Locked out

Published 11:00 pm Friday, March 8, 2013

Photo by Jaine Treadwell

Photo by Jaine Treadwell

Landfill, town in limbo

The gates of the Brundidge Landfill on the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 231 have been closed since mid-June, and Brundidge City Manager Britt Thomas cannot hide his frustration.

“For 25 years, the City of Brundidge has recognized the environmental need and economic potential of having a modern landfill operating in our city,” Thomas said. “And, unlike many communities, we’ve supported the operation of such a landfill within our city limits.”

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But now, the privately owned landfill sits shuttered. And the City of Brundidge sits on the sidelines as judicial proceedings determine its fate – and the future of what has been a significant source of revenue for Brundidge.

The landfill history

The Brundidge Landfill is owned by Brundidge Landfill LLC and was operated under a permit issued by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and a host government agreement between the landfill owners and the Brundidge Solid Waste Disposal Authority.

“Under Alabama law, you have a landfill permit to operate a landfill. To get a landfill permit, you have to have host government approval,” Thomas said. “This host government agreement reflects the conditions under which host government approval was granted.”

Thomas said the host government agreement provides the citizens of Brundidge with a number of benefits.

“To name a few, it gives our citizens free waste disposal at the landfill,” he said. “It creates a fund for road maintenance and litter control and it provides the city with an important revenue stream, thanks to the per-ton host government fee for each ton of waste received.”

Perhaps, most important, Thomas said the agreement provides Brundidge with ongoing information and oversight of the landfill’s operations.

“If there’s a proposed variance in its permit or a problem, we’re made aware of it,” he said.

Now, that host government agreement is in jeopardy.

“After a period of financial struggles, as they tried to operate the landfill on a regional scale, Brundidge Landfill LLC and its parent company TLA-Brundidge LLC filed for bankruptcy in June 2012 in federal bankruptcy court in New Jersey,” Thomas said.

With the landfill in bankruptcy, liquidation proceedings ultimately began, Thomas said.

“The bankruptcy estate’s trustee sought to sell the landfill to pay off the creditors of the bankrupt companies,” he said. “Recognizing the limitations created by the host government agreement, they asked the bankruptcy court to void that agreement should the landfill be successfully sold.”

If the agreement is voided, then everything underlying the City of Brundidge’s host government approval is null and void, Thomas said. “And, that means the ADEM permit, which means no landfill. And that may be just what they – Coffee County – wants.”

The Coffee County variable

Thomas said that the Coffee County line is eight miles south of Brundidge, the way the crow flies.

“Right now, the bankruptcy trustee is working to sell the landfill to a company called Brundidge Acquisitions, LLC,” Thomas said. “Brundidge Acquisitions is relying on funding from Coffee County to finance the purchase of the landfill.”

On Oct. 17, 2012, the Coffee County Commission authorized the issue of up to $6 million in financing to Brundidge Acquisitions to enable it to acquire the landfill. It also entered into a project agreement with Brundidge Acquisitions to govern the use of any such funds.

With its assurance of financing in hand, on Dec. 18, 2012, Brundidge Acquisitions agreed to purchase the landfill from the bankruptcy estate for $4 million. The court approved the agreement, contingent upon there being no other offers for the landfill that were less than $250,000 more than the Brundidge Acquisition offer, Thomas said.

“Of course there were no other offers,” Thomas said. “The City of Brundidge has looked at the landfill and considered buying it. Other private companies have looked at the landfill. No one who is serious about it seems to think it’s worth much more than $1 million. So, why is Coffee County willing to spend almost four times what the landfill is worth?”

The answer should be obvious, the Brundidge city manager said.

“Look at the map,” Thomas said. “You have the Coffee County Landfill, which collects disposal fees for Coffee County. You have major sources of waste in Troy and, between them, you have our landfill. Basically, they are a competitor and Coffee County wants to shut us down.”

Thomas said the Coffee County interests are either going to acquire the Brundidge landfill and divert waste to their landfill or destroy the City of Brundidge’s landfill permit over the course of an unsuccessful acquisition process.

“Either way, their landfill will end up with the waste volumes,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that he doesn’t understand why Coffee County’s citizens support paying four times what the landfill is worth.

“Something just doesn’t add up,” he said. “It’s hardly the stuff of being good neighbors, which is something we’ve always tried to be.

“And, this will hurt, not just our town’s revenues, but our citizens, who are facing the likelihood of increased collection and disposal costs.”

The wait for resolution

The landfill issue became so contentious that the City of Brundidge filed a lawsuit on Jan. 31, 2013, seeking a declaratory judgment that Alabama law prohibits a county from acquiring property in another county, much less in another city in another county.

Another lawsuit, which was filed a week earlier, demanded that the Southeast Alabama Solid Waste Disposal Authority, of which Coffee County is a member, stop collecting waste in Brundidge for disposal at the Coffee County Landfill.

“Alabama law is crystal clear in this regard,” Thomas said. “An authority cannot operate within a municipality without that municipality’s approval. We’ve told the authority that on several occasions and we finally had to file a lawsuit.”

When questioned as to why the City of Brundidge doesn’t buy the landfill, Thomas was quick to answer.

“Look, we’ve tried talking directly with the creditors and we’ve tried talking with the bankruptcy trustee,” he said. “But they are all fixated on this pie-in-the-sky idea of a $4 million purchaser out there for a $1 million landfill. So, they aren’t talking to anyone else.

“But that $4 million dog isn’t going to hunt because Alabama law does not allow another county to underwrite the purchase of property in my town. And, it doesn’t allow a landfill to be operated after the host government agreement has been unilaterally rejected by the owner.”

In the event Thomas is wrong and Brundidge Acquisitions can acquire the landfill, then that’s an even bigger issue for Alabama, Thomas said.

“If that’s the case and a landfill can simply go bankrupt and then re-open without a host government agreement remaining in place, then it calls the whole host government approval process into question,” Thomas said. “And is that what ADEM wants? Is that what the people want?”