Turning a Spotlight on New Hampshire’s Waste Crisis

CLF is taking aim at regulators who have failed to follow the law.

Bethlehem, perched on the edge of the White Mountain National Forest, has seen its town dump. Photo: David Stillman CC by-NC 2.0

By , Olivia Synoracki

When first built in 1976, New Hampshire’s Bethlehem Landfill was just a local dump – 400 x 400 feet in total. But thanks to large corporate waste companies with aggressive growth plans, the landfill has swelled in size. Today, it covers 50 acres and buries 175,000 tons of trash each year.

The State of New Hampshire recently gave the landfill’s current owner, a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems, permission to expand the site again – over the objections of residents, as well as CLF, which has appealed the permit to the state’s Waste Management Council.

For longtime resident Julie Seely, it’s frustrating to see the landfill allowed to grow even more. Her town of Bethlehem has been a hub for outdoor enthusiasts who flock to the popular White Mountain National Forest (two-thirds of the town lie within the forest boundaries) and Ammonoosuc River. “Inviting a business, such as a landfill, [to town] is just completely incongruous with our history and future of being a great outdoor activity center,” says Seely.

The landfill puts the river and forest at risk – from the waste trucks hauling trash through town to the toxic leachate spills that put groundwater and the river at risk. Just this past May, one of the landfill’s leachate tanks overflowed, spilling more than 150,000 gallons of contaminated liquid into a nearby stormwater detention pond – just a short distance from the Ammonoosuc.

Unfortunately, Bethlehem’s story is not unique. New Hampshire is home to six active landfills – some of which have bloated in size over the years. The Turnkey Landfill, located in Rochester and already New England’s largest, also has been approved for yet another expansion. What’s more, state regulators are considering Casella’s proposal for an entirely new landfill on an undeveloped site near Forest Lake State Park in Dalton. If approved, the landfill would sit on 137 acres – destroying over 17 acres of wetlands – and accept nearly 18 million tons of trash over its proposed 38-year lifespan.

Forest Lake State Park
A proposed new landfill in Dalton would abut Forest Lake State Park. Photo: JC CC by 2.0

Just how much trash is New Hampshire generating that it needs another landfill? In 2018, the last year for which data is available, the state’s landfills buried nearly 2.4 million tons of trash.

But that’s not the full story because almost half of that was shipped in from out of state.

In Seely’s hometown of Bethlehem, more than 30% of the waste buried there in 2018 was imported. “New Hampshire seems to be the go-to place for waste companies to come and grow and build new sites – and that’s a problem,” she says.

While no law exists to prevent this vast importation of waste, New Hampshire’s transformation into the region’s dumping ground also links to another issue – the state’s landfill permitting process.

Tom Irwin, director of CLF’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center, has led the organization’s fight against new and expanding landfills in the state. “We have good policies and laws on the books in New Hampshire,” says Irwin. “Unfortunately, they just aren’t being followed.”

One of those laws requires New Hampshire to develop a statewide plan for managing and reducing its solid waste. Under that same law, the plan is supposed to be updated every six years and used as a tool for deciding whether to grant permits for new and expanding landfills.

But New Hampshire has been ignoring the law. The last time it updated its waste management plan? 2003. State regulators acknowledge the existence of that decades-old plan. However, they claim they haven’t revised it due to a lack of resources. But the reality is, they’re not even following the state’s waste law and its guidelines, which put landfills as a last resort for handling waste. Instead, regulators continue to issue landfill permits to corporate waste giants. This undermines trash reduction efforts and enables the influx of waste these companies haul across the border every year.

Ultimately, by ignoring the law’s requirements, New Hampshire is letting down residents, like Julie Seely and her neighbors, who are forced to live alongside polluting landfills. And, while state regulators have an obligation to protect human health, conserve the state’s natural resources, and avoid the harm posed by landfills, they are failing to do so.

That’s why CLF sued the state Department of Environmental Services. The goal: to force the State to follow the law and prevent it from basing any more permitting decisions on a nearly 20-year-old waste management plan. The lawsuit also called on the court to stop engaging in new permitting activities, including the proposed Dalton landfill, until the State releases a new waste plan as required by law.

According to Irwin, updating and following a new waste management plan would mean the state “wouldn’t continuously build disposal infrastructure that has adverse community impacts.” Instead, New Hampshire would generate less waste, recycle and compost more, and protect its community members, like Seely, who simply want a safe environment to call home.

As of this writing, a Merrimack Superior Court judge dismissed CLF’s lawsuit in May, saying the Waste Management Council should address the matter. Irwin and his New Hampshire team filed a motion asking the judge to reconsider that decision, but the court declined to do so. CLF is continuing to advocate for an updated, valid waste management plan as a critically important tool to guide landfill permitting decisions.

The Dalton landfill proposal will soon be subject to a public comment period when you can make your voice heard in opposition to it. Make sure to sign up for our e-alerts so you’ll be the first to know when you can take action.