By the time the residents of rural Brantley County realized a promising new project was a 100-acre landfill, it may have already been too late.

Local officials say they were led to believe the project was a waste-to-energy plant. When prompted, top county leaders issued letters in 2014 and again in 2015 saying a solid waste handling facility would fit with local planning rules – approval county leaders are desperately trying to claw back now.

  • Brantley County is in southeast Georgia, bordering Glynn and Camden counties. The Satilla River flows south from the area to Camden County at Woodbine and near the Ceylon Wildlife Management Area before emptying into a sound between Jekyll Island and Little Cumberland Island.

When the developer, Brantley County Development Partners, held a public hearing in late 2016, the group behind the Coastal Terrace facility already had those pivotal letters in hand to apply for a state permit. But it was around this point in the process that the public became alert to the project, with some 200 people showing up to the hearing held just days before Christmas.

Brantley County officials have beseeched the state Environmental Protection Division to toss out those earlier approval letters, which they argue are invalid. They imposed a temporary ban on landfills and updated their local zoning, blocking out-of-county trash from being brought into the community. And in 2020, GOP state lawmakers representing the area attempted – but failed – to create a three-mile ban on landfills near the Satilla River.

County officials are now making final attempts to stop the landfill after EPD signed off on the permit in May over loud local objections, allowing for the construction and operation of the facility near the town of Nahunta. Of the 9,517 comments sent to EPD, only three were in favor of the project.

They are asking a state administrative court to throw out the permit so they can have a do-over with a project that has been met with spirited community backlash.

“Everyone’s really angry and rightfully so because they felt as if they didn’t have the opportunity to be heard and make meaningful comments, and they’re absolutely correct,” said Chris Bertrand, who is the riverkeeper for the Satilla River.  

“So, people are crossing their fingers that we are successful in this litigation, because it’s the community’s last chance to avoid a landfill in their backyards,” he said.

‘Apparently purposeful subterfuge’

The county has appealed the EPD’s decision to approve a solid waste handling permit for the landfill, a dispute that is now playing out in the Office of State Administrative Hearings. The Satilla Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group based in Waycross, has filed a brief in support of the county’s efforts. 

Bertrand argues the flood-prone area is a poor choice for a landfill because of its proximity to private drinking wells and wetlands, some of which he says would be filled in. It’s also close to an elementary school.

The county also argues the landfill will hurt nearby property values, diminishing the county’s revenues and ability to provide services. The small community, which is home to about 19,000 people, argues that it doesn’t need a landfill and has rejected other private landfills.  

The county’s legal arguments, though, mostly focus on procedural issues, such as whether the developers satisfied the public participation requirements.

The county commissioners “were under the impression that the facility would be a bioenergy and or wood waste-to-energy facility rather than the municipal solid waste landfill that is authorized by the Permit,” the county’s outside attorney, Kimberley J. Hale, wrote in the county’s filing.

“This apparently purposeful subterfuge” continued at least through the December 22, 2016, public hearing, when the project was still referred to by a county official as a waste-to-energy facility, Hale said. “Neither counsel nor engineers for BCDP sought to dispel that characterization,” she added.

Rick Dunn, who is the director of the state EPD, has asked Judge Kimberly Schroer to toss out the appeal.

The state argued in a filing that local officials should have known what kind of facility was envisioned – or else should have held off on issuing the letters – and that it’s not the director’s role to independently verify whether a project complies with local zoning and planning rules.

“Regardless of any mistake, misunderstanding, or regret on Petitioner’s part, the 2015 (county letters) satisfied the statutory requirements for the Director to issue the Permit,” Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and other attorneys with his office argued on Dunn’s behalf in a filing.

In its permit application, the developer described its operation as “processing, composting, shredding, materials recovery, thermal treatment and disposal of municipal solid waste, construction & demolition waste and inert waste.”

L. Robert Lovett, a Macon attorney representing Brantley County Development Partners, declined to comment because the permit challenge and federal lawsuit are still pending. 

The developer, which purchased about 2,400 acres off U.S. Highway 82, has argued in federal court that the county’s efforts to stop the landfill are unconstitutional and violate their vested property rights. The group, which sought the first county-issued letters before acquiring the site, said it had spent more than $3 million as of 2020 to purchase and prepare the site.

The group accused county officials of being “biased and not impartial, bowing to the hue and cry of a vocal minority.” On its website, the business says it will not accept toxic coal ash and says it plans to convert household waste into energy products.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood with the Southern District of Georgia sided with the developers in a ruling last year that granted their request to block the county from enforcing newly adopted measures to stop the landfill.

“At this point, the Court is persuaded that Plaintiff is substantially likely to prevail on the merits of its vested rights claim,” Wood wrote at the time.

Rick Dunn, who is the director of the state Environmental Protection Division, has asked for the county’s appeal to be dismissed. He’s seen here speaking at a recent ag summit in Perry. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

‘Developers will be incentivized to be as vague and confusing as possible’

The Satilla Riverkeeper and Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the riverkeeper, argued that leaving the permit in place could spell trouble for other communities.   

“Allowing this permit to stand also sends a message that developers can thwart valuable public notice and engagement requirements and keep communities in the dark about planned landfills, so long as they can convince a local government to issue a letter,” Bertrand and April Lipscomb with the SELC argued to the judge in a filing.

“If consistency letters, once issued, can never be deemed inaccurate by EPD — even if local governments try to correct mistakes — then developers will be incentivized to be as vague and confusing as possible to coerce local governments into giving them what they need.”

Bertrand said Brantley County’s current zoning rules are more protective of human health and the environment and will head off any future ill-placed landfill, and he said similar work is underway in other counties in southeast Georgia that might be vulnerable.

“We’re pushing people to protect themselves more in other counties, but it’s a slow-moving process here in south Georgia, and makes sense because we have a slow-moving river and this is a slow-moving part (of the state) and that’s part of the goodness about it,” Bertrand said. “Slow isn’t always bad, but in this case, it could be detrimental.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing...