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Industry threatens to leave due to dumping

SoVaNow.com / December 05, 2012
American Industrial Heat Transfer, Inc., which employs 65 people at its manufacturing facility near La Crosse, is threatening to pull up stakes because of a dispute with local officials over the dumping of landfill run-off into manholes near AIHT’s plant at the Roanoke River Business Park.

The leachate, which is officially classified as solid waste, is liquid that has seeped out from a landfill in Lawrenceville. It has been collected and trucked to the Roanoke River Business Park for disposal into the Town of South Hill wastewater treatment system. The leachate contains landfill pollutants that could, if not properly disposed of and treated, contaminate natural water sources.

AIHT is the sole tenant of the Roanoke River park — owned jointly by Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties — and employs clerical staff, maintenance workers, CNC welders and engineers. The company makes heat exchangers and related products for its industrial customers.

AIHT and the company that owns its physical plant, GS Virginia Land, LLC, filed a lawsuit this spring against the town of South Hill, the operator of the Brunswick County landfill, a local trucking company that transports the wastes and Mecklenburg and Brunswick, the joint owners of the business park. The suit aims to get them to permanently stop dumping runoff from the Brunswick County landfill down a manhole near AIHT’s plant.

At times during the dumping process, the lawsuit alleges, AIHT’s plant was filled with noxious fumes that sickened employees and interfered with manufacturing operations. Moreover, the dumping violates provisions in the property deed prohibiting “noxious or offensive activity” from being conducted on the land, according to the facility owner.

Testing conducted by Brunswick Waste Management Facility, LLC in mid-2011 showed that the leachate dumped down the manhole contained more than 100 times the federally allowable (under the Clean Water Act) runoff limitation for ammonia and 10 times the limitation for phenol, an extremely poisonous compound.

The problem began earlier this year when the Town of South Hill agreed to accept, for treatment at its wastewater treatment plant, leachate from a solid waste landfill located near Lawrenceville. The landfill is operated by Brunswick Waste Management Facility, LLC. No one shared these plans with AIHT head Ghashem Sariri or anyone else affiliated with the company, according to the lawsuit

Edmunds Transport, a cargo hauling company out of McKenny, was hired to transport the liquid from the landfill site to the dumping location.

Linda Shultz, Solid Waste Compliance Program Coordinator with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, said it is not illegal to haul leachate from a landfill and dispose of it into a wastewater sewer line. There are, however, rules and standards that attach to any landfill and wastewater treatment plant engaging in such activity.

The restrictions are mandated by the Federal Clean Water Act, and limit such things as the amount of ammonia or phenol that can be discharged directly or indirectly into a wastewater treatment plant.

The plaintiffs believe initially leachate was dumped into sewer lines located away from AIHT’s plant. But by March, 6,000 gallons of the liquid wastewater were pumped down a manhole near the AIHT plant at least three times daily.

After receiving no response to the company’s concerns from officials in South Hill, or Mecklenburg or Brunswick County, Sariri said he sought relief from Governor Bob McDonnell. Sariri pointed to Virginia’s past support for bringing AIHT to the South Hill area; only six years earlier, then-Governor Tim Kaine touted the state’s success in landing AIHT, billed as a cutting-edge manufacturing concern, in competition with Alabama and Georgia. In making the announcement, Kaine said, “American Industrial will expand the employment base and provide good-paying jobs for the quality workforce in Southside.”

In February of this year, Sariri raised with McDonnell what he describes as “an urgent matter affecting the welfare of our company.” He shared the steps taken to try to get South Hill and Edmunds Transport to abandon the dumping operation.

“Three weeks ago the City of South Hill came to agreement with Mecklenburg County, and decided to use our industrial park as a dump site, “ wrote Sariri in a letter pleading his case to the governor. “We now have 18 wheelers driving up and down the short road that leads to our plant all day, dumping industrial waste into the manhole. As a result, an awful stench is permeating the air in our manufacturing facility, which is adversely affecting our 60+ employees. Additionally, the presence of trucks dumping waste is seriously devaluing our property … We implored the local officials to cease this behavior, due to the stench it is causing and all the other aforementioned reasons. They flat out refused, and indicated that this sewage hauling is more important to them than our well-being.”

He ended his letter imploring McDonnell to intervene to stave off a lawsuit against those involved in the dumping. At that time, he raised the prospect of leaving Southside Virginia “if AIHT continues to be unappreciated.”

Sariri claims he never heard from the Governor or his staff. But at some point, the dumping was moved away from his plant. Sariri’s attorney, Dan Carrell of Richmond, said his client felt he had no choice but to file suit to protect his property.

Despite the cessation of dumping nearby and the ongoing threat of the lawsuit, AIHT and GS Virginia’s lawyers — Carrell and John Albee — say they cannot extract a promise from the town that it will not return to dumping leachate into the sewer line in the Roanoke River Business Park.

During a recent appearance in the Mecklenburg County Circuit Court, South Hill’s Public Works Director, Bill Wilson, testified that the new dumping location, away from the Roanoke River Business Park, cut into the town’s profit margin by a half cent a gallon, which roughly equals $90 per day. Carrell says he cannot comprehend why the defendants won’t agree to forego any future dumping at the business park. “For only $90 per day, don’t they realize that amount will pale if AIHT shuts down and moves back to Illinois?”

He added, “In other words, without an injunction, or agreement to refrain from using the business park as a dumping site, local employment will face the loss of some 60 well-paying jobs.”

When asked about the suit, South Hill Town Manager, Kim Callis said he was unable to comment. Calls to Jim Daniel, the attorney for South Hill, were not returned.

For now, South Hill and the others are moving forward with their defense of this suit, arguing that any fumes that may have entered AIHT during the dumping of the wastewater were due to neglect of the plant’s sewer system or faulty construction.

Relations between Sariri, AIHT and the various governmental bodies have been rocky almost from the beginning. In exchange for a promise to build a physical plant worth $11 million and hire 85 employees, AIHT was green-lighted for a $250,000 grant from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund and an additional $300,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission. The company was also told it qualified for benefits from the Virginia Enterprise Zone Program, and the Virginia Department of Business Assistance offered training assistance through its Workforce Services Jobs Investment Program for the employees.

Three years after the grant award, AIHT was forced to refund $92,000 to the Tobacco Commission for failing to meet its hiring goals of 85 new employees. At that time, it had less than 20 employees on staff.

On the other hand, Sariri claims AIHT never received “a good majority of the incentives promised” by the county or the state. He added that the counties and their IDAs have not produced any other tenants for the Roanoke River Business Park even though Brunswick County, as part of its 2007 economic development blueprint, said the site offered the best possibilities for economic development opportunities.

Despite these differences, Sariri said he is willing to “put the difficulties of the past behind [him] and work on growing and maintaining our (fortunately) profitable business.” As the lawsuit drags on Carrell says his client is seriously considering returning to Illinois, where AIHT still owns a plant.

The lawsuit remains active after the latest hearing in the case was conducted last week in Boydton.

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