Legal Issues and County Government and Zoning and Madison County and Solid Waste and Regional News and Energy & Environment and Environment

Three-decade landfill battle rages on

January 22, 2007

ANDERSON--World War II could have been fought seven times over since Ralph Reed and sons got their first big, odiferous whiff of free enterprise.

Even though they've yet to build the Mallard Lake Landfill, the Reeds' dream of big cash from trash has wrinkled the noses of hundreds of residents in subdivision-dotted fields northeast of town since the family asked Madison County to rezone their 254-acre farm in the 1970s.

"This is the 28th year," said Reed, fresh off of his latest--but in the past always temporary--victory in the courts. "Nobody wants it in their back yards."

Whether the Reeds finally have won the decisive battle that would allow the landfill's construction is the big question festering here since last month. That's when Marion Superior Court Judge Michael Keele upheld an environmental law judge's 2004 ruling that the Reeds should be allowed to continue seeking a landfill permit.

About three years earlier, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management insisted the Reeds missed a deadline to file their permit. It's one of dozens of excruciating procedural battles in this case that are best left to recounting in a book.

One thing's for sure: Richland Township neighbors, who've mounted their decades-long opposition under the flag of the Killbuck Concerned Citizens Association, aren't quite ready to give up the fight. After all, they've shelled out more than $500,000 in three decades to battle the Reeds and what they suspect is a nefarious flock of East Coast trash operators circling overhead, waiting to pluck profits at the expense of the community.

"It's not a case of 'not in my back yard,'" responded Bill Kutschera, who lives about a mile from the proposed landfill on the northwest corner of county roads 300E and 300N. "It's a case of putting trash where it's safe."

Come see for yourself, said the retired Kutschera, who insisted on driving a visitor along a county road bordering the Reeds' site and then down into a wooded ravine. About 50 feet down, Killbuck Creek meanders on its eventual trek to the White River. Some of the water rolls down from the Reeds' field, looming above. It doesn't take a geology degree to know that, if the landfill is built and leaks, it's here where the run-off will flow.

Back up the hill, the former Honda of America executive points to the Killbuck elementary school, on the left, and to the Reed property, on the right. "Picture a 60-foot high mound of unregulated refuse ... . Underneath it is the aquifer that feeds virtually all the area."

Make that two aquifers, said Crist Blassaras, watershed coordinator of Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District.

"As a biologist, [I think] this whole thing makes zero sense ... . You could not have picked a worse location in this county."

Next chapter

But in this war, common sense and consequence seem irrelevant. In fact, most striking, perhaps, is that there doesn't seem to be an arbiter of whether this landfill makes sense in a broader context. Rather, the Reeds are ever-running a gauntlet to clear this or that local or state regulation, only to be reversed later by those agencies or in court--courtesy of KCCA counter-challenges.

So with their latest court victory in hand, the Reeds now are working to file an amended permit with IDEM, said their Indianapolis attorney, Sue Shadley.

Of course, the KCCA vows a counterstrike. The association plans to return to its early battlefield--Madison County's Board of Zoning Appeals.

The zoning board originally granted the Reeds the OK for a trench-type landfill. Note, Kutschera said, that the Reeds are now pursuing an above-ground landfill with the state--not the trench-type OK'd by the board.

It's by no means assured that the KCCA's argument will work or members will even get the chance to be heard by the zoning board. For one thing, to deny the Reeds their landfill would deny cash-strapped Madison County of landfill tipping fees, over which politicians surely must be salivating with the departure of General Motors Corp. and its parts plants that once employed 25,000.

Cynical? Not according to KCCA members. They rattle off a long list of reasons county attorneys and other officials associated with banks and firms that loaned the Reeds money over years stand to gain from the landfill.

And the Reeds are nothing if not patient. They've outlived--literally--some of the KCCA generals, including the association's first president, Sam Carlisle.

"Now, our due process of law is coming around," said Reed, who for years has operated a modest trash-hauling business in Anderson.

East Coast vultures?

What is clear is that the proposed landfill isn't just about the Reed family's looking to eke out a living tending a landfill. Based on the financial performance of other landfills, the association estimates Mallard Lake could generate $100 million over nearly 30 years.

That long ago caught the notice of the East Coast trash industry--one that historically has had ties with the mob.

Kutschera has a computer full of cases from out East, where mob-linked garbage operators were indicted or otherwise suspected of making a buck from toxic waste firms. Mix the toxics with ordinary trash and ship it out of state--voila.

