MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — Exclusive video obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates shows how gases escape the Middle Point Landfill in Rutherford County. Some say those gases are making the notorious odor that's plagued the landfill for years even worse.
The footage shows the flare stacks meant to burn off this harmful gas that some said is hardly doing the job.
Environmental attorney Elizabeth Murphy and Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland took NewsChannel 5 Investigates right across the river from the landfill to a place where they say you can see one part of the problem, almost as well as you can smell it.
“They’re just lofting up into the atmosphere and there’s a lot of it,” Murphy said.
You can see heatwaves right above the flare stacks with the naked eye, but infrared footage shows gases floating above the heat signatures.
“Those enclosed flares are supposed to be destroying all the gas or at least 95%, but the footage shows we’re not even close to that,” Murphy said.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inspected the site July 2021, and officials said their cameras captured much of the same. They noted, “hydrocarbon plumes downwind of each flare stack.”
The agency also mentioned that a “plume of hydrocarbons was visible from a tank vent or possibly a leak, particularly when the camera was in high-definition mode.”
Just before they caught wind of the report, landfill General Manager Mike Classen told Rutherford County officials how Republic Services had already spent millions to counteract the smell.
“I am confident to stand up here and tell you this. That at a point in the not-too-distant future, we will no longer be having a conversation about the off-site odors,” Classen said.
Republic Services responded to NewsChannel 5 Investigates questions with the following statement:
"At Middle Point Landfill, we prioritize environmental compliance and work collaboratively with federal, state and local regulatory partners. Modern-day landfills are highly engineered and utilize advanced infrastructure – including landfill gas collection and control systems – to operate safely and responsibly. At Middle Point, the landfill gas system includes two on-site closed flares, the destination where collected landfill gas is safely destroyed.
A December 2021 EPA inspection report cited does not state that the flares were violating any environmental laws.
Instead, it reports observations made by the agency’s infrared cameras. The February 2022 video footage shows the enclosed flares functioning exactly as they are designed and regulated to perform. As at other compliant landfills throughout Tennessee and around the country, only trace amounts of hydrocarbons were observed following the proper destruction of landfill gas through these emission control devices."
"Middle Point is committed to safe, responsible operations, and we will continue working alongside our partners to comply with pertinent regulatory guidelines."
McFarland said this commitment created a renewed sense of urgency among residents wanting to hold Republic Services accountable for their landfills.
“We want it done the right way and the responsible way and that’s what we’re asking Republic to do,” McFarland said.
Murfreesboro opened a complaint portal roughly four months after Classen’s comments, and since then has had nearly 2,000 odor complaints.
Complaints vary from the smell creeping into neighboring homes late at night and waking them up. Some complained of headaches and others of nausea.
Had it been just Rutherford County trash, Murphy and McFarland say they’re convinced the smell wouldn’t be nearly as bad. They said the problem is what else was added to the pile. Murphy said there are about 700,000 tons of aluminum dross waste dumped years ago as a cost-effective way of disposing of industrial waste.
Middle Point Landfill accepted this material and other industrial waste, and when combined with trash in the present, Murphy called it the gift that keeps on giving.
“They mix it with the municipal waste, and you’ve got a toxic brew in there. That produces a ton of gas, and they must deal with that on the site,” Murphy said.
Landfill operators sent a notice to neighbors early this year notifying them of how Republic Services invested $5 million in 2021 to remove and destroy landfill gas collected from gas wells and collectors. They also mention that on Thanksgiving of the same year, they began installing five horizontal collectors “into an area of active fill above and beyond what regulation requires.”
According to the same letter, more than 3 million gallons of liquid were removed from the landfill between October and November of 2021 to improve the performance of the gas collection system.
Steve Pearcy is a longtime serving Rutherford County Commissioner and said he hopes Republic is truly committed to change but says it’s been years of an odor only getting worse.
“They’ve been working and trying to correct the worst part of the smell, and I hope they’re successful, but they’ve got a long way to go,” Pearcy said.
Pearcy is also a strawberry farmer who invites guests to pick their own berries. He considers himself lucky since picking season usually falls at a time when winds push the smell away from his farm.
His biggest concern has to do with the landfill expanding and how any leak in the landfill could impact the nearby West Fork Stones River. The same river where Pearcy said most of the water to the county comes from, which includes his irrigation system.
The Central Tennessee Regional Solid Waste Planning Board recently rejected the landfill’s second application for a nearly 100-acre expansion. Rutherford County officials also heard a resolution to limit the landfill to only county trash, as opposed to the more than 25 counties the landfill currently serves.
After what some have now seen, they said it’s just common sense.
“Why in the world would you want to allow someone who’s not managing what they have right now to make it even bigger,” McFarland said.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked experts from around Middle Tennessee who said that even if the landfill were to stop accepting waste today, the smell would stick around for years because of what’s already there.
Pearcy said it’s a problem older than most remember, but it’s one worth fighting if it means a better tomorrow.
“We’ve got this issue for a long, long time, but if we don’t stop adding to the pile, it will never go away,” Pearcy said.
Mayor McFarland announced a “letter of intent” for the long-term sale of the city’s solid waste to Argo USA’s Calera, an Alabama cement plant. The plant would create sustainable engineered fuel manufactured by WastAway and derived from the city’s solid waste.
The plan is still in the early stages and requires Argo to test the sustainability of the fuel source, but McFarland says he’s optimistic this is one step toward no longer relying on the landfill.
“WastAway’s process provides a beneficial fuel that hits all of the sustainability, economical and environmental goals that benefit our community and enhance the quality of life for citizens in Murfreesboro,” McFarland said.
"The council and city staff have led the effort to find solutions to the issues involved with the landfill," McFarland said. "This announcement is an important part of that effort to find a long-term, sustainable solution that is right for our community. I hope our work with WastAway can set the standard for a regional solution that others can adopt. We know our partners in Smyrna, Lavergne, and Rutherford County can work together for a truly sustainable solution. We have the right team working together and look forward to future progress.”