Last night, residents of the central Massachusetts town of Southbridge delivered a major blow to Casella Waste when they voted overwhelmingly to reject plans to expand the town’s landfill, which the company has operated for about fourteen years.
Casella had hired staff and collected petitions to pose a non-binding question on the Town’s annual meeting ballot in support of the expansion. They then spent tens of thousands of dollars – upwards of $100,000 – to influence the town’s 17,000 residents to vote in their favor, outspending the opposition more than 10 to 1.
Casella had every reason to believe that it was money well spent. After all, the landfill provides more than $2 million in annual revenue to this low-income community. And local boards had always voted in Casella’s favor in the past. But, to the company’s surprise – and indeed, to ours – the tide turned against the landfill and residents voted 1,302 to 852 against the expansion.
It’s clear that Southbridge residents are no longer willing to trade their health or that of their neighbors for extra revenue from hosting the state’s largest landfill.
Casella’s Polluting Legacy Has Long Drawn Opposition
Casella Waste and the Southbridge Landfill have faced a lot of opposition over the years.
The neighboring Town of Sturbridge has fought any expansion of the landfill on and off since 2008. That’s when Casella’s experts testified at a hearing that groundwater contaminated by the landfill was flowing towards Sturbridge. They were right – to date, more than 35 home wells in the Sturbridge neighborhood nearest the landfill have been found to have elevated levels of lead or detections of 1,4 dioxane.
The Town of Charlton also borders the landfill. For almost two years the Town has been fighting the expansion of the landfill because more than a dozen heavy metals and volatile organic compounds (all of which Casella has reported are also leaking from the landfill) have been found in the water of the Charlton homes closest to the landfill. After considerable investigation, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection is holding Casella and the Town of Southbridge (which owns the landfill) responsible for the water contamination. Casella’s experts claim there’s no proof the contaminants are coming from the landfill, but they have yet to find another likely source in an area dominated by homes built on farmland.
Southbridge Has Always Let the Landfill Have Its Way… Until Now
Even as its neighbors mounted increasing opposition to Casella’s plans, the landfill’s host community, the Town of Southbridge, has been relatively complacent. An old mill town that has seen more prosperous days, Southbridge is also the only Environmental Justice community in the area, with a large population of people of color and low household incomes. Benefits ranging from $2 to $4 million a year (depending on whether you included the funds needed to run the landfill and related services) were just too much for the Town to pass up.
To be sure, the landfill opponents living in the town were dedicated and passionate. One guy filmed every public meeting and wrote a song against the landfill. Another consistently attended Board of Health meetings in an attempt to educate citizens and the board about the negative effects landfill gases could have on public health. Another drew political cartoons and collected evidence of contamination. One nurse did everything but bare-knuckle box Casella’s attorneys when she served on the Town Board of Health. Unfortunately, it was never enough to turn the tide, and the landfill opponents have suffered loss after loss after loss since the landfill was first built in 1980.
This long history of support is what Casella was banking on when it maneuvered the ballot question onto the Town’s annual election. If it had been approved, the Southbridge Town Manager would have been instructed to make an agreement with Casella (to be ratified by the Town Council) to expand the landfill onto the Town’s airport and other land near the landfill, and to let Casella operate for the maximum time allowed by law.
Casella’s Influence Game Backfires
The general manager of the landfill for Casella has said, “We’d like to stay around. But it’s up to them. If the town doesn’t want us here, we’ll go away quietly. We’re not going to beg or anything like that.”
Despite this outwardly nonchalant attitude, Casella went all out to win Southbridge residents over to their side. Their $100,000 outlay – on a consultant, advertising, signs, shirts, hats, and mailings – was an unprecedented amount to spend on a town of about 17,000 residents (“I’ve never seen that kind of money before” on a local issue, said the Town Clerk). And they bought a lot of people a lot of meals, something Casella’s general manager referred to as “entertaining.”
In contrast, those dedicated and passionate opponents to the landfill, many of whom formed the Committee Against Landfill Expansion, including Town Councillor Kristen Auclair, spent about $8,000, not even a tenth of what Casella did. They also worked their butts off. Armed with the facts about the contamination in Charlton and Sturbridge, they went door to door, sent out their own mailers, made signs, decorated their own van – and just wouldn’t give up.
In the end, all of the money that Casella spent didn’t matter. The billboard truck Casella had driven around town and the advertisements offering to pick up anyone who needed a ride to the polls just wasn’t enough to defeat those dedicated and passionate opponents. Residents stepped up to protect their community, to protect their neighbors, and to say loud and clear that the public health of the Town of Southbridge can’t be bought.
Just the Latest Blow to the Southbridge Landfill
This is just the latest in a series of setbacks for the landfill so far this year. In February, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection rejected Casella’s application to expand the landfill. And in May, the Town of Charlton ordered the landfill to cease and desist its illegal use of town land in Charlton for its stormwater overflow basins.
I am humbled and inspired by the courage and commitment of the people of Southbridge, Charlton, and Sturbridge, who have been fighting for so long to stop this polluting facility from doing further harm. CLF promises to stand with you and hold up our end of the bargain: we will continue to work to shut down the most dangerous solid waste landfills in Massachusetts, implement Zero Waste programs to make those facilities unnecessary, and create a network of stakeholders across the Commonwealth so no community is ever treated the way Southbridge has been.
As for Casella? It’s time for them to “go quietly.”