Citizen Action Turns the Tide on Massive Landfill Expansion in Southbridge

More than 100 people attended an emergency meeting of the Sturbridge Board of Health to express their anger and fatigue over contamination of local wells.

On Monday night, more than 100 people from the south-central Massachusetts towns of Sturbridge, Charlton, and Southbridge turned out for an emergency meeting of the Sturbridge Board of Health. They came to express their anger to the Regional Director of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) that the 19 home wells in the Sturbridge neighborhood located closest to the Southbridge Landfill had tested high for lead, a dangerous neurotoxin proven to do irreversible harm to fetal and child development. What’s more, recent tests had also revealed that a probable carcinogen – 1,4 Dioxane – was found in 6 wells in the same testing area.

Some residents whose wells had been contaminated were in tears, because they may be forced to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and brushing their teeth for years, like their neighbors in Charlton, yet they still must bathe their children in contaminated water. Others expressed deep concern because their own wells had not yet been tested, leaving them in limbo as to what level of contamination, if any, might be found in their water.

The anger, fear, and frustration in the room were especially poignant because this was not the first time the Board of Health and MassDEP have heard from concerned residents on this issue. More than a year ago, in the fall of 2015, home wells in Charlton were found to have high levels of toxic contaminants – 1,4 Dioxane and trichloroethylene, among others. Then, as now, residents asked MassDEP over and over, “What is it going to take for you to shut the Southbridge Landfill down?”

MassDEP Makes the Right Decision for Local Citizens

At issue on Monday night was not just the current contamination issues linked to the state’s largest landfill, but plans by the site’s owner, Casella Waste, to dramatically expand the facility. The landfill has expanded before, most recently in 2008, when it began accepting more than 400,000 tons of waste each year, a huge increase over its previous max of about 26,000 tons annually. The current expansion proposal – which is proposed in multiple phases – would see the landfill accept another 4 million tons of waste over the next 10 years. MassDEP was on track to approve the site for expansion when local residents requested Monday’s emergency Board of Health meeting to once again air their anger and concerns.

It appears that those concerns were heard loud and clear as, just two days after the meeting, MassDEP issued a negative Determination of Site Suitability for Phase 2 of the proposed landfill expansion. This determination effectively bars Casella Waste from expanding this Phase of the landfill. Though this is just one step in the expansion approval process, it could be a death knell for the entire plan.

Casella Can’t Prove Its Landfill is Safe

MassDEP primarily based its decision on two findings:

First, the groundwater monitoring wells around the entire landfill show high levels of contaminants (not a surprise to any of the residents whose wells are also contaminated). Casella, as required by law, did not provide sufficient information for MassDEP to determine the nature and extent to which the combined impacts of the proposed site and the previously used adjacent site adversely impact public health, safety, and the environment. In other words, Casella did not prove it was safe to expand the landfill onto the additional acreage given the high levels of contaminants already being released from the existing site.

Second, Casella argued in its application to MassDEP, and in a hydrogeological study that they submitted, that the contamination in the Charlton home wells did not originate at the Landfill. However, MassDEP did not buy it. The agency’s own investigation indicates that contaminated groundwater from the landfill is, indeed, moving towards Charlton. MassDEP therefore found that Casella did not provide sufficient information for the agency to determine whether expanding the landfill would pose a threat to public health, safety, and the environment.

Can Casella now provide more information and overcome this hurdle? No.

Casella cannot prove that its facility is not releasing contaminants into the environment (because it is). And, if Casella could have located another source for the contamination of the Charlton home wells, they would have already done so.

The Power of Citizen Action

What precipitated this sea change? Why was Monday night’s meeting so effective? It is clear that the landfill is dangerous, but that’s the case with every landfill expansion, and MassDEP almost always approves them. But in this case, grassroots community action and state-level support proved to be a potent combination that could not be ignored. Here’s the formula that worked successfully:

  • State officials were informed, committed to making change, and vocal. Senator Ann Gobi (D) and Representative Todd Smola (R) were not only at Monday’s emergency meeting, they affirmatively stated their commitment to stop the expansion of the facility, provide clean water to residents, and solve the waste problem in the Commonwealth. And their commitment is very real – both of them have been working for months to organize meetings, influence decision makers, and file bills to protect their constituents. This week their work is beginning to pay off.
  • Local officials were also informed, committed to making change, and vocal. The Board of Health scheduled the meeting as soon as citizens requested it because they have been studying the Southbridge Landfill monitoring well reports and filing comments to stop this massive expansion FOR TWO YEARS. Likewise, members of the Board of Selectmen were present and expressed their ideas for moving forward to protect home wells and the Town’s well water, which could also be impacted by the landfill. All of them – the Health Agent, the Town Manager, and others showed up, knew what they were talking about, and expressed their willingness to act.
  • Citizens from Charlton, Southbridge, and Sturbridge became experts, kicked and screamed, and looked out for their neighbors. Over the years, the work done by regular citizens has been astronomical. One woman got hundreds of petition signatures. One guy called every major press outlet in the state. Another man has done so much work compiling and analyzing well data that MassDEP asked if he has a job (he does, but please don’t tell his boss how much he’s done). They all made phone calls, showed up at meetings, wrote letters, and connected with activists across the state. It paid off.

Is the work done? Not even close. The wells in Southbridge, Sturbridge, and Charlton are still contaminated, and will probably only become more so every day. The other phases of the landfill expansion might still succeed. And the Commonwealth of Massachusetts still has a waste problem that we need to solve.

However, this week’s decision not only provides hope, but a roadmap of how to proceed.

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