How to safely dispose of the nation’s ever-increasing volume of solid waste is an ongoing challenge.
Currently, the primary method for disposing of solid waste is in landfills. Landfills present a host of public health and environmental problems – among other issues, they can smell bad, attract vermin, leak toxic chemicals into surface and groundwater, and catch fire, releasing smoke and toxins into the air. As existing disposal sites fill up and new sites are developed, these problems continue to increase.
Historically, most landfills have been placed in communities of color and low-wealth communities, which have not had the means to fight back.
This chapter covers several of the crucial legal tools for community participation in landfill siting decisions.
The Agencies Governing Solid Waste Management
Solid waste is managed at three governmental levels: federal, state, and local.
At the federal level, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA, pronounced “rick-rah”) gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the responsibility for regulating the treatment, storage, and disposal of all solid and hazardous waste in the United States, often called the “cradle to grave” waste management process. Realizing that such a large task would be nearly impossible to effectively implement at the national level, Congress granted EPA the ability to delegate its authority to the states. A state program must meet or exceed minimum federal standards set by RCRA.
Georgia has assumed the role of implementing RCRA and managing solid waste disposal. The Georgia Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Act (“Solid Waste Management Act”) defines the rules and establishes the authority of agencies regarding solid waste management. Under the Solid Waste Management Act, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) manages Georgia’s waste in lieu of the EPA, including the regulation and permitting of landfills. EPD has the authority to issue or deny a landfill permit. The Department of Community Affairs also plays a significant role by promulgating solid waste planning guidance that a city or county may use to update or amend such city’s or county’s solid waste plan.
Much of the direct regulation of landfills is done at the local level (city and county) through their Solid Waste Management Plans, zoning regulations, and other ordinances.
Waste Management Planning Requirements
Under the Solid Waste Management Act, each city and county must have a comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. Several cities or counties may cooperate to develop a multijurisdictional plan.
The minimum requirements for the plans are to assure adequate solid waste handling capability and capacity for at least 10 years from plan adoption, including adequate collection and disposal capability, and to enumerate the sizes and types of facilities and identify sites that are not unsuitable for solid waste handling. They must include analyses of several planning elements identified in Department of Community Affairs regulations, including:
Waste disposal stream analysis
Waste reduction, collection, disposal, land limitation
Education and public involvement
Each city and county included as part of the plan must adopt the plan and any plan updates by local ordinance or resolution. For a copy of your community’s Solid Waste Management Plan, contact your local city or county government.
The Department of Community Affairs has set minimum procedural standards to ensure the public has a right to participate in the development of Solid Waste Management Plans.
Local governments must hold two public hearings, at least 30 days apart, before submitting their draft plans to the Regional Development Center for review.
Local officials must hold the first hearing before they develop the plan in order to:
Inform the public about the purpose of the plan and the process that will be followed in its preparation.
Get community input on needs and goals.
They must hold the second hearingafter the draft plan has been prepared. This hearing is intended to:
Brief the public on the content of the plan.
Allow the public to make suggestions, additions, or revisions.
Tell the community when the plan will be submitted for review.
The local government must make the draft plan available to the public when the second hearing is announced. The hearings should be publicized using the same procedures the government normally uses for public hearings.
Landfill Siting Restrictions
Many of the restrictions on landfill siting are set at the local level. First, Solid Waste Management Plans must identify any sites that are not suitable for solid waste facilities based upon environmental and land use factors.
Each city or county can also pass local ordinances and zoning regulations that govern the acceptable types and locations of landfills and that manage landfill operations. To better understand the restrictions your community has placed on solid waste facilities, contact your local government for copies of the relevant ordinances and zoning regulations.
In addition to local efforts, the state of Georgia has numerous site restrictions that govern the location of landfills in Georgia. Unsuitable locations may include sites:
within 5,708 yards of a national historic site;
within a half mile of a county or city boundary;
within two miles of a significant groundwater recharge area;
within 500 feet of occupied dwellings or their drinking water wells;
within one mile of a 25-year-old private recreational camp for minors; and
within a two-square-mile radius of the proposed site that already contains three landfills, including inactive ones.
In most cases, however, landfills may still be built within these areas if certain criteria are met.
Landfill Permitting Requirements
In general, an applicant must first obtain a permit from the EPD to build or operate a landfill.
One notable exception is that an individual is exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit (and all other requirements of the Solid Waste Management Act) if he or she is disposing of waste from his or her own residence onto land or in a facility he or she owns and disposal of the waste does not adversely affect human health.
