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The Broadside (Transcript): Our trash lives next to this community

A rural community has endured living next to North Carolina's largest landfill for generations. But its residents are determined to keep fighting for a clean home.

Anisa Khalifa: Our waste is unavoidable. Trash is a byproduct of living. And it’s easy to put it out of mind once it leaves our curb in the back of those stinking trucks every week. Garbage gets "thrown away" — but where is “away”? And who lives next to it?

Unidentified Speaker: Who decides if my area is dirty or clean and my water is contaminated, who makes that decision? And why do I have to have contaminated water and air?

Anisa Khalifa: I'm Anisa Khalifa. This week on the Broadside, what it's like to live next door to North Carolina’s largest landfill, and what one community is and has been doing to fight for a clean home.


Taryn Ratley: So you can see the old mailboxes where there used to be homes…

Anisa Khalifa: I’m standing on a narrow street in eastern North Carolina. It’s right next to a busy highway that divides rural Sampson County. As the cars rush by, Taryn Ratley points out something subtle on the side of the road — mailboxes without homes.

Taryn Ratley: The old mailboxes where there were existing properties, and with the road coming through just bottomed out, destroyed them so they put their thoroughfare for the trucks.

Anisa Khalifa: This street is called Snow Hill Drive. At one point, it was a lifeline for a thriving Black neighborhood called Snow Hill in the town of Roseboro. The mailboxes Taryn points out are echoes of that community. Nowadays, no mail trucks stop at these empty boxes. Instead, a steady stream of garbage trucks rolls through.

Whitney Parker: You know it was small and quiet and serene. Now you have earth movers and industrial-sized trucks driving through the back roads dumping toxic waste in our backyard.

Anisa Khalifa: That’s Whitney Parker. Like his cousin Taryn, who you just heard, Whitney grew up in Snow Hill.

Whitney Parker: Treasure. Paradise. We could run and play in streams, pick wild berries, didn't have a care in the world.

Anisa Khalifa: Whitney and Taryn are both fourth generation Snow Hill residents. The community still exists today. But it's been upended by what lies on the other side of that busy highway — a sprawling sea of waste.

Taryn Ratley: They divided the neighborhood. They changed the names of our roads. We cannot go out and enjoy our property. We cannot enjoy sunshine. We cannot enjoy clean air or water. We raised animals, we used to go fishing, swimming. That’s nonexistent anymore.

Anisa Khalifa: The Sampson County landfill is the largest in North Carolina. It brings in waste from about 40 counties across the state. How much trash is that exactly? The company that manages the landfill — GFL Environmental — recently reported bringing in more than 2 million tons in just one year. And keep in mind, the landfill has existed for decades.

Cameron Oglesby: It brings forth the question of who does the county and who does the government and who do the people feel deserves the burden of our trash? And how much should it cost?

Anisa Khalifa: Cameron Oglesby is a freelance environmental journalist and oral historian. She recently wrote a piece called “Waste, Race, and Place” for the digital news outlet The Assembly. It’s about the long history of Sampson County’s landfill and its effect on the Snow Hill community.

Cameron Oglesby: So the Sampson County Landfill approximates around 1300 to 1400 acres. That's how big it is. We're not just talking about what's coming out of your trash bin.

Anisa Khalifa: Cameron says Sampson county officials have been clear that certain items are not allowed in the landfill, like…

Cameron Oglesby: Vehicles, tires.

Anisa Khalifa: Radioactive waste.

Cameron Oglesby: White goods, like appliances. Untreated medical waste.

Anisa Khalifa: Highly flammable items.

Cameron Oglesby: Animal waste that has not passed state or federal regulations…

Anisa Khalifa: The list continues. But Cameron says there’s no guarantee that these things are stopped at the front gate.

Cameron Oglesby: Because the community has seen several of those things going into the landfill. Tires, for example. Yeah, people have seen people throwing tires into the landfill. Animal waste that has not passed state or federal regulations. Yes, people have seen dead pigs, dead chickens, all of the different CAFOs that exist around this facility have trucked some of their dead animals and their animal waste to this facility.

Anisa Khalifa: CAFOs, as Cameron mentioned, are concentrated animal feeding operations. Think of factory hog farming, an industry with a massive footprint in Sampson County.

Cameron Oglesby: And whether or not that is harmful or not is sort of the distinction I think we need to make. Sure, the animal waste is likely past some level of inspection, but we're still talking about decomposing bodies. Just because it passed state inspection doesn't mean it's not causing harm.

Anisa Khalifa: So is this landfill actually breaking any laws? Are they doing anything illegal in the way that they run this landfill?

Cameron Oglesby: The landfill is within its permits. Regular monitoring does exist, and that indicates that the landfill is within its permits. But that doesn't mean that the law is doing the most. And I think that's an issue across the board. This is not unique to Snow Hill. It's not unique to this landfill. Oftentimes permitting doesn't account for accumulative impacts. So the fact that this landfill exists right next to a bunch of hog facilities and poultry facilities and all these other things that are compounding air pollution and water pollution on the same set of people. But these permits might not even be going far enough in their limitations on air and water pollution.

