With its lines of waste trucks climbing toward a 360-foot peak, the industrial landfill in Lorton has long embodied the Northern Virginia community’s past as a regional dumping ground.
In 2009, local officials and Lorton residents saw a way beyond that sour legacy in a trade-off that allowed EnviroSolutions, the landfill’s owner, to extend the height of the mountain of construction debris to 425 feet in exchange for closing the site by 2019 and then transforming it into a sprawling rural park.
But with that deadline approaching, the Manassas-based company is seeking another trade-off that has stirred controversy in the area, which, since the Lorton Correctional Complex closed in 2001, has been trying to reinvent itself with cul-de-sac subdivisions, shopping centers and state-of-the-art schools.
This time, EnviroSolutions is asking for permission to forgo building the 168-acre park, which the company says would not be available for public use because of liability concerns. Instead, it proposes widening the landfill, which currently takes in between 650,000 and 1 million tons of debris per year, and keeping it open until 2040 — a request the company says stems from economic forces that make it unlikely the landfill will reach full capacity in the next five years.
EnviroSolutions says that in exchange it will help to develop a “Green Energy Triangle” of wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal piping just off Interstate 95 that will make Fairfax County a national leader in alternative-fuel technology.
The proposal taps into both the yearning for a new image in the winding Occoquan River-area community, which has recently been attracting young families and seniors, and a deep distrust of industrial plans after decades in the shadows of the prison, a rock quarry and several landfills.
Some support the idea. Others accuse EnviroSolutions of reneging on its earlier promise and don’t believe that the politically connected company, which recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, will deliver on its green-energy plans.
“If they get an extension and we don’t get the green energy and we don’t get the park, we just get a large mountain of trash,” said Nicholas Firth, president of the South County Federation of area homeowners groups and civic associations.
Under a pending application yet to be considered by the county, EnviroSolutions is offering to install three wind turbines — with a possibility for nine more — solar panels and geothermal piping on the landfill site it has owned since 2004.
Those additions, along with methane gas from the landfill and green-energy uses planned for two nearby county-owned sites, would eventually provide enough power to support several surrounding buildings, the company says.
Most notable, free energy could be steered toward the former prison grounds now occupied by the financially struggling Workhouse Arts Center, a cost-saving opportunity for Fairfax after it recently agreed to rescue the center by taking on $30 million of the art center’s debt.
As part of a vigorous campaign for approval of its proposal, EnviroSolutions is also offering to pay for a smaller private park on the edge of its property, and provide$18.2 million over two decades for recreation and other local needs.
“There is nothing like this [proposal] in the entire country,” said Conrad Mehan, the company’s head of government relations. “Overnight, it will put the county at the forefront of green technology.”
Mehan said EnviroSolutions hopes to take in at the Lorton landfill new construction debris expected from Washington, Tysons and other areas undergoing redevelopment.
The company warned that if the 250-acre Lorton landfill closes in 2019, it will move forward with previously approved plans to open a mixed-waste facility on a nine-acre parcel across Furnace Road.
That could mean nearly as much truck traffic — possibly more — but without county restrictions on the landfill that have kept some local roads off limits, Mehan said.
The Green Energy Triangle proposal is endorsed by the local Sierra Club. But it has county supervisors and, even neighbors, pitted against each other, with each side saying the other is trying to block progress in the community that is also home to a county-owned ash landfill and a Covanta Energy waste-to-energy plant.
Firth, the federation president, said the EnviroSolutions proposal would hurt Lorton’s ability to attract restaurants and other family-friendly businesses.
He cited the company’s recent bankruptcy — during which $289 million in debt was restructured with a new group of owners — as a reason to doubt that EnviroSolutions can deliver on its green-energy proposal.
If the company is sold or restructured again, Firth said, “what happens at that point?”
Mehan acknowledged that financial considerations are behind the new proposal.
“Quite frankly, it’s cheaper for us to use the landfill than to use the other facility,” he said, referring to the mixed-waste site.
But his main argument for approval has been that a park would not be available to the public because neither the county nor EnviroSolutions wants to assume liability for injuries there.
“If the county assumed ownership of the land, we wouldn’t be sitting here today talking about this,” Mehan said, referring to talks between the company and the county park authority before a 2009 agreement that kept the land in EnviroSolutions’ possession.
Supporters of the application — some of them miles away from the landfill — say that the county should take the EnviroSolutions deal.
“It’s an opportunity to get a lot of things done that us, as taxpayers, would probably blanch at [in terms of cost] if the county were going to do it,” said Neil McBride, a longtime activist in Springfield.
He and others note the company’s history of civic involvement in the area, which has given EnviroSolutions access to key policymakers.
The company has given several million dollars in donations to nonprofit organizations, including $500,000 to the Lorton arts center, where Mehan also served on the board before the county took over that site.
Mehan was also part of a task force created by the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, Sharon Bulova (D), that helped to develop the Green Energy Triangle concept.
Since 2007, the company has donated $58,000 to county supervisors and other elected officials, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Mehan has personally contributed $33,400 to various candidates during the past decade, including Bulova and former board chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), before he was elected to Congress.
Connolly officiated at the 2011 wedding of Mehan’s daughter and a then-congressional staffer she met when both worked for the county. Mehan’s son-in-law, Matthew S. Graham, works in the county executive’s office, earning $90,200 per year, according to a 2013 county personnel list.
A county spokesman said the EnviroSolutions application will be evaluated solely on its merits. Connolly’s office said that although his 11th Congressional District includes a portion of the landfill, the congressman has no position on the Green Energy Triangle idea.
Supervisor Penelope A. Gross (D-Mason), who is chairman of the county’s environmental committee and has received $4,750 from Mehan since 2007, called EnviroSolutions’ proposal “critical to our green energy infrastructure.”
She praised the company for also offering to cart away dredge soil from Lake Barcroft in her district, a complimentary service that would save homeowners there several hundred thousand dollars per year.
But Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D), whose Mount Vernon district includes Lorton, said he is likely to lobby his board colleagues to oppose the proposal.
“I do have a lot of concerns,” said Hyland, who has received nearly $5,000 in campaign donations from Mehan since 2005.
“The most important one is how this community is dealt with fairly,” given the fact that EnviroSolutions is seeking a way out of its 2009 commitment, he said. “And now we’re being asked to commit to more landfilling for 22 years?”