Environmental Racism? 

Northwest Nashvillians say their neighborhoods have been "a dumping ground" for Davidson County

Northwest Nashvillians say their neighborhoods have been "a dumping ground" for Davidson County

Nobody wants to have a noxious landfill in their neighborhood, even when it's neither noxious nor in their neighborhood but instead off Ashland City Highway, in a relatively remote spot removed from homes. But the raging debate in Bordeaux over the looming expansion of the Southern Services construction and demolition landfill has as much to do with the past as it does the present.

"The history dates back to the time when they put the interstates through North Nashville," says Johniene Thomas, president of the Northwest Nashville Civic Association. "It's been an insidious ongoing onslaught ever since."

The construction and demolition landfill doesn't exactly compare to the old Bordeaux Landfill on County Hospital Road, which ceased operations nearly a decade ago, and was, quite literally a dump. After all, that contained all varieties of messy, malodorous garbage left to rot in the heart of Nashville's most prominent black neighborhood. The proposed expansion of the construction and demolition landfill calls for adding six acres to the 270-acre facility, which largely contains discarded construction materials and yard waste.

Still, for many Bordeaux residents, a landfill is a landfill is a landfill. And given what they've had to endure for years, decades even, it's hard to blame them. In many ways, the controversy over the proposed expansion has as much to do with the Metro Solid Waste Board's failure to notify residents of meetings about the landfill's plans as it does to do with environmental and traffic concerns. Given their neighborhood's history, many Bordeaux-area residents are wary of government, let alone private companies such as Waste Management.

Thomas' group started in response to a proposed mulching operation, and has since dealt with issues of residential and commercial land uses. Like many in her community, Thomas believes that Nashville's northwest quadrant—and particularly the Bordeaux neighborhood—has become a "dumping ground for Nashville and Davidson County."

The landfills are the most notorious of Bordeaux's locally unwanted land uses (otherwise known as LULUs). There is also a surface mining operation on a residential property, which, predictably, doesn't engender feelings of goodwill among its neighbors. Residents have voiced concern about the steady stream of trucks going to and from these facilities, which, they say, cause noise, air pollution and litter. Bordeaux is also home to facilities such as Simply Mulch and the White Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. You don't see those sorts of enterprises in Green Hills.

Recently, Bordeaux community leaders (and The Tennessean) have focused their energies on the proposed extension and expansion of Waste Management's Southern Services Landfill. As of this writing, the state, despite requests from Mayor Purcell and the district's Metro Council member, Brenda Gilmore, have decided to proceed with the permitting process. The state's decision is the last step in the approval process.

Waste Management first proposed expanding its facility and extending its window of operation a little over a year ago. According to Randy Pomeroy, the landfill's spokesman, the proposal calls for a six-acre expansion of a 270-acre facility. The six acres in question are completely surrounded by existing landfill. The proposal will also allow the landfill, which was scheduled to close in 2010, to operate well into the next decade.

Community leaders fear that the expansion will lead to increased truck traffic in the Bordeaux neighborhood. Gilmore is upset also that too many trucks currently cut through residential areas on their way to and from the landfill, instead of taking Briley Parkway; she fears that the expansion will only worsen the problem.

Some residents are also concerned about the Southern Services landfill's close proximity to the Cumberland River, though Pomeroy assures that water samples regularly taken upstream and downstream from the landfill show no signs of contamination.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the proposed expansion has nothing to do with the site itself—but how it was disclosed. Earlier this month, Chancery Court Judge Ellen Hobbes Lyle ruled that the expansion of the Waste Management landfill must be suspended at least until a proper public hearing can be held because Metro violated the state's open meetings law during the approval process.

According to the state Open Meetings Act, both local and state governments are required to give public notice in advance of meetings about such proposals. The Metro Solid Waste Regional Board gave public notice on May 11, 2003, for a meeting two days later. (The meeting had been postponed from an original May 6 meeting date. The first notice for the May 6 meeting ran on May 4.)

Gilmore notes that Metro's efforts were insufficient. According to Gilmore, the notice, which was posted only in The Tennessean, was a postage stamp-sized ad buried among "girly ads" in the classified section. She also says that the ad didn't explain what would be discussed at the meeting.

Gilmore also feels that the state's Department of Environment and Conservation failed to provide adequate notice. Though the state's notice was significantly larger than Metro's and was posted further in advance of the meeting, Gilmore says that the map to the meeting site (a gun club, no less) was printed upside-down and that the type was "too small to read."

Outrage over Metro and the state's failure to follow the open meetings requirement may have caused an otherwise benign landfill expansion to be misdiagnosed as another malignant environmental lesion on the Bordeaux landscape. Unlike the old Bordeaux Landfill, which was a class one facility that accepted household garbage, the Southern Services landfill is, in landfill lingo, a class three facility that only accepts yard waste (such as tree stumps and branches) and construction and demolition waste (such as bricks, wood and steel). Class three landfills must only accept inert materials that will not threaten the soil or water.