Anisa: No laws have been broken, but Cameron says the landfill does emit a huge amount of methane into the atmosphere. A 2021 EPA report cited Sampson County as the second-largest methane emitter among landfills nationwide. Taryn Ratley says the smell of all that methane — and all that waste — invades their homes.

Taryn Ratley: You have flies and, um, vultures. The smell changes every hour and every day. And we're just almost like prisoners in our homes.

Anisa Khalifa: Can you explain the costs just in terms of the extra things that you have to do in order to have, to live somewhat, you know, semi-comfortably in this kind of environment that you wouldn't have to, if you lived in a clean environment?

Taryn Ratley: It's very expensive. You have to buy air fresheners, you have to pay someone to clean your home, power wash your home. Um, the smell gets within your home and you cannot get it out. It's in your walls. It’s tragic. I wear a mask in my home. Even pre-COVID, before COVID, I would wear a mask just to be able to sleep, because of the smell.

Anisa Khalifa: For people like Taryn and Whitney, their tainted environment has taken a toll on their physical and mental health. They’ve seen loved ones suffer from illnesses they feel are worsened by where they live.

Whitney Parker: I do believe now, actually after it's all said and done, couple of my parents are gone now. That toxic dump contributed to my mom's cancer, kidney failure. And I didn't realize until after she passed and I walked outside and saw that huge mountain.

Anisa Khalifa: This has contributed to an anxiety in Snow Hill that’s lasted for generations. An anxiety caused by a lack of health assessments and data on how specific pollutants are affecting their health.

Taryn Ratley: I think it's a deadly effect. I think that we all have suffered and need to be assessed for our health and concern from the pollutants, from the landfill.

Anisa Khalifa: The landfill has been in Sampson County in some form for 50 years. So what kind of ripple effects does that have on their ability to live a healthy life — physically and financially? Here’s Cameron Oglesby again

Cameron Oglesby: We do know, as a direct result of the landfill, that people's property values have gone down, highlighted just in people's inability to grow and to make money in the way that their ancestors did, in the way that their parents did, and the fact that people are being placed in a very difficult position where they're, like, stuck, they’re stuck. To leave is to leave their family and their ancestry behind, right? We're talking about legacies here that are being tarnished by this facility.

Anisa Khalifa: It was a windy Saturday when I visited Sampson County with our producer Charlie Shelton-Ormond. We stopped across the highway from the landfill, but even there…the smell of all the waste was inescapable. And instead of trying to avoid the smell, we wanted to get closer. So Whitney Parker took us to the landfill’s main entrance.

Whitney Parker: This is the citizens' view, the public view.

Anisa Khalifa: But… there wasn’t any trash in sight. Instead, just beyond the gates was a big green hill blocking the horizon.

Is it behind that hill? Because you can’t see any trash.

Whitney Parker: Oh it's enormous, this is just a facia. This is just the passer-byers view.

Anisa Khalifa: Whitney told us if we look on the other side of the hill, it’s a different picture.

Whitney Parler: So I can take you to an alternate entrance and you’ll see how enormous it is…

Anisa Khalifa: Coming up, Charlie and I see the mountain of trash for ourselves, and find out why it came to Sampson County in the first place.


Anisa Khalifa: After Charlie and I stopped by the main entrance, Whitney and Taryn took us to a backroad to get a better look at the landfill. And as soon we pulled up, two things were immediately clear. One, this heap of waste is huge. And two, the smell is intense, even on a windy day.

Whitney Parker: As residents, this is what we have to go by every day. Constant reminder.

Anisa Khalifa: There was also a sign for GFL Environmental at the gate, the Canadian-based company that manages the landfill. Its logo is lime green, with three leaves sprouting out of the L. It was a quiet Saturday morning, but there were a few industrial-sized dump trucks at the base of the site.

Whitney Parker: That's not an average dump truck. That's a coal mine dump truck. You see how small and how massive that hill looks compared to that.

Anisa Khalifa: From where we stood, they looked like small toy trucks compared to the landfill. It’s a gigantic hill. Much of it is covered in a green tarp.

Taryn Ratley: It's just where they dump trash and they lay like a green tarp.

Charlie Shelton-Ormond: So the trash is underneath this green tarp?

Taryn Ratley: Yeah, definitely on the ground underneath the tarp. It's, it's entirely trash.

Charlie Shelton Ormond: To someone passing by it could be mistaken for a lush hill.

Anisa Khalifa: And if you look at the sign, it says Sampson County Disposal Inc, a GFL Environmental company, which if I didn't know what it was, I wouldn't think that it was a landfill.

Popping out of the hill is a series of pipes, each of them pumping methane gas out of the landfill and into the air. Even more than the smell, I could feel the pollutants in the air. I'm sensitive to environmental contaminants, and within a couple of minutes I felt nauseous, my ears were hurting — it took me days to recover.