"It's literally the mob's ATM, the trash business," Kutschera said.

Reed laughed heartily at that idea, denying such talk about his landfill as conspiratorial.

"Oh, yeah, the mob has been taking care of me," he said, sarcastically.

While association members said they can't prove organized crime is interested in Reed's enterprise, they point to the 2003 Chapter 7 bankruptcy records of Ralph and son, Mark, showing support from trash firms from back East.

Among more than $7 million in unpaid loans the Reed family listed in the bankruptcy--in which Ralph listed assets of only $975--was $440,000 from Mallard Lake Associates and Franklintown Development Corp., both trash-related entities.

The attorney for those organizations was Robert M. Kramer, who in the 1990s was vice president and counsel for New Jersey-based Eastern Environmental Services, a waste industry consolidator.

In 1998, Eastern was acquired for $1.3 billion by trash giant Waste Management Inc.

"Ralph Reed is purely the straw man in this thing," Kutschera said. "Basically, here's $440,000 to continue your fight so [East Coast trash operators] end up with the landfill in Madison County."

That the Reeds appeared on paper to be paupers yet were able to obtain and discharge such large amounts of debt smells mighty fishy to the KCCA.

"I find it difficult to believe that, 'Well, Ralph, you had a bad run and nobody wants their money back,'" Helen Wean, former KCCA president and a local real estate agent, said of the Reeds' Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

The parties that funded the Reeds weren't without their troubles. A year after Waste Management bought Eastern Environmental, it filed suit against Kramer and several other Eastern executives--chiefly Eastern CEO Louis Paolino Jr.--alleging "multiple acts" of accounting fraud to inflate Eastern's stock to entice buyers.

The executives denied the charges. The suit was eventually dropped.

But Paolino and Franklintown Development have had other issues.

In 1987, Ohio's attorney general filed suit against Franklintown and officers, including Paolino and David Erlich, over problems with landfills they were linked to in Ohio. There, regulators estimated that 42,000 gallons of contaminated water flowed daily from a landfill into a Cuyahoga River tributary, according to a 1990 report by The Indianapolis Star. The state also alleged the landfill was taking three times the amount of trash it was allowed.

Erlich moved on to Indiana, where he headed landfills in Wabash, Miami and Clay counties, according to the report.

At some of the landfills Erlich was involved with in Ravenna, Ohio, neighbors complained of about 100 semi-trucks a day lumbering through town, hauling East Coast trash.

For his part, Reed said the family might operate the landfill itself. He acknowledges, though, that he's looking at selling. His attorney, Shadley, said the family has been talking with at least three firms.

Nightmare scenarios

Whoever controls the landfill, residents also worry that semi-trucks hauling trash could collide with school buses on narrow county roads.

The school corporation has already said the elementary school's future is in jeopardy if the landfill is built across the street. If so, it would cost several million dollars to build a new school.

The landfill also could cause problems for the local airport. The Federal Aviation Administration has warned of a bird-strike hazard posed by a landfill, which it says is incompatible with aircraft operations at Anderson Municipal Airport less than three miles away.

The biggest and perhaps costliest problem, however, would be if a landfill were built and contaminated the aquifer the city relies on for its water. The Reeds counter that their landfill will have to meet the latest state and federal standards. That includes an impermeable basin to protect the water table consisting of several feet of compacted clay and a plastic liner.

But a memo written in the mid-1980s by a Muncie engineering firm said the soil under it is unsuitable.

"We are frankly appalled that this proposed landfill has not been rejected in the first stages of the review process," wrote the firm.

Even with today's technology, including plastic liners, landfills are vulnerable to leaks, argues Blassaras. Better suited would be an area farther east, near Interstate 69, that has less-permeable soil and is not above an aquifer.

End near?

Then again, compelling arguments against the landfill have been made countless times over the years. If the Reeds can pass the letter of the law in the state permitting process, they appear to be in the clear. IDEM isn't appealing Judge Keele's ruling.

Anderson Mayor Kevin Smith said he's opposed the landfill for years, but noted the site is not in city limits. He suggests that residents consider voluntary annexation as one strategy.

Some Killbuck residents say privately there's no assurance the city could or would stop the landfill and are wary of the political motivations.

In a war where numerous self-interests are clashing, it's about time people see the bigger picture, said KCCA co-chairwoman Stephanie Moran.

"As a citizen who says, 'I'm going to stick it out in Madison County,' you have to say, 'What about the best interest of our county?'''

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