For a landfill permit to be issued, an applicant must demonstrate that the landfill meets numerous requirements.
1. Provide written verification that the proposed facility follows certain requirements.
Along with the initial application, the applicant must provide written verification that:
The proposed facility will comply with all local zoning and land use requirements.
The proposed facility meets the jurisdiction’s ten-year capacity needs identified in a Solid Waste Management Plan.
The host jurisdiction and all jurisdictions generating wastes destined for the facility are part of an approved Solid Waste Management Plan. If the proposed facility will accept waste that originates outside of Georgia, the applicant must also provide documentation that the communities that generated the waste have a waste reduction goal and are actively involved in a waste reduction plan that are substantially equivalent to Georgia’s requirements. Solid waste facilities on property owned exclusively by a private party that accept waste solely from the owner are exempted from this requirement as long as operation of the landfill will not adversely affect public health or the environment.
This verification must take the form of letters from the relevant jurisdictions confirming compliance.
2. Complete a site assessment.
The applicant must provide a site assessment prepared by a registered geologist or geotechnical engineer.
3. Provide a showing of adequate finances.
The applicant must also show it has adequate financial resources “to ensure the satisfactory maintenance, closure, and postclosure care of [the] facility or to carry out any corrective action which may be required as a condition of a permit.”
This financial assurance may be in the form of a trust fund, surety bond, letter of credit, insurance, financial test, or guarantee.
4. Provide a design plan.
The applicant must have a design and operational plan, prepared by a professional engineer and approved by EPD, that includes specifications of liners, a description of the planned sequence of filling the landfill, and procedures for covering wastes.
The design plan must also state how the landfill will monitor surface and groundwater to ensure they are not contaminated and monitor for leaks of methane gas.
Finally, it must provide for closure and postclosure care of the landfill.
With a few exceptions, a permit applicant has a right to consideration of a permit under the laws that existed at the time of the application.
In other words, if local zoning laws change between the time the application is submitted and when it is reviewed, the old laws will apply.
If the EPD director finds the site unsuitable or identifies other problems with the application, they will deny the permit. If the site is found suitable and the application information is sufficient, the director will approve the permit application provided that the county or municipality holds a public hearing at least two weeks prior to the issuance of the permit.
The Landfill Permit Process in Georgia:
Opportunities for Public Involvement
Landfill siting has an extensive approval process. Unlike most permitting processes, which typically require at most one public meeting and one public comment period, the landfill permitting statute requires at least five public meetings and opportunities for comment. Because of the complexity of this process, it is worthwhile to go through it in some detail — it provides you the opportunity to speak out and potentially affect whether a permit is issued.
1. The Site Decision Meeting(s)
Landfill Siting Initiated by Public Entities and Private Landfills
Before Potential Site Selection
State law mandates that a public entity such as a county, municipality, or group of counties that is beginning to select a site for municipal waste disposal must call at least one public meeting, before identifying potential locations, to describe the process of siting facilities to the public. Notice of this meeting must be advertised in a locally distributed newspaper at least once a week for two weeks before the scheduled public meeting.
First Public Meeting: Site Selection Process
Prior to identifying potential landfill locations.
To describe the solid waste management needs of the proposed facility to concerned citizens.
Public Notice Requirements
Advertised in a local newspaper at least once a week for two weeks prior to the Proposed Site Decision Meeting (14 days between first notice and meeting date).
As with publicly-owned landfills, counties or municipalities considering a privately-owned landfill must also provide notice of a public meeting to discuss potential sites with community members. To avoid getting involved only after-the-fact (meaning after the land is under contract or purchased), you can:
watch for surveyors and other consultants (e.g., people taking land samples);
look for large tracts of land for sale and purchases of large tracts of land;
become aware of requests for ordinance or zoning changes to local government; and
attend zoning and county commission meetings.
After Potential Site Selection
After a potential site is selected, the local government must hold one or more meetings for any siting decisions, such as final selection of the site or execution of contracts pertaining to the proposed facility. However, zoning decisions are not subject to this requirement. Notice of the meeting — stating the time, place, and purpose of the meeting — should be advertised in a locally distributed newspaper, at least once a week, for two weeks prior to the scheduled meeting.
Second Public Meeting: Site Decision Meeting
After a landfill location has been selected.
To decide the final selection of the site or execute contracts or agreements pertaining to the proposed landfill.
Public Notice Requirements
Advertised in a local newspaper at least once a week for two weeks prior to the Site Decision Meeting. Notice must state the time, place, and purpose of the meeting.