Cameron Oglesby: When it was first created, it was a municipal site. It was a lot smaller. It was a few hundred acres, which is still a lot, but, uh, they were only taking trash in from, from the county.

Anisa Khalifa: The landfill first came to Sampson County in the 1970s. For about 20 years, it was only for waste in the county. By the early 90s, journalist Cameron Oglesby says the local site was reaching the end of its lifespan.

Cameron Oglesby: And by 1992, it was ready to shut down. They were ready to close it. The county commissioners, when I reached out to them, highlighted that the reason they were pushing towards regionalizing and expanding the landfill was because they could not necessarily afford the costs for closing and remediating the municipal facility.

It was a money issue. It would've been a significant financial burden on the county and thus on the taxpayers to close down the existing facility, but we also have to acknowledge that there is a lot of money to be made in expanding the facility. In terms of the current financials, according to the county commissioners, the host fees for the landfill, those are the fees that the county gets for the landfill being there and existing and taking trash from across the state is about 2.3 million a year. In speaking to the folks that live in Snow Hill, it seems as though the money is going elsewhere in the county. Those benefits are not reaching them.

Anisa Khalifa: Right now, the future for Snow Hill and the landfill is uncertain. According to North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, the Sampson County site is projected to be at capacity in about 20 years. That would be 50 years as a regional landfill, plus the time it was in use as a municipal site.

Cameron Oglesby: That would have placed this pollution and these cumulative harms in this one community for 70 years.

Anisa Khalifa: And Cameron, you reached out to county officials and corresponded with Commissioner Chair Jerrol Kivett. What did he say about the landfill?

Cameron Oglesby: A couple of the key themes that came out of Jerrol Kivett’s response to me was this idea that, uh, you know we're gonna have trash, it's unfortunate it has to be in this community or anyone's community, but until we reach circularity, or whatever you want to say, until we have reduced the amount of trash we are putting out there in the first place, we're gonna need a place to put it.

Anisa Khalifa: WUNC reached out to Commissioner Kivett, and GFL Environmental and did not receive a response. So since it seems this landfill isn’t going away anytime soon, what can realistically be done to curb its effects? Cameron says a big thing is making sure people in the area have safe drinking water. That's where the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, has come in…

Cameron Oglesby: DEQ has recently been doing drinking water testing, and groundwater testing, they've been testing people's wells and their drinking water sources for PFAS.

Anisa Khalifa: PFAS is what’s considered a forever chemical — a toxic inorganic substance that takes a long time to naturally break down. DEQ has found high levels of it in several private wells around the landfill. A spokesperson for the department told WUNC they are working with residents to provide safe drinking water. But DEQ has not attributed a source for the PFAS in the water.

Another development on the horizon will work to cut down methane emissions — the main source of that pungent smell. The county and DEQ have approved a new project that will capture some of the methane being released. The goal is to turn the methane into usable natural gas.

Cameron Oglesby: They're trying to cap these major emission sources and convert the methane into energy. It's been lauded by the county as a great opportunity for the community, as a way to reduce emissions, but for many residents feels like an opportunity for the county and for these facilities to continue to make money on a landfill that people want closed.

Whitney Parker: It’s all greenwashing. Making the concept look like it's helping the community, helping the situation. It's really for profit.

Anisa Khalifa: As an organizer in Snow Hill, Whitney says the ultimate goal is to have the landfill closed. It’s a task that at times can feel insurmountable – like trying to roll a boulder up a mountain with little results. In this case though, it’s a mountain of trash.

Whitney Parker: Community wise, people are tired.

Anisa Khalifa: But to keep going, Whitney says you also have to count the small wins along the way. Since Cameron Oglesby’s article came out in The Assembly, people in Snow Hill have heard from other communities across the country who are living in similar circumstances. They’ve offered Whitney and Taryn advice on how to test for contaminants in their animals, their water, and more.

Whitney Parker: It's a good feeling to know that someone's listening.

Anisa Khalifa: Snow Hill might not look like it once did. Those mailboxes on Snow Hill Drive may never have another home. But people like Taryn and Whitney are working to ensure their community doesn’t stay isolated and has a future.

Whitney Parker: Someone worked for us to have a community, somewhere to thrive, somewhere to call home, somewhere to call community. I look at it as someone's taking my home away from me. And I'm not gonna let that happen.

Anisa Khalifa: If you want to check out Cameron Oglesby’s report for The Assembly on the Sampson County landfill, click the link in the show notes. This episode of The Broadside was produced by Charlie Shelton-Ormond. Jerad Walker and Wilson Sayre edited the episode. Special thanks to Mr. Larry Sutton with the Sampson County NAACP.

The Broadside is a production of WUNC–North Carolina Public Radio. You can email us at If you enjoyed the show, leave us a rating, a review, or share it with a friend! I’m Anisa Khalifa. Thanks for listening y'all. We'll be back next week.