on that street. This just can’t happen to those people, it’s not right," Sullivan said.

There's also the concern of future risk. The former Germantown landfill that Brown points to as a successful development was evacuated in March 2016 when rain caused methane gas to erupt through the asphalt on Wolf Trail Cove and bubble in foamy swirls in the nearby Wolf River.

In a November 27 letter to the city’s Office of Planning and Development, the Summer Avenue Merchants Association asked how TI Properties and Blaylock and Brown plan to mitigate future risk and control odor, traffic and proximity to residences.

“Once the landfill is sealed, it will be a difficult piece of property to develop on because of constant settling issues,” SAMA also stated in the letter.

Flooding is another major worry, for both the neighborhood and Kennedy Park east of the river.

“When you fill the floodplain and wetland, the water that would go there during a storm or when the river’s high, has to go somewhere else,” said Banbury.

“It’s going to affect not only the people of Davis Circle, it’s going to affect this whole community,” said Bennett. “I’m doing anything and everything I can to get the word out about this.”

Grady Bennett stands at the entrance to the proposed landfill located at the end of his residential street. (Cole Bradley)

Before Nutbush

In December 2017, the City Council denied a request from Memphis Wrecking Company to expand their existing landfill in Frayser, which will be at capacity in two years. The landfill is located within 300 yards of Whitney Elementary School. In January 2018, the city and county issued a six-month moratorium on landfills to give time to evaluate waste disposal practices.

Blaylock and Brown own a landfill and recycling center at 10636 Shelton Road in Collierville. In April 2018 the City Council denied their request to open a second site at 2353 Holmes Road, adjacent to a church and Forest Hill Funeral Home and cemetery. Despite the moratorium, they won approval in June for a nine-acre landfill at 5559 Shelby Oaks Drive owned by R & D Ventures, LLC.

Related: "Community activists affect change in Frayser and North Memphis"

Those opposing the Nutbush landfill say involved residents were the key to the failures of the Holmes Road proposal and Frayser expansion. They want to see the same in Nutbush and hope for a strong showing at the December 2 community meeting with TI Properties.

Getting the Greenlight

The Memphis and Shelby County Unified Development Code regulates, among other things, landfill placement. It explicitly prohibits landfills in the river’s floodplain and the state prohibits landfills in floodplains and within 500 feet of a residential neighborhood, but there’s a loophole.

A planned development permit allows the owner to circumvent zoning codes with the approvals of the LUCB and City Council. In 2005, the City Council designated the 85-acre Nutbush property a planned development approved for commercial use. In the current proposal, the applicants claim a landfill is necessary to raise the grade of the land and allow commercial development.

"We are repurposing construction waste materials and using it to improve the property to make it functional in the future,” said Brown in the November 6 Daily Memphian article.

Opponents say the land already serves an important ecological purpose, and the owners knew when they bought the property that it wasn’t suitable for a landfill or commercial development.

“It is clear in the Unified Development Code that landfills are not allowed in the 100-year floodplain,” said Banbury. “So their way to get around that is to do a planned development that lets them break the rules.”

The property owned by TI Properties currently has an issue with illegal dumping, but residents say the solution is securing the property not turning the entire area into landfill. (Cole Bradley)

The Economics of Waste and Race

Today, Nutbush is predominantly Latino and lower income. Jackson Elementary reports 68 percent of students are Latino, 25 percent are Black and 97 percent are economically disadvantaged. Wells Station Elementary is also nearby and is 74 percent Latino and 11 percent Black. Ninety percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. 

In 1987 the United Church of Christ commissioned a first of its kind study on hazardous waste facilities. It found that a neighborhood's racial makeup was the number one factor in determining siting of toxic waste, more so than income, and it was a national phenomenon.

It found cities with the most abandoned waste sites were also cities with large African-Americans populations  — including Memphis, St. Louis and Atlanta — and that 60 percent of African-Americans live in communities with at least one abandoned toxic waste site.

Since then, dozens of other studies have confirmed racial and economic bias in the citing of hazards like incinerators, landfills and factories. Living in close proximity to numerous environmental hazards increases the risk of cancer, asthma and heart disease.

Developers often claim that projects are about cheap and available land, not environmental racism, but land is often more affordable in communities of color because of past racist housing policies like redlining and blockbusting that suppressed property values. In Nutbush, white flight in the 1970s and '80s left an abundance of vacancies and depreciated home values.

In addition to inexpensive land, the people in poor and minority communities are often less equipped to challenge developers. The legalities, technical languages and lengthy processes of site selection can be daunting for the most skilled researcher and more so for people who may have limited education or English-language skills. Lower-income people may also lack the flexible work schedules or transportation necessary to attend official meetings.

Memphis’ Magic (and Vulnerable) Water

The Memphis Sand aquifer sits 100 feet underground and below a clay layer that protects the drinking water from groundwater contamination. But it’s not a perfect and impermeable system. In November 2017, a toxic chemical known as PERC was found in the aquifer, and a July 2018 study by the United States Geological Survey found a direct connection between the Memphis Sand aquifer and another aquifer contaminated by a TVA coal ash pond. 

Hall explained that there are points where the clay layer is missing. This is especially common around rivers, where current and past channels are sandy and water can easily reach the clay.

“We can’t say for sure, but this area of the Wolf River may be one of those places where the river’s meanderings over the years have created a thinning, a breach in the clay that protects the aquifer,” said Banbury. “What’s really coming to light … over the last couple of decades, is there’s a lot of places where that clay is not there.”

Stakeholders are worried that if the land is filled with demolition debris, rain and flood water that reach the river and wetlands will be contaminated and, in turn, contaminate drinking water.

“We have some of the best water in the world,” said Sullivan. “You don’t want to ruin that. We want that to be around for our kids and our grandkids.”

In its landfill application, TI Properties stated that the wetlands and parts of the 85-acres that are not yet in use will continue to drain directly into the Wolf River but will sit side-by-side with the active portions of the unlined dump, which will drain into a retention basin.

“It’s just inappropriate,” added Banbury. “Anyone who understands landfill engineering will tell you that landfills should be constructed in upland areas, away from rivers, where you’re not going to have potential inundation via groundwater.”

“No one should perceive Memphis as their dumping ground. Especially the wetlands, especially the floodplain,” added Hall. “These things protect life, property and our drinking water.”

Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017. 
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