The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and national trade associations are backing South Carolina’s towering Lee County mega dump in its fight against people who say the landfill is ruining their quality of life.
Six neighbors of the Lee County landfill won a stunning $2.3 million court verdict last year, when a federal jury agreed that powerful odors from the dump had escaped the site and affected nearby residents.
The verdict was a major victory for people fighting the waste industry in South Carolina, but the landfill’s operator challenged the decision – and the potential precedent caught the attention of big businesses worried about a flood of lawsuits if the verdict is not overturned.
Hog farms, chemical plants and paper mills that release odors into surrounding communities are among those that could be hurt if the 2012 ruling in South Carolina stands, according to legal briefs filed this month by trade groups for the paper, recycling and waste industries.
The case is to be discussed by the S.C. Supreme Court on Tuesday morning.
Industries could be driven from South Carolina as a wider array of people file lawsuits, according to a March 8 filing from the National Solid Wastes Management Association, the American Forest and Paper Association, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and a local S.C. group.
The case is considered unusual because odor lawsuits don’t typically go to trial for a verdict, but instead are settled, attorneys said. The case raises “issues of vital concern” to the nation’s businesses, the chamber’s filing says.
If the case stands, “anyone who smells a paper mill, chemical facility or hog farm, including mere passersby” could file suit, the trade associations’ legal brief said. “These new plaintiffs would only have to allege they were annoyed or inconvenienced by the smell to state a cause of action.”
But Gary Poliakoff, an attorney for the landfill’s neighbors, called those arguments “ludicrous,” saying the 2012 court decision is a strong lesson to industries to control odors that might affect nearby residents.
During last year’s trial in U.S. District Court in Columbia, landfill neighbors said the smells were so strong and nauseating that they sometimes could not have outdoor cookouts or garden in their yards. In one instance, neighbors who went outside to view a colorful rainbow fled back into the house because of the landfill’s stench, according to testimony. One resident likened the landfill to a “monster’’ that haunted the neighborhood.
Poliakoff said if the $2.3 million court award is overturned, people would not be able to collect more than token damages from industries, no matter how strong the odors are.
The mega dump, along Interstate 20 near Bishopville east of Columbia, is permitted to take more waste than any other dump in the state, much of it from other states.