My Turn: It’s the wrong time and place

For the Monitor
Published: 10/13/2021 6:00:08 AM

A Vermont corporation (Casella) wants to build yet another enormous landfill in New Hampshire’s North Country. This next one would be in Dalton — right next to Forest Lake State Park and only five miles from Casella’s troubled landfill in Bethlehem.

Casella freely says up to half of the trash to be dumped in Dalton would come from out-of-state sources. This begs the question, will this project primarily benefit New Hampshire or primarily benefit other New England states? One thing is certain: this $1 billion-plus project will definitely benefit Casella’s shareholders.

For the last several years every New England state, other than New Hampshire, has enacted legislation and/or instituted new rules that have made it harder for private landfill developers to build new landfills in their states and harder to import trash from other states. If New Hampshire residents don’t start screaming about it and New Hampshire legislators don’t take action before we know it New Hampshire, and especially the North Country, will become the garbage dump for all of New England.

Before Casella can continue its assault on New Hampshire, it needs to get a number of permits from NH’s Department of Environmental Services (DES). Unfortunately, DES has so far been very obliging. Most recently, DES’s August 26th decision to narrow the scope of the wetlands permit review is without a doubt going to make it easier for Casella to get its permits. This decision was so obviously skewed to help Casella that it caused a high-ranking official of DES to go public and declare in a press interview that DES is not in the tank for Casella and nothing “nefarious” was going on.

Public opposition to the proposed Dalton landfill is strong and growing. A coalition of grassroots environmental groups, concerned New Hampshire legislators, business and civic leaders have been working hard to raise public awareness of the danger of this project to the environment, to the North Country tourism economy, and to the health and safety of the thousands of North Country residents that will be impacted by this project. Moreover, the project is unanimously opposed by all North Country towns that will be directly affected, and there is near unanimous opposition from North Country legislators.

In contrast, Casella is hoping to coast to victory, relying on DES’s culture of approving even poorly-conceived projects. This is driven home by Casella’s chief engineer on the project telling DES and the public at a July public hearing on the wetlands permit that there is no way anything can go wrong. “Can’t happen” were his exact words. We may never know, but it would be interesting to find out if he ever gave similar assurances that an enormous leachate spill can’t happen at Casella’s Bethlehem landfill at any point before the 150-plus thousand gallon leachate spill at the Bethlehem landfill this year.

Over the course of the last year, an enormous record was developed and provided to DES about why the project should not be permitted. The record included testimony, letters, studies, solid arguments from the public, from attorneys, from NH legislators, and from technical experts. What does that record show? In a nutshell, and with thanks to Cole Porter for his immortal words, and to Ella Fitzgerald for her subtle passion, “it’s the wrong time, and it’s the wrong place.”

It’s the wrong time.

■By DES’ own admission, there is no near-term need for new landfill capacity in New Hampshire. In fact, there is no need for additional capacity until 2034.

■Despite a legal requirement to update New Hampshire’s solid waste management plan every six years, DES has not done so since 2003. This means that DES is relying on an outdated framework to make critical decisions about New Hampshire’s future management of solid waste.

■Moreover, there are a number of New Hampshire legislative initiatives ongoing to revamp the future of solid waste management in New Hampshire. It seems implausible that DES would think it appropriate to continue the permit review for such a large and controversial project until such time as it can benefit from this work.

■Finally, with respect to timing, DES’s August 26th decision means that DES will only consider the impacts from the first ten years of the project, notwithstanding that everyone knows, and Casella even acknowledges, the project will be built out over more than 30 years, and the impacts will extend well beyond that. DES says its hands are tied by statute and rule, but this is not credible. If DES has the discretion to do an about-face on Aug. 26 after considering Casella’s wetlands application for a full year then surely it can find a way to do the right thing and consider the full cumulative impacts of the project.

It’s the wrong place.

■The project would be the first landfill in decades built on a greenfield site in New Hampshire. In other words, a pristine site. The project will destroy 17 acres of wetlands and five vernal pools and result in the clearcutting of 160 acres of high-ranking, forested wildlife habitat.

■Casella, as required by DES, identified alternative sites that may result in less environmental damage. And even though Casella did, to be charitable, a less-than-robust analysis, it found at least one suitable site with less environmental damage. DES needs to send Casella back to the drawing board to diligently look for alternative sites that will result in less impact.

■The project would be located right next to Forest Lake State Park, putting public use of this beloved state park at risk, for both nearby residents and the many tourists that come to the North Country.

■If and when there is a need for additional landfill capacity, the need will not come from North Country communities, but rather from downstate New Hampshire communities and especially from Massachusetts and other New England states. DES’s willingness to entertain locating the next landfill in New Hampshire’s North Country is a total mismatch, inevitably leading to more miles than is necessary on New Hampshire roads by trash-hauling trucks and leachate tankers. This increases dramatically the risk of spills and truck accidents. It also leads to a dramatically increased carbon footprint for the Dalton project compared to a landfill sited closer to sources.

It is time for all New Hampshire residents to take a stand. If we don’t, New Hampshire is headed to become the garbage dump for all of New England. DES needs to take a step back and focus on its primary mission: to protect the environment and the quality of life for New Hampshire residents. And New Hampshire legislators need to enact legislation to give DES the tools it needs to do its job and then provide the oversight needed to ensure that DES is using those tools appropriately.

(Eliot Wessler lives in Whitefield and works with a number of grassroots organizations, including North Country Alliance for Balanced Change and Save Forest Lake.)

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