NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Thousands of seagulls circled above the New Hanover County landfill as another load of used asphalt shingles poured out of a truck.
The load likely weighed between three and four tons — a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of tons of material deposited at the site over the last five months, in large part thanks to Hurricane Florence.
After Florence, the average daily drop off total at the landfill increased from 1,200 to 2,200 tons. Of that, county environmental management director Joe Suleyman says a large percentage is construction materials: drywall, shingles, wood and other items pulled from homes after flood or other damage from the storm.
“Primarily what we’re seeing, that increase, is demolition debris,” Suleyman said.
As more contractors become available and more people are able to finally gut their homes and start rebuilding, Suleyman said he expects the high volumes to continue — likely through at least May.
Normally, some construction debris can be recycled. Asphalt shingles, for example, can be ground and mixed with fresh asphalt to pave roads.
However, the volume after Florence has been so immense. In a single day in January, the landfill received 140 loads of just shingles — nearly 500 tons.
With that much material coming in, the places that take the recycled asphalt have been completely inundated, and told the county to stop sending the material.
Space at the landfill got so tight in the months following the storm that the county had to get an emergency permit from the state to increase how steep the slopes of the piles at the landfill can be.
Typically, Suleyman said, the landfill keeps a ratio of 4:1, but had to increase that to 3:1 to accommodate the extra material.
On top of the space issue, Suleyman said the extra volume has caused serious bottlenecks in the flow of traffic through the site.
Before the storm, the landfill would see 300 to 350 vehicles drop off loads of materials each day.
After Florence, Suleyman said they easily see 800 or more each day.
“With the infrastructure, like the roadways and the scale houses, and the on ramps and off ramps for the traffic, it’s just not designed for that sort of traffic," He said. "It’s sort of our equivalent to College Road at rush hour right now.”
Each vehicle that drops off a load at the landfill has to enter, stop on a scale, unload, return to the scale and then pay based on the weight difference. That leads to long lines going in and out of the facility, and the delays are exacerbated by continuing construction on landfill gas lines being installed on the other side of the site.
The result is a frequent line of cars stretching out into Highway 421, where there was a serious accident as recently as Monday, Jan. 29.
Suleyman said he couldn’t speak to the cause of the accident, but that the landfill is looking to find ways to mitigate traffic, whether that be moving individual drop offs to a different location, or re-routing certain materials.
Even before the storm, Suleyman said the amount of material being brought to the landfill was higher than previous years.
Three or four years ago, he said the most the landfill would get each day would be 800 to 900 tons compared to the 1,000 to 1,200 the site was seeing in the months before Florence. Suleyman attributed the increase to the continued growth throughout New Hanover County.
Coupled with that growth, the storm has led to the lifespan of the landfill being “drastically reduced," Suleyman said.
“As little as five years ago, we were predicting we’d have almost 95 years of life out at this site. Now we’re predicting about 65 years at the current disposal rate,” he said. “So we really lost a lot in the long-term survivability of this site as a resource for New Hanover County residents.”
With space rapidly diminishing, Suleyman said the county regularly grapples with what to do.
Just in the last few weeks, the landfill began using a new cell in the undeveloped portion of the site. The cell, which is lined, took 10 months to construct and Suleyman said the county is already looking at having to start on a new one.
Suleyman said there is also the option of creating an off-site location where individuals could bring items and reserve the main landfill for commercial disposal, but that solution would be expensive and would take years.
Ultimately, there is a finite amount of space at the Highway 421 location, and Suleyman said a cultural shift will be necessary if the landfill is going to be useful for more than a few more decades.
“We’re trying to implement as many waste diversion programs as we can,” he said, describing the food waste composting program the county began in the last year, and the aforementioned construction debris recycling. “The problem is, if we don’t get full participation from the residents and businesses, it all ends up right back here.”