WBIR Channel 10 Highlights SSWI

By Brittany Bade from WBIR Channel 10 (story can be found on their site

More than 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed during the wildfires that ripped through Sevier County in late November, and now all that debris is rapidly filling up the Sevier County landfill.

"We are walking on peoples homes, on everything they've lost in the fires," said Laura Howard with Sevier Solid Waste.

Howard took WBIR 10News to a temporary dump site. It looks like a construction site, but beneath the dirt is thousands of tons of debris from the wildfires.

"Here we mostly get a lot of concrete, rubble and burnt ash," said Howard.

"A lot" is no understatement. The landfill is currently taking in 1,000 tons of trash per day. Before the fires, it took in an average of 200 tons per day.

"We've never taken in that much material at one time, I mean we've never had that many tons coming in all at once," said Tom Leonard the general manager of Sevier Solid Waste.

The massive influx of debris came at a time that the plant's 12-year-old landfill was already almost full.

SSW was already in the process of building another permanent landfill when the fires moved through. However, it will not be ready until late spring.

"Before the fires we had about eight months to a year left before that was full, and if we would've put the fire debris in there it would be full now," said Leonard.

In the last two months, 27,000 tons of debris exclusively from the wildfires have been dumped at the landfill. In all of 2016, the landfill collected 40,000 tons of debris. 

An additional 1.5 million pounds of metal has been dropped off at a temporary recycling site in Gatlinburg.

Because the current landfill was almost full and the new landfill isn't ready yet, Leonard filed a request for a temporary dump site with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to help hold the wildfire waste. SSW has permission to use that site for up to a year.

"We would like to be out of that site within the next three or four months, though," said Leonard.

According to Department of Environment and Conservation rules, all trash sitting in a temporary dump site must be moved to a permanent dump site when the year ends.

Meaning the 27,000 tons of debris - plus whatever else is dumped in the temporary site in the next few months - must be dug up and moved to the permanent site.

"It's going to be a big project. We're going to have to bring a contractor in," said Leonard.

Leonard says debris dumps have slowed down, but that doesn't mean they'll stop anytime soon.

"We're about a third of the way done. I would say we're looking at two more years of material coming in here," he said.

Leonard says if you are a property owner and would like to help:

  • Make sure to separate metal from other debris and drop it off at a recycling location
  • Fill up your truck as much as possible to cut back on your number of trips

SSWI in The Mountain Press

As featured in The Mountain Press by Jeff Farrell.

PIGEON FORGE -- Before November's firestorm destroyed more about 2,500 structures, Sevier Solid Waste Director Tom Leonard estimated the county's construction and demolition landfill had eight months to a year left before it was filled. Now, they are dumping debris into a temporary landfill while working to quickly complete work on the next phase.

The construction and demolition landfill normally took in about 200 tons a day before the fire.

"We went from 200 to 2,000," Leonard said.

Even in the days since that peak, they settled into an average of 1,000 tons per day.

The county already knew that the landfill was nearing capacity, and they went to the state right after the fire to get permission to use a temporary site on their property, adjacent to the area where they're already working on the new construction and demolition landfill.

"We submitted a plan to them and drew out where we wanted to put it," Leonard said. "I think they turned it around in about a week."

That landfill doesn't have all the linings and safeguards that a permanent one would have, although they take steps like covering the debris each night. Eventually, they will have to move the debris to the permanent site.

The temporary site has cost about $57,000 so far, and the county is talking to FEMA about possible reimbursements, but they don't know if they'll be eligible or not.

But Sevier County Solid Waste hasn't changed its rates, and they've expanded their hours on weekends while dealing with the increased demand.

It's still going to take months to get the new phase ready. A construction and demolition landfill doesn't require all the linings and features of Class 1 landfills that handle more household wastes, but regulations do call for them to have some precautions. "We're not close enough to suit me," Leonard said. "Depending on the weather, it could be 60 days or it could be 120."

They know there is still a lot more waste to come. The estimated number of structures destroyed in the firestorm is about 2,500. Since it happened, Gatlinburg and Sevier County have issued about 760 demolition permits -- about 425 in the county, and 337 in the city.

It's not clear how much of the debris has been cleared from even those sites, Leonard said. "I'd say half of those, they haven't even started on clearing them yet," he said.