A few weeks after the Amherst County Board of Supervisors awarded a contract for construction of a new transfer station for waste disposal, Supervisor Tom Martin voiced concern with the handling of an environmental component in the agreement.
During the board’s Jan. 21 discussion and 4-1 vote to authorize the contract between the county and Rocky Mount-based Price Buildings Inc. to build the station, Martin expressed an objection to paying $53,000 for nutrient credits rather than constructing a rain garden or water impoundment normally required by state stormwater control rules.
Virginia’s nutrient trading program, administered through the Department of Environmental Quality, is a mechanism that allows developers to buy credits that help bankroll water quality protection work. Through the program developers and builders use the credits to offset the negative impacts of construction and other activities happening elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which includes Amherst County.
Although he had reservations, Martin voted along with a majority of supervisors to approve the contract to build the transfer station, a new $2.2 million facility to process incoming waste and send it elsewhere rather than burying it in the county’s landfill, which eventually will close when its lifespan runs out in late 2021.
The board reviewed the transfer station option at length before Martin took office in January. County Administrator Dean Rodgers said at the Jan. 21 meeting the county was out of time in further probing the decision and needed action to meet its window of having a transfer station in place by November 2021 or moving ahead with landfill expansion. Supervisor David Pugh was the lone “no” vote in awarding the contract and closing the landfill, which he has described as an asset.
Martin asked why the contract proposal appeared to automatically set aside $53,000 to buy nutrient credits rather than the board deciding if a rain garden or some other form of environmental measure was necessary. He said he felt the board should have been included in making certain environmental decisions on the plan.
Rodgers said the county signed the contract with Price Buildings on Feb. 4 and extensively discussed the nutrient credits measure with the company earlier that day. He said DEQ regulations require the county to remove phosphorous from runoff water to keep it from getting into streams and making its way into the James River and Chesapeake Bay watershed.
The design and state oversight for a rain garden or similar measure would eat up more time and push the project beyond the landfill’s capability to take in more waste next year, he said.
“It’s very expensive to keep these things up, especially in the long term,” Rodgers said of a rain garden option.
The county and Price Buildings agreeing to set aside $53,000 for purchasing nutrient credits was done in the interest of speed and simplicity, Rodgers said. In an effort to save money Amherst has opted in to DEQ management of the nutrient credits program and the agency determines when nutrient credits are allowable and when water protection features are required, according to Rodgers.
Martin, who is employed as chief planner for the City of Lynchburg, pointed to the county’s comprehensive plan for guiding growth and future development stating residents and a citizen advisory committee emphasized land preservation and environmental protection more than any other topics as a cornerstone goal of the plan.
“So in a massive project like this where we’re getting ready to spend millions of dollars, we automatically took the easy way out, at least for the contract, to buy outside nutrient credits, probably in Buckingham County, that’s going to do nothing for protecting the waterways in this county,” Martin said.
Martin said in his opinion the county automatically went with what was easy for the company by agreeing to the purchase of just more than $53,000 in nutrient credits elsewhere and he feels the money would be better spent directly in the county.
Bill Gillespie, the county’s consultant for the transfer station project, in a written response provided to supervisors addressed the use of nutrient credits rather than installing a water garden.
“In my opinion the County’s focus is the solid waste business, not the care and maintenance of water gardens,” Gillespie wrote. “This site is in a very rural setting and the overall impact on the environment is extremely minimal. DEQ, in their wisdom, created nutrient credits just for this situation.”
Martin said in response to Gillespie’s statement: “This county is in the business of building community, improving the lives of our citizens, protecting our environment and making sure we plan for the future of Amherst County, not just solid waste.”
Martin said the board could have chosen an option that preserved open space at the 278-acre landfill site, on which the transfer station will locate, probably at little to no cost, and he is bothered by how the figure for the nutrient credits was arrived at.
“I reluctantly voted for it but I can tell you, if I’m going to have to fact-check everything for the next four years, it’s going to be a long four years for me and a long four years for you guys,” Martin said, later adding: “There are other options that should have been considered first.”
Martin said the county’s director of community development, Jeremy Bryant, should have been present on the transfer station development talks. The site plan has yet to reach the community development department’s review, but Martin feels it should have been included earlier in the process.
“Guys, we’ve got to do stuff differently,” Martin said to supervisors. “… What I see is pretty much everything we do is the cheapest we can do it … and staff is sending it as cheap as they can. And if we don’t fact-check everything … I’m not sure what we’re getting.”
He said he’d rather have projects come forward from staff with a full range of cost estimates and the board decides after its review what to include or nix. In future projects he said he would like to see the county address environmental concerns than automatically deciding to bank nutrient credits.
“Moving forward, I’m recommending that we pay attention to addressing environmental issues in this county where we are actually getting the benefit,” Martin said. “We should at least consider doing it here first. The correct way, the way it’s recommended by our comprehensive plan.”
Chairwoman Claudia Tucker said as part of a farming family she takes environmental protection seriously and agrees with Martin’s concerns.
“In some times, in some cases, it will cost extra money,” Tucker said of environmental measures tied to projects the county may consider moving forward. “… Sometimes it’s better to do things right than on the cheap. I concur. But we have five people here who have to be OK with that guidance.”
Following the dialogue, Rodgers said the county would have Bryant, as the county’s chief planning and zoning official, take part in a procurement committee for similar future projects.
“That’s fine with me,” Martin said, “as long as someone is looking at the [comprehensive plan] in the beginning rather than the end.”
Reach Justin Faulconer at (434) 385-5551.