|Old landfill's legal fees piling up
More than $200,000 in legal services and expert fees paid from the Poplar Springs Landfill post-closure reserve has local officials concerned about their ability to remediate and maintain the old site.
The current fund balance is $213,891.58, but was $437,968 just four years ago.
Expenditures have been largely from Nashville-based firm Luna Law Group PLLC. Two other organizations paid through April are Stokes, Williams, Sharp & Davies and Baker Donelson.
“With JW Luna’s firm we actually pay for our engineering, our consulting and everything that we had to do to get this site prepped and ready to work as far as designed and sent to (Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation) to make sure we’re approved through TDEC — all of that is through JW Luna’s firm,” Loudon County Mayor Rollen “Buddy” Bradshaw said. “So that inflates the numbers. As far as just straight legal fees that’s not 100 person accurate because there are a lot of other fees attached to them.”
More recently, expenditures have resulted from what Bradshaw calls “legal wrangling,” notably when officials had to determine if work would cross into a property owner’s land adjacent to the landfill.
“So there was legal wrangling there, some follow-ups as far as making sure we have everything in order,” Bradshaw said. “Just part of the price of doing business. ... This has been expensive, there’s no doubt about it.
“... We’re sitting at, golly bum, $200,000 is a whole lot of money, no doubt about it, but if you look at the worst case scenario that’s happened in the state of Tennessee we could have been looking at millions of dollars if we left this thing unchecked,” he added.
Commissioner Kelly Littleton-Brewster called draining the fund balance without accomplishing any visible work at the former landfill “very much a concern” for all entities involved.
“I mean at this point there’s not been any dirt moved,” Littleton-Brewster said. “There’s not been anything done to fix the problem except for it seems like legal fees and easements and — but nothing to actually fix the major problem out there — with the problem only costing approximately $170,000, but we’ve spent over $200,000 on legal fees and engineering fees and still haven’t gotten it fixed yet.”
Loudon County Commission in June 2016 approved a 50-50 matching grant that at the time was for $68,000. Bradshaw said the figure is now $87,000 due to the state making “several changes” to the original plans submitted. Plans are to ask for additional funds upon completion.
“Actually at this point what we were told also was that the county did not really have an obligation there to fix it and it was — of course the mayor had decided that was the right thing to do was to fix it,” Littleton-Brewster said. “And backing out of it, well, at this point we’ve spent almost all the money and we might not have any choice but to back out of fixing it because there might not be any money available to fix it.”
Bradshaw said the county backing out isn’t an option, adding that making repairs was “the right thing to do.”
“When it comes to this environmental stuff every attorney I’ve talked to whether it was JW, (county attorney) Bob Bowman or somebody from TDEC ... you never get out of environmental stuff,” Bradshaw said. “That’s something that goes forever. ... The three entities would have been the highest risks because we had the biggest pockets.”
Loudon County, Lenoir City and the city of Loudon are the three entities.
Before the county approved the grant last year, TDEC Director Patrick Flood was present at the June 2016 meeting and claimed the state would send out an order for potential responsible parties for a court to determine who bore responsibility.
“This is getting this taken care of,” Bradshaw said. “Everybody that lives out there had a right to know if their water was drinkable. Very fortunate that everything was good as far as the water goes. ... We knew it was going to be pricey, and good lawyers are not cheap. I think in the end when we get this thing fixed and put behind us will justify the means.”
Luna Law Group has charged $196,925.62 since April 2013 based on information provided commissioners at the July workshop. Bradshaw said the county is not contractually obligated to Luna Law.
“They may do some minor consulting but once we get this thing done you’re going to see the legal fees decrease dramatically,” Bradshaw said. “We’ll still have to do our biannual inspections, and we may use his engineer for that, but we’re talking just small amounts of money compared to what it is to get it up and moving.”
An agreement with contractor JD Anderson will not be signed until commission meets again. Hopes are to break ground in early September.
“We voted to proceed with taking care of some issues at Poplar Springs back in May of ‘16 and was under the impression by Mayor Bradshaw that this would be expedited quickly,” Steve Harrelson, commission chairman, said. “Here we are in July of ‘17 and have spent close to $200,000 on attorney fees and hadn’t moved the first bit of dirt yet. The whole process has not gone like the commissioners had hoped.”
Money from general fund
Loudon County Attorney Bob Bowman has been paid $88,000 from general fund dating back to 2013 for work involving Poplar Springs Landfill.
Bradshaw said Bowman has served as liaison between the county and Luna Law Group.
“It was a big surprise that we have spent nearly $200,000 with Luna and $88,000 with Mr. Bowman and not one shovel full of dirt has been moved,” Commissioner Matthew Tinker said. “The whole project was supposed to cost less than that. So we were just very shocked at the amount of money that’s been spent on legal fees so far. Hopefully at our next meeting we’ll be able to get some answers to that.”
Littleton-Brewster said money related to the old landfill should be taken out of its designated fund, but worries are it might deplete the balance further.
“Any money that we spent on Poplar Springs should have been taken out of that solid waste money, and I think there will be probably some recommendations from a couple county commissioners maybe to transfer that money out of the right account,” Harrelson said. “It will deplete the funds some more. I’m hoping that with the state grant money that we’re going to be able to obtain that it will offset the difference that we’ll still have money to do the work.”
City of Loudon officials have also expressed concern over the money being spent on landfill closure without any visible progress.
Dennis Stewart raised the concern at the city’s July council meeting. Joe Ford, city attorney, agreed to bring a report to council during a workshop Aug. 14. Council hopes to have Bradshaw in attendance.