This meeting must be conducted by the local government or the local government department handling the landfill siting.
2. Submission of the Application
Following the Siting Decision Meeting, the applicant must submit its application to EPD. This application must include the materials discussed above.
3. Public Notice of Application Submission
Within 15 days of submitting the application to EPD, the applicant must notify the host county government (or each host county government, if the landfill will serve more than one county), each local government within that county (or counties) and the affected regional development center in writing. The applicant must also publish a notice in the local newspaper serving the affected county or region and prominently display the notice in the courthouse of each notified county.
Public Notice of Landfill Application
Applicant must notify the public that it submitted an application to EPD within 15 days of submission.
Public Notice Requirements
If the application is for a facility only serving one county, then:
Public notice must be published in a newspaper of general circulation serving that county.
Each local government in the county and the regional commission must be notified in writing of the permit application.
If the application is for a facility serving more than one county, then:
The public notice shall be published in a newspaper of general circulation serving each affected county.
Each local government within said counties and the regional commission must be notified in writing of the permit application.
A public notice must be prominently displayed in the courthouse of each notified county.
4. EPD Reviews the Application
After receiving a complete landfill permit application, EPD reviews the application and the supporting data. EPD’s internal review of site suitability, as discussed above under the section titled “Landfill Siting Restrictions,” includes reviewing the site assessment report submitted by the applicant and inspecting the site.
During the review process, EPD makes a determination as to the suitability or unsuitability of the proposed site for the landfill. There is no specific timeframe within which EPD is required to come to a decision.
After making a determination, EPD notifies the applicant and the local government where the site is located (the “host local government”) of its decision in writing. After notifying the applicant, EPD may continue to review the permit application, but will not take any further action until after the local notification and negotiation processes outlined below have taken place.
5. Applicant Informs the Public of Site Approval
If the applicant receives notification from EPD that the proposed site is suitable for use as a landfill, the applicant must, within 15 days of receipt of the notification, publicize the approval of the site in the same manner used to publicize its application submission (see “Public Notice of Landfill Application” table above).
6. Government Informs the Public
Within 45 days after notification from EPD that the proposed site is suitable for a landfill, the host local government(s) must advertise (using the same method outlined in the “Public Notice of Landfill Application” table) and hold a public meeting to inform the affected residents and landowners of the proposed site and give residents and landowners the opportunity to engage in an issue negotiation process. Unlike previous meeting notifications, however, this step does not require the local government to publish notice for a specific number of days in advance of the meeting.
Third Public Meeting: Government Informs Public of Site Suitability
Within 45 days of the applicant’s notice to the public of its landfill application submission to EPD.
To inform affected residents and landowners of the proposed site and offer them the opportunity to get involved in the Facility Issues Negotiation Process.
Public Notice Requirements
The same as in the “Public Notice of Landfill Application” table above.
7. Facility Issues Negotiation Process
Concerned members of the host community have the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process through the Facility Issues Negotiation Process, which creates a Citizens Facility Issues Committee. The host local government must initiate the process upon receipt of a written petition within 30 days of the Site Suitability Meeting, described above.
There are two requirements that the petition must meet to be effective:
It must be signed by at least 25 people who are either: (a) registered voters in the host local government; (b) registered voters in a county contiguous to the host local government; or (c) landowners within the jurisdiction of the host local government.
At least 20 people who sign the petition must be registered voters or landowners in the jurisdiction of the host local government.
The host local government has 15 days from receipt of the petition to validate the petition and initiate the negotiation process. Multiple petitions may be consolidated into a single negotiating process.
Within 15 days of validation of the petition, the host local government must notify the petitioners and the permit applicant in accordance with the “Public Notice of Landfill Application” table above that the negotiation process is being started, and set a date for the first meeting between the citizen committee (described below), the host local government, and the permit applicant no later than 30 days following validation of the petition.
Within 15 days following validation of the petition, the petitioning persons must select a citizen committee to represent them in the negotiation process. The citizen committee can be composed of up to ten members, at least eight of which must be registered voters or landowners in the host local government.
Before the first meeting, the host local government will appoint a facilitator from a list provided by the Department of Community Affairs, after consultation with the citizen’s committee, to oversee the negotiation process. The facilitator’s role is to assist the petitioners, the host local government, and the permit applicant through the negotiation process.
The committee must hold a minimum of three negotiation meetings, the first of which is set by the host local government as explained above. The third meeting must be held within 45 days of the first meeting.
