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Frayser residents push back against proposed landfill expansion — again

The owners of Memphis Wrecking Company insist that the expansion of the landfill they operate in Frayser will pose no environmental threat. They say that even if they wanted to put hazardous materials and organic waste in their facility — and they don’t — that state law prohibits it.

But even after two meetings with community members, residents of the area are still skeptical — especially considering how close the landfill is to a residential area and an elementary school.

The Proposed Landfill expansion covers a 24-acre site bounded by Thomas Street and Whitney Avenue. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

“We’re a Class III facility — construction and demolition debris,” said Carol Williamson, who owns the landfill with her husband. “That means wood, concrete, dirt, trees, metal, things like that. We do not take any hazardous or toxic waste, like chemicals, asbestos, or liquids. We do not accept paper, plastics, or food. This is not the type of place that accepts any of that.”

“This is a 20- to 30-year project,” said Ester Moore, a spokesperson for the group. “It not only affects us, but it affects our children and our grandchildren.”

After other failed attempts at expansion, Memphis Wrecking is set to go before the Land Use Control Board on July 11, where they will seek approval to proceed with expansion.

Frayser-area residents attended a community meeting about the Frayser landfill. (Photo: Lee Eric Smith/Tri-State Defender)

Late last month, about 50 people turned out for an informational meeting with the Williamsons about the project. The meeting was organized and hosted by Abundant Earth Global CDC, a Frayser-based nonprofit. Moore, executive director of Abundant Earth, attended an initial meeting that raised more questions than answers, and began organizing a follow up.

“Individual citizens have come together and found issues with the landfill expansion,” Moore said before the meeting. “I don’t think that anyone in the community at this point has all the information that we need in order to make a decision about whether we actually want the landfill to expand.”

The 24-acre site currently sprawls across an area that is bordered by Thomas St., Whitney Avenue and James Road, though only the westernmost part of the property is in use. If approved, the landfill would expand further east, bringing operations closer to homes and nearby Whitney Elementary School.

Community concerns about the expansion gained momentum when residents noticed foul smells in the air. Some residents noticed a troubling pattern: It seemed that whenever the landfill operated its incinerator, teachers, students and staff at Whitney Elementary said they noticed an uptick in rodent activity.

“There was a concern about potential rat presence at the school, Whitney Elementary,” said Lew Wardlaw, a land use attorney working with the landfill. “(At the first meeting), the Williamsons heard things that they had not heard before.”

While the Williamsons have been responsive to community concerns — even going as far as to hire a pest control expert to help determine the cause of the rodent problem — they contend that all of the outrage is based on misinformation and a misunderstanding of what their company does.

First of all, landfill representatives reiterated their status as a Class III landfill facility instead of a “take anything” Class I type of landfill, which does take food waste, scraps, mattresses and other things that might attract rodents.

On the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation website, a document defines Class III as: ) “a landfill which is used or to be used for the disposal of farming wastes, landscaping and land clearing wastes, demolition/construction waste, shredded automotive tires, and/or certain wastes having similar characteristics and approved in writing by the Department.”

The Williamsons have offered guided tours of their operations and proposed expansion, so residents can come and see for themselves. 

Despite the reassurances, residents were still wary, wondering what could happen if Memphis Wrecking decided it wanted to take organic waste.

“The state permit is for this type of landfill,” Wardlaw said. “It doesn’t allow them to change this to a more impactful landfill. They can’t say we’re going to take in garbage and trash and orange peels and old dog food and all that. They can’t do it. They can’t do it by law. 

“Forever is a long time but I can essentially look you in the face and tell you… they would have an easier time saying they want to put a rocket pad to the moon out there than getting a Class I landfill on this site. They’re locked in.”

About burning, bad smells and rodents: Steve Williamson said that while they do burn wood, they adhere to strict guidelines designed to mitigate a burning smell. “Remember, the wastewater plant is nearby too,” he said. “Those odors travel.”

As for the rodents, the Williamsons said that their rodent expert indicated a wooded area near the school is likely where the rat problem originates, though it’s unclear what spurs them in the direction of the school.

“Again, they don’t have food scraps and garbage on the landfill – the things that attract rats,” said Doug Baker, a landscape architect working with the project. “But there (are dumpsters) at the school. And there may be garbage around the park. The Williamsons are happy to meet with Memphis Parks to help fix that problem.”

In an era where people want equity and inclusion in big decisions, many in attendance simply felt like Memphis Wrecking could have done more outreach, more engagement with the community.  For their part, Memphis Wrecking touted the jobs their company supports and how the company has been a part of Frayser for generations dating back to the 1950s.

“This is a small family business,” Carol Williamson said. “We are not BFI. We are not FedEx. We are a small family business. We keep employees  employed so that they can feed their families. This is how we feed our family. And we want to live in a community where you all can be compatible with us.”

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