“An uphill slog: Fighting the landfill expansion is not going to be easy” – Mike Kirby

Mike Kirby has kindly given us permission to reprint his Sunday article from Kirby on the Loose. There will be a public information session on the Solid Waste Management Alternatives Study (PDF, 2.7MB) today at 7pm in the JFK Middle School Community Room, 100 Bridge Road.

An uphill slog

Fighting the landfill expansion
is not going to be easy.

I was at Stop & Shop collecting signatures for the drive to put the question about the landfill on the ballot. It was a chilly morning, and drizzle was fogging up my glasses. Most people were friendly and receptive to signing onto this venture, but some were not. I remember this one man in particular rushing for the door that accused me of being “aggressive” when I never said a word to him. It’s just that I was there with a clipboard, and I was obviously going to try to slow him down by talking to him.

There are a lot of people who don’t want to think about the landfill and the questions that putting a new one into the Glendale Road area raises. They yearn to keep the good old days when the bags were a buck, and the city ran it quietly and efficiently, and the cash coming in helped support many departments. There’s a lot of festering anger against the neighbor who kept calling to complain about the landfill. Northampton has served for many years as a kind of surrogate mother. Pay us and we will take your trash. We shushed the neighbors when they complained about the trucks roaring by, day after day. Lurking behind the scenes are many big-time carters who make big money off our landfill. We haven’t heard from them yet, but we will.

On August 31, there was a column in the Times by Paul Krugman entitled “Missing Richard Nixon”. The column really wasn’t about missing Nixon, it was about missing an earlier time when lobbyists weren’t so entrenched in Washington, and rational talk about health care was possible. Ditto for our town and the landfill issue. City councilors are drafting their own question for the ballot. It purports to talk for the opposition, but doesn’t do a very good job. It proffers straw men with weak-kneed arguments. Now the planning department wants to do away with the need of a city to have a permit. You and I need one for all kinds of minor improvements, but the city makes the rules, and the rules seem to change as the needs of administrators dictate.

I have been involved in two local efforts that went down to defeat: putting two non-binding questions on the ballot about the future of Hospital Hill, and fighting the rezoning of the land around Smith College as an educational overlay district. The questions about the state hospital project went down to a 60/40 defeat after paid ads supported by Mass Development and principals in the redevelopment effort flooded the city, and the Gazette and the radio station editorialized against it. The Smith College expansion? The planning department pulled some shenanigans and petitions were invalidated, why I forget.

Powerful forces are working for this new landfill, and they really won’t show their hand until the weeks before the election, when the airwaves and the papers will be flooded with editorials and paid ads. The landfill benefits many entrenched interests. There are the firms that use the landfill, and the surrounding communities that depend on it. There is the DPW itself, whose director draws a significant part of his salary from the landfill.

It’s the site, I think, that continues to be the major problem. When they bought the land in 1988 this area of the city was relatively empty. The town has grown up around it. Back in the eighties there weren’t any fancy homes on Park Hill road, which was dirt for much of its length. It’s become, today, a monster of a non-conforming use on the king of flag lots encompassing hundreds of acres behind the back yards of many homes. Today’s entry is an alleyway between two modest ranch houses. First one landfill was here, then another, and now there will