The Canton Sanitary Landfill may expand eastward toward residential areas in the city, after the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality unanimously approved a variance for the proposal on Thursday.

The variance allows the project to sidestep an environmental regulation that prevents a landfill construction within a mile of a residential area, the first step in formal approval for the project. Rule 1.3 of MDEQ’s Nonhazardous Solid Waste Management Regulations lays out the requirements.

“No new landfill or new land application site receiving putrescible waste shall be located within one mile of a residential area, unless the proposed facility would be located in an established industrial park, in which case the facility shall not be located less than 1000 feet from any residential area,” the regulation reads.

The new expansion would breach those requirements, jutting toward existing residential areas in Canton, including an older section to the north and a subdivision to the south. The landfill is not located in an industrial park, meaning the variance, in essence, allows the expansion to use the rules for industrial park landfills anyway.

Pile of garbage on the ground
Canton Sanitary Landfill is one of two landfills in Madison County—plans for a third were recently cancelled after significant public outcry. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Robbie Wilbur, an MDEQ representative, provided the Crirec with the following statement instead of a requested interview.

“According to information submitted to the Commission by the City of Canton, the existing landfill disposal boundary is located approximately 0.67 miles from the limits of the Rose Bud Park Subdivision to the northeast and approximately 1.09 miles from the limits of the Jackson Ridge Road Subdivision to the southeast. This current landfill disposal area was permitted in the mid-to late 1980s prior to the adoption of the current one-mile setback requirements to residential areas. The city is proposing a new landfill expansion area that, if approved by the Permit Board, would be located approximately 0.84 miles from the Rose Bud Park Subdivision and 0.82 miles from the Jackson Ridge Road Subdivision.”

Additionally, the statement stressed that the board’s action was not a final approval of the project or the variance in how close the project may come to residential areas, but that Canton must now “demonstrate to the Permit Board that the city can construct and operate the landfill expansion area in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment.”

Several of the commissioners—their identities not always clear through the teleconference Thursday—debated whether or not residential and public areas approaching the footprint of landfill expansion were a cause for concern.

“If this was a potentially hazardous situation, in a sense, you’ve got the County Jail and Sheriff’s office closer than a mile. A Walmart, and the Canton Multipurpose Complex where I’m assuming kids are out there playing all the time much closer to these landfills than either of these two residential areas,” one commissioner said, adding that he was supportive of the variance.

“I’m struggling a little bit with whether or not there is any concern with how this expansion may affect human health,” another commissioner questioned. In the end, the commissioners present voted unanimously to grant the variance.

Research indicates that living near landfills carries a number of potential health risks. An International Journal of Epidemiology study from 2016 examined the mortality of Italian residents living close to landfills, finding meaningful exposure to hydrogen sulfide, occurrence of lung cancer, and overall hospitalizations and deaths from general respiratory diseases.

“People who live close to municipal solid waste (MSW) landfills could be exposed to air pollutants emitted by the plants (landfill gas containing methane, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide and other contaminants including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and bioaresols) or to contaminated soil and water,” the study begins.

In the discussion, researchers pointed out specific, acute threats of landfill presence to children. “We found a positive association between exposure to hydrogen sulphide (H2S), that we used as a surrogate for all the pollutants co-emitted from the landfills, and mortality for lung cancer and respiratory diseases as well as hospital admissions for respiratory diseases, especially in children,” they wrote.

Like Beans and Corn

The variance is only the beginning of the process for the approved expansion. Now, the City needs to prepare solid waste, water and air permits for MDEQ. After approval of those permits comes a public notice and community discussion. Finally, the whole proposal goes before the permit board for final approval, rejection or modification.

Melon Garrett, director of the Canton Sanitary Landfill, told the Crirec in an interview today that maintaining the landfill was key to the self-sufficiency of the city.

“Canton is one of the few cities with its own utilities, its own landfill. If the landfill closes, then the waste would have to be transported to another landfill, either in Mississippi or another state,” Garrett said.

Headshot of Melon Garrett
Melon Garrett, director of the Canton Sanitary Landfill, compared the proposed expanded landfill to crop rotation, explaining that the footprint extends into areas already used for waste management. Photo courtesy City of Canton

Canton’s municipal landfill receives waste from Copiah, Hinds, Holmes, Madison, Rankin, Simpson, Warren and Yazoo counties in addition to waste from Canton itself. An MDEQ representative at the commission hearing estimated it would fill its remaining usable area within the next 5 years.

Garrett explained that the landfill’s footprint would be expanding in the opposite direction of some of the public facilities in the area.

“The existing landfill is actually closer to the Multipurpose Center than the (proposed expansion),” he said. The landfill expansion runs east, south of Soldiers Colony Road, towards a small wastewater lagoon that is no longer in service. Beyond the lagoon is a small neighborhood.

While this does expand the solid-waste storage closer to residential areas, Garrett said the old wastewater lagoon already renders the area unusable.

“We wouldn’t want to go put a Walmart on top of a wastewater facility. But what you can do, because it’s been used as a source of waste—not contaminated, but wastewater—is turn it into a solid-waste facility,” Garrett said. “Most people look at it as a bad thing. But that area would not be used to put playgrounds on, for recreation.”

The director used an agricultural analogy to explain. “It’s kinda like planting beans one year and corn the other.”

MDEQ’s first measure of support for the expanded landfill follows the sudden end for another. NCL Waste recently abandoned its plans to construct a new landfill in Madison County just north of the already-existing Little Dixie Landfill. The project’s end came after MDEQ tabled the issue in 2020, following significant public pushback.

With the Little Dixie Landfill set to cease operation in the next decade, and the additional site now cancelled, the future of landfills in Madison County will depend upon MDEQ approval of the Canton Sanitary expansion—and what the public has to say about the enlarged footprint.

Nick Judin began his career in journalism at the Jackson Free Press in 2019, coming on as State Reporter to cover the 2020 legislative session. That posting quickly gave way to a year leading the JFP’s COVID-19 coverage. Nick’s reports from the frontline of coronavirus have repeatedly made national headlines, as he has asked hard questions of state leadership and done critical interviews with the state’s top public-health experts. Email the Jackson, Miss., native at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.