In Pittsfield, an explosive story is unfolding 

  • Two shotgun shells that were found among the trash at the BCEP Solid Waste District in Pittsfield. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • A sign warns residents from Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom and Pittsfield about past explosions and urges them to safely dispose of unused ammunition.

  • Lisa Stevens, the district administrator at the Pittsfield transfer station, looks over the bins where ammunition was found two weeks ago. “When it starts exploding, then you know you have a problem.” GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Tonia King, the operation supervisor of the BCEP Solid Waste District facility in Pittsfield, uses a skid steer to move trash closer to the exit  ramp. This is the area where a round of ammunition went off two weeks ago. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • ABOVE: Tonia King, supervisor of the BCEP Solid Waste District facility in Pittsfield, uses a skid steer to move trash closer to the exit ramp. This is the area where ammunition went off two weeks ago. TOP: Two shotgun shells were found after the explosions. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/21/2019 6:30:21 PM

The two small orange cylinders with the gold-colored tops weren’t spotted initially.

Not with all the stimuli and distractions in the office at the BCEP Solid Waste District in Pittsfield. Security cameras, TV monitors, desks, customers, staff, the sound of machinery in the background, beeping and roaring and moving trash and recyclables into place.

None of that, though, could grab and hold your attention like these two items – standing upright, unnoticed, quiet – once they came into view, and once you heard their backstory. Live ammo. Shotgun shells. Ready and waiting for some friction, then, kaboom.

“It comes in with the regular trash,” said Lisa Stevens, the district administrator at the plant. “When it starts exploding, then you know you have a problem.”

And a serious one at that. Call it an occupational hazard here. Sometimes, Stevens said, the loose shells, hidden within trash or recyclables, are dragged by a skid steer, on their way to a pile or a huge, metal bin. Sometimes those shells make contact with the concrete floor.

There’s friction. There are sparks. There’s gunpowder ignited. There’s a distinct smell, a puff of smoke.

Then, hit the deck. Run for cover. Run for your lives. It’s more common this season and in the fall, when, it seems, people do cleaning and down-size their clutter. It happened just a few weeks ago. It’ll happen again, and when it does, no one will know where to hide, the projectiles flying with no planned direction.

“We duck,” Stevens said. “The last time it went off in the trash. It ricochets all over the place, off steel and concrete. Thankfully, no one has been hurt.”

Yet.

That’s why we’re here. Stevens lives in Nottingham, Tonia King, the operation supervisor, in Barnstead. They welcomed the Monitor into their world because they want a message spread to the four towns – Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom and Pittsfield – that use the plant.

No political statement here. Fire your weapons. Enjoy target practice. Protect your loved ones. Utilize your Constitutional right. Just leave your ammo at home. Please?

“They can fly anywhere,” said King, referring to bullets. “You don’t know. We’ve had it hit the machine. We’ve had them hit the wall. It’s extremely dangerous. It happened to me. You can smell it.”

Who knew?

Stevens and King might sound like a horror writer when their names are pushed together, but they were the perfect ambassadors to spread these words of safety and caution, each with lots of experience and affable personalities. Stevens has worked for BCEP for 10 years, first as the company’s treasurer. King has been there 21 years.

They explained how this unsettling scenario can unfold. Maybe grandpa passed away and his belongings needed to be moved, recycled, thrown away. Maybe ammo was stashed there, somewhere.

Or maybe a foreclosure that suddenly forced a family out means live ammo left behind in that house. Really, who opens all the boxes and drawers when moving household items?

“It gets unrealistic to find with clean-outs, but maybe it can be something they start asking about as part of their protocol,” Stevens said. “We try to communicate that here when someone is clearing out grandpa’s house.”

“You don’t look in the tool boxes, you don’t look in an old chest,” Stevens added. “Maybe grandpa was an Army vet. They just load it all up in a pickup truck and bring it to the dump. Then it goes down below.”

Down below is the hands-on, get-dirty core of this operation, where the bunkers and bailers are, where trash goes here, metal and aluminum go there, waiting to be cubed like dice, into a nice, tight box shape, ready for easy delivery after it’s sold.

Outside is where cars line up to separate what they’ve brought, the two lanes looking like a drive-up for fast food or depositing a check. Good luck Saturdays, when bottlenecked traffic winds down the road toward the entrance, off of Route 107.

And in the midst of this controlled chaos, where many different activities are happening all at once, events laced with danger are always possible.

And that involves other dangerous items, not just shotgun shells and .22-caliber bullets. You never know what you’ll find when people’s lives, the landscapes of their very existence, arrive here in Pittsfield.

King once felt something pierce her stomach.

“I was helping to unload someone’s trash,” King said. “I picked a bag up and a needle was hanging out of the bag and I got it right in the old stomach. I knew something wasn’t right.”

The needle once belonged to an 85-year diabetic, a regular customer at the plant who had no idea he had put an employee at risk.

“It was a good thing I still had the needle when I went to the emergency room,” King said. “I needed a series of shots that were very painful, injected into my stomach. A thick prick.”

Sometimes, expensive stuff is found.

“You’re in a garage or barn and you think it’s all metal stuff, and sometimes you find jewelry, wedding rings in dressers,” Stevens said. “We try to find the owner. With a piece of furniture, you have a scale ticket and a license and make of vehicle. We try to match it up with the owner.”

That’s how Stevens once figured out where at least 40 shotgun shells had come from, found in the dump.

“I said to the girls that if this truck comes in, I have to speak to him,” she said. “He said he didn’t know and he was very apologetic.”

Once the ammo is discovered, it’s given to a regular customer, who, depending on the size of the stash, takes it in his hands or a Ziploc baggie. Neither Stevens nor King knew the man’s name, nor what he did with the ammo.

That hardly matters, though. Just get it out.

“There’s dangerous stuff that goes on at this facility,” King said. “Or really any facility where people don’t know about or think about what’s going on.

“It’s been happening more and more.”




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