Video: Special Meeting of the Board of Public Works and the City Council, 8/21/09; Landfill Ballot Question No. 2

Here is a 1 hour 13 minute video from the 8/21/09 special meeting of the Northampton Board of Public Works and members of City Council. This video was recorded by Lachlan Ziegler. The participants discussed the language of a City Council-sponsored nonbinding question for the November election ballot regarding the proposed expansion of the municipal landfill. Water Not Waste is gathering signatures to place a competing question on the ballot (“Shall the City of Northampton expand the Northampton landfill over the Barnes Aquifer?”)

Saturday’s Gazette reported on the meeting:

…The question up for consideration begins with a one-paragraph introduction that offers background information and states that the BPW has received a waiver from the commonwealth to expand the landfill after a rigorous application process.

It then outlines four arguments in favor of expansion and four arguments against. Voters would choose, for or against.

The arguments to expand the landfill were drafted as follows:

  • (The expansion) continues to contribute approximately $750,000 per year to the general fund and generates additional income to support a wide range of recycling options and programs;

  • provides the lowest possible disposal cost for households and businesses;

  • continues to mean that waste from our schools, the housing authority, downtown and other city operations will be received at the landfill at no cost;

  • it is philosophically appealing to deal with our own waste.
The arguments to close the landfill:

  • (It) decreases traffic, odor and dust for landfill neighbors;

  • although multiple studies have shown there is no new environmental risk for the city, some citizens remain concerned;

  • zero financial risk for the city relating to a new large public works program;

  • although multiple state and independent studies have shown there is no health risk, some citizens remain concerned.

We have concerns about the apparent pro-expansion slant of the ballot language that came out of Friday’s meeting:

  • The landfill business is competitive and the revenue stream from Northampton’s landfill is uncertain. Even HDR/Stantec (Alternatives Study, Section 9, PDF) says our landfill expansion might be worth less than $8 million to a private business, which may be a relatively small amount of money relative to the potential harm.

  • Northampton’s 34% recycling rate lags that of many nearby communities. By operating a landfill, the city has an incentive to tip more tons of waste, not reduce them.

  • It is not proved beyond doubt that disposing of our waste within Northampton is significantly cheaper than shipping it out. The cost to ship our waste to Seneca Meadows/Seneca Falls, New York—to name just one alternative–appears to be comparable to our landfill’s current average commercial tip fee (Alternatives Study, 8/17/09 presentation, slide 30). A more thorough search of outside disposal sites might reveal other cost-competitive options. By choosing to ship our waste out, the city could retain flexibility in the face of changing conditions. If we expand the landfill, we are locked into that course of action for the next 25-30 years, even if better (cheaper and/or more ecologically sound) waste management options emerge in the meantime.

  • It seems likely that many other landfill sites are less ecologically sensitive, and less near homes, than the site of the proposed expansion, which would intrude the landfill into the recharge area of the Barnes Aquifer. This offsets the moral benefit we might perceive from disposing of our own waste.

  • The claim that there will be “no new environmental risk for the city” seems scientifically impossible. As noted at Zero Waste America, “even the best liner and leachate collection system will ultimately fail due to natural deterioration.” It might be plausible to claim the environmental risk from landfill expansion is small, but it’s not zero.

  • The claim that there will be “no health risk” seems similarly aggressive. Some humility in the face of past experience is warranted. Waste disposal practices that were acceptable less than 50 years are now restricted as harmful. The long-term impacts of many substances are still not fully known.

See also:

Video: Landfill Options – Public Information Meeting of 8/17/09

Gazette: “Landfill study eyed in detail at local forum” (8/17/09)

Videos: Planning Board Meeting of 8/13/09; Special Permits for Heavy Public Uses

Download the Solid Waste Management Alternatives Study (PDF, 2.7MB)

Department of Public Works: Landfill Documents

Northampton Solid Waste Alternatives Google Group

Key Portions of the Solid Waste Management Alternatives Study
A critical element missing from the study is an estimate of the value of Barnes Aquifer water at risk from contamination due to landfill expansion. Neither the words “Barnes” nor “Aquifer” appear anywhere in the study.

Video and Slides: Public Forum on Innovative Approaches to Manage Northampton’s Solid Waste, 11/19/08
Mayor Clare Higgins asserts that the region has a moral obligation to deal with its trash locally. The Valley Advocate quotes her as saying, “We are providing a regional public service… Western Massachusetts should deal with Western Massachusetts trash. And even leaving the region out of the equation, Northampton has to send its trash somewhere. What are the options? Will we feel good about ourselves if we ship our trash out of state to a poorer community?”

Gary Liss challenges this notion (1:55:10-1:56:30), saying, “I don’t think you have to assume that you have to provide landfill capacity. You could provide transfer capacity. The assumption of having to provide local capacity was in the 80s, when there was a concern that there wasn’t going to be disposal capacity available anywhere, and ‘we’re running out of landfill space’. That was the driver for a lot of the programs of the 80s and 90s. That doesn’t compute anymore with the regional haul…

Water Not Waste Launches to Save Barnes Aquifer

Paradise City Forum: Landfill and Aquifer