Confusion over which landfill is to be expanded has only complicated matters. Pomeroy is frustrated that Tennessean writer Brad Schrade continually refers to the Waste Management facility as the "Bordeaux landfill," sometimes even capitalizing the L. "I think there was an effort to connect our site, politically, with the effort that raged on about the old Bordeaux Landfill," he says. "We don't think there is a valid comparison." He adds, "Even in some of the meetings we've had, a good majority of the people at the meeting did not know where [the Waste Management] site was."

Regardless of the circumstances, it makes some sense that a community that arguably has been picked on for decades is reluctant to allow a solid waste facility the use of more acres. In addition to concerns over how expanding the facility will directly affect the surrounding environment, some residents are disappointed that the Waste Management landfill hasn't helped the community in terms of jobs or other economic benefits. "They're not bringing in jobs for people in the community," says Chris Utley, who heads a neighborhood association representing an area just west of Clarksville Pike. "Every time one of those places opens up, the people who get the jobs live outside the county."

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Pomeroy contends that the Southern Services landfill is actually an asset to northwest Nashville. The site gives small-time contractors and individuals who remodel or add on to their homes a place to deposit waste materials that can't just be left at the end of the driveway for the garbage collector. He says that the alternatives to a construction and demolition landfill are often illegal drops and dump sites scattered throughout the community. As an example, Pomeroy notes that Nashville doesn't have adequate facilities to handle gasoline tanks that fall off of automobiles. "You will find gasoline tanks from automobiles in every ditch around the edges of Davidson County," he says.

But many Bordeaux residents feel that more is at stake than six acres of discarded building materials. They're fighting to reverse a trend that has haunted their neighborhood for years. Community leaders feel that Bordeaux has become the default location for stuff that no one else wants. "The push to put more industrial stuff out here," Utley says, "is one of the biggest problems we have. There are already a lot of industrial areas in Nashville that we aren't using."

Gilmore feels that Nashville needs to ask itself, "Is it fair to burden one community with all of these problems?"

Poor neighborhoods have long been exploited by industries that see such communities as sources of cheap labor with little political power. But Bordeaux, by most standards, is middle class. According to the 2000 census, nearly 400 Bordeaux households bring in over $100,000 a year, while its average household income was $68,528. Since Bordeaux's situation cannot be reduced to simple economic factors, some community leaders and environmental justice advocates credit the neighborhood's misfortune to racial demographics: Nearly three-fourths of Bordeaux's residents are black.

Utley eagerly debunks the stereotypes of his community. "Everyone thinks Bordeaux is a low-income area," he says, "but it's not." He boasts about the number of professionals who live in Bordeaux and guesses that as many doctors, lawyers, teachers and executives live there as in Belle Meade. "It's a rural-type area inside the city," he says. "It's unusual to have so much landmass without a lot of things. It makes this part of Nashville different."

David Padgett has assisted Bordeaux activists with technical information as the director of TSU's Geographic Information Services Lab, and he says that, considering the plethora of locally unwanted land uses in the area, and the fact that Bordeaux is a predominantly black middle-income community, "it is likely that race had something to do with some of the land use decisions that have occurred there over the years."

Last fall, Metro Council member Gilmore openly accused various Metro departments of environmental racism, because a residential property at 4225 Ashland City Highway was allowed to be used for surface mining.

Gilmore initially sponsored a Metro Council request from CJRT Inc. for a wetland conservation area last spring. She figured that her constituents would enjoy an area of controlled wetlands similar to the wetland area in Shelby Park, which she describes as "absolutely breathtaking." (Creating the wetlands would have involved removing large amounts of dirt, which CJRT Inc. planned to sell to cover the cost of creating the wetlands.) But the Bordeaux community wasn't interested, and Gilmore withdrew the request. "It was clearly a development the community did not want," she says.

The developers got around this obstacle by purchasing 45 acres of property on which they proposed building a residential home and a large pond. Ponds and lakes are not currently regulated by Metro zoning laws, though what constitutes a "pond" is unclear. Sonia Harvat, Metro Water Services spokeswoman, says she's "not aware of written regulations that classify a pond as such." Gilmore complains that "because the property hasn't been properly developed into a wetland, it has become a big hole that just attracts water and mosquitoes."

Gilmore is also frustrated that developers have yet to build a house on the site. Harvat says that at some point a home will have to be built, but the property remains unbuilt.

The dirt CJRT Inc. has removed to create the pond has been sold to Metro and trucked across the river to cover ash fields off of Second Avenue. According to Thomas, "Every 10 minutes you see two trucks [passing by]. They start at about five in the morning and go until four or five in the evening."

Aside from air and water pollution, the Bordeaux environment has also been affected by the loss of Nashville School of the Arts (NSA). NSA moved to the former site of Tennessee Preparatory School on the southeast side of the city. "I think that it was a treasure," Gilmore says. "This was a school that was very successful, and it was successful by itself. These students chose to go to NSA in the Bordeaux area." She says that the school could have easily stayed in Bordeaux, but that Metro "wanted to enhance another part of the city." Bordeaux has had no trouble holding on to its women's prison and home for juvenile delinquents, two facilities that many area residents could do without.

Though current issues facing Bordeaux may seem trivial on paper, Gilmore, Thomas and others feel a need to change the course of history. Thomas says, "What's gone is gone; what's past is past. From now on...we want respect. We want equity."

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