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Complaints and fines pile up against unpermitted landfill in southwest Rowan County

MOORESVILLE — Located at the end of Dawson Downs Lane in the southwestern corner of Rowan County is a site under scrutiny from county officials, the state and nearby neighbors.

The roughly 3-acre parcel of land is the property of Roy and Renee Sykes, who operate Renee’s Demolition. Roy said the small, family owned company has been using the site for nearly two decades as a dumping ground for brush, stumps and some debris from demolished homes. Although the address listed for the company is 10028 Unity Church Rd., the site itself is located at 340 Dawson Downs Ln.

For Rowan County officials, the unpermitted site is an illegal landfilling operation.

“This is clearly not a municipal landfill,” Rowan County Planning Director Ed Muire said. “This is a gentleman that runs a demolition business that is disposing of material without taking it to a municipal landfill.”

That assessment is shared by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Laura Leonard, a public information officer for the NCDEQ Solid Waste Section, said, “Solid waste, generated from land-clearing and construction/demolition projects, has been dumped and at least partially buried on this property. Some waste has been burned. The management of waste in this manner has not occurred under a permit or other authorization issued by DEQ; therefore, the actions at the site would be illegal (non-compliant) in nature.”

While the entirety of the site isn’t visible from the street, the site seen from above is covered in debris, including several cars, trailers and miscellaneous litter. The parcel itself is zoned rural agricultural, which means it’s designated for residential or agricultural use.

County staff, Muire said, initially became aware of the landfill operation when neighbors submitted complaints several years ago.

“It’s been more than five (years). I don’t know if it’s been 10 years, but it’s been a while,” Muire said.

By the time the county realized the landfill operation was there, the site had already been operating for almost a decade. Nearby residents have continued to contact the county with complaints about the site, which have included concerns about contamination to the air, water and soil around their homes.

In addition to being near several residential well systems, the landfill’s perimeter comes close to the East Fork Creek, which eventually flows into Coddle Creek. Then, Coddle Creek feeds into the Don T. Howell Reservoir near Concord.

Neighbors in the area were hesitant to speak on the record with the Post about the landfill for fear of retaliation, although they still expressed concerns over the site. One neighbor brought their concerns to the Rowan County Board of Commissioners at a meeting in early April, but did not want to go on the record for this story. That neighbor has submitted several complaints to NCDEQ and county about the site and is concerned about the site contaminating their water well.

Another neighbor tried to sell their home near the site, but the neighbor claimed buyers were scared off after discovering what was nearby. With the landfilling site nearby, the neighbor is worried about the area’s property values. Another nearby resident gave up attempting to have something done about the site after seeing no action from the state or county.

Muire said the county has forwarded complaints to the Solid Waste Section of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. Muire said it has jurisdiction over the situation.

Rowan County Attorney Jay Dees said the county also has deferred action on the situation because it’s the state’s responsibility, not the county’s, to regulate landfills.

“(The state) still maintains all of the regulatory authority for landfills,” Dees said. “What we say is that when they enter into a field of regulation and they’ve developed such a defined scheme for the regulation of the field, then they have preempted control of that field, meaning we don’t adopt our own regulations to deal with it.”

To construct and operate a landfill facility for the acceptance of construction and demolition waste or debris, a person or company must obtain a permit from the NCDEQ Solid Waste Section. The state is responsible for regulating Rowan County’s landfill in Woodleaf, which has a permit from NCDEQ.

Still, the county, Muire said, has attempted to make its assessment of the site near Dawson Downs Lane clear to the NCDEQ. 

“In this particular case, our staff through the years have tried to impress on the Solid Waste Section that there is a landfilling operation that is going on at this site,” Muire said.

The first time the NCDEQ investigated the site was in 2004, when it received notice of complaints about open burning. A follow-up investigation into open burning complaints occurred in 2008. The NCDEQ has issued three fines for open burning at the site totaling $3,739, but none have been paid.

The NCDEQ’s Division of Hazardous Waste Management investigated a complaint about drums or other containers on the property in 2008, but found no evidence.

The NCDEQ Solid Waste Section has records of complaints beginning in 2011. The nature of the complaints, Leonard said, has been consistent with waste being brought to the property and allegedly either buried or burned. Leonard said that the Solid Waste Section issued Notice of Violation letters for the illegal disposal of solid wastes at the site in 2011, 2015 and 2016. 

Renee’s Demolition also received a $1,000 fine from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in 2013. Sykes said the fine stemmed from some of the company’s workers not wearing the proper equipment while demolishing a home.

Fines and notices haven’t stopped activity at the landfill.

“The responsible parties have been slow to respond to and comply with DEQ requests to bring the site into and/or maintain compliance,” Leonard said.

Teresa Bradford, an inspector for the Solid Waste Section, has been involved with investigating the site since 2015. Beginning in December 2020, Bradford received complaints of increased activities at the site. Bradford’s visits to the site validated those complaints. As a result, more enforcement action on the site may be forthcoming. She said the Division of Air Quality currently has a civil penalty case that’s pending internal review for violation of burning synthetic materials at the site.

“This is an active investigation, and DEQ is working to determine the appropriate course of action to bring the site into compliance,” Bradford said.

Although the address for Renee’s Demolition is on Unity Church Road (pictured), the site is actually at 340 Dawson Downs Ln. Photo submitted.

Sykes claims he’s tried to be a good neighbor to those living nearby.

Sykes said he started dumping “brush and stumps” at the site almost two decades ago, not realizing it was illegal to do so. He said he was following the lead of others and saw dumping in homemade landfills elsewhere in the area.

“This is what makes me really upset — I’ve been dumping mostly dirt and rocks for decades and nobody said anything for 18 years until we got new neighbors a few years ago,” Sykes said.

The first time he became aware of neighbors’ concerns, Sykes said, was about eight years ago. That’s when someone alerted the county that Sykes was bringing 55-gallon blue barrels onto the property. Sykes admitted to transporting the barrels onto the site, but he said they were completely empty.

Sykes refuted the notion that he’s dumped or burned anything at the site that could potentially be harmful to the environment or his neighbors. Most of the debris that has been dumped at the site, Sykes said, has been bricks and wood from torn-down houses. Muire and Dees both said that it’s impossible to truly know what all has been dumped at the landfill site.

Sykes said it feels like county and state authorities are targeting his operation unfairly.

“Everything we do to try to make a living, they stop us,” Sykes said. “Like I said, I know I’ve dumped stuff that isn’t supposed to be there, but they’re still on me.”

At the behest of the NCDEQ, Sykes said he’s started transporting debris from home demolitions to regulated landfills instead of dumping it on his property. Sykes said he is in the midst of improving the property to meet the NCDEQ’s requirements and said he has plans to eventually locate his home at the former dumping ground.

Perhaps the most troubling part about the site, Dees said, is that there could be more just like it elsewhere in the county.

“We have no idea how many of these are in Rowan County that we just don’t know about,” Dees said. “There might be zero. There might be 10. People do them in secluded acreage.”

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