The facilitator presides over the negotiation meetings, and the host local government must keep minutes of each meeting and a record of the negotiation process. Issues for negotiation may include:
Operational issues (such as hours of operation)
Protection of property values
Traffic routing and road maintenance
Establishment of local advisory committees
Facility Issues Negotiation Process Requirements
Petition must be filed within 30 days of the meeting during which the landfill application was discussed.
The petition must be signed by at least 25 people who are either registered voters in the host local government; registered voters in a county contiguous to the host local government; or landowners within the jurisdiction of the host local government, at least 20 of which must be registered voters or landowners in the jurisdiction of the host local government.
Upon receipt of the petition, local government has 15 days to:
Validate the petition
Initiate the negotiation process
Local government sets the date for the first meeting and selects a facilitator.
Includes up to 10 members, at least 8 of whom must be registered voters or landowners of the host local government and the applicant.
Three meetings, at minimum, are required:
First meeting held no later than 30 days from the petition validation date (45 days after petition submission)
Second meeting held at some point between the first meeting and the third meeting (no specific date required)
Third meeting held no later than 45 days after the first meeting (90 days after petition submission)
The Facility Issues Negotiation Process is an opportunity for concerned residents to raise their concerns directly with the landfill permit applicant and can be a valuable tool to make sure your voices are heard.
The permit applicant is not required to adopt any suggestions made or address any concerns raised during the meetings, and failure of the committee to reach agreement on any requested concession does not prevent the applicant from receiving a permit.
After all three required committee meetings, the facilitator must publish a notice of the results of the Facility Issues Negotiation Process. The chairman of the citizen committee and the chief elected official of the host local government must write and execute any negotiated concessions reached by the parties. The host local government will adopt these negotiated concessions by resolution.
The facilitator will also publish a notice of a subsequent meeting within 10 days of the publication of the results of the Facility Issues Negotiation Process by the same procedures as described above.
Fourth Public Meeting: Results of the Facility Issues Negotiation Process
After all three negotiation committee meetings and within 10 days of the public notice regarding the meeting.
To give citizens and landowners not involved in the negotiation committee the opportunity to provide input before the permit process continues.
Public Notice Requirements
Notice must contain the date, time, and place of the meeting.
The facilitator must use the same method described in the “Public Notice of Landfill Application” table above.
EPD may not issue or deny the permit until the local notification and negotiation processes have been exhausted.
If a petition is not submitted or cannot be validated, local government notifies EPD that the Facility Issues Negotiation Process is complete. At that point, EPD may finish reviewing the permit application.
8. Approval or Denial of the Landfill Permit
Ultimately, EPD makes its decision to approve or deny the permit. However, approval may not be issued prior to a public hearing on the matter by the host local government.
No less than two weeks before the issuance of the permit, the county, municipality, or regional authority involved in the landfill application process must hold a public hearing. Notice of the hearing must be posted at the proposed landfill site and advertised in a local newspaper serving the county or counties affected by the proposed landfill at least 30 days prior to the hearing date.
Fifth (and Final) Public Meeting: Hearing on Permit Approval
Not less than two weeks prior to the issuance of the permit.
For the government to inform affected residents and landowners of the approval of the landfill permit and offer them the opportunity to voice their concerns.
Public Notice Requirements
The hearing must be advertised at least 30 days prior to the hearing date.
Notice of the hearing must be:
Posted at the selected landfill site
Advertised in a local newspaper serving the affected county, municipality, or region
Challenging the Landfill Permitting Process
and its Outcome
Prior to and during the landfill permitting process, both the permit applicant and community members may challenge various regulations and decisions, which could result in or require litigation. The permit applicant has the right to challenge any local government’s refusal to verify the applicant’s compliance with the Solid Waste Management Plan, ordinances, or zoning laws. Both the applicant and community members may challenge local government decisions if those decisions are inconsistent with the Solid Waste Management Plan or relevant ordinances and zoning laws. Any of these challenges would be raised in a lawsuit filed in state court.
In addition, community members may challenge the approval of a permit application, using the administrative review process described in Administrative Appeals in Georgia.
Once they begin operations, landfills may be governed by federal law under the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. See Water Quality Permitting for more about water permitting, and Hazardous Waste, Toxic Substances, and Contaminated Land Cleanup for more about the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which regulates solid wastes. If a landfill violates either law, individuals or community groups may sue under the “citizen suit” provisions of those acts, as described in Citizen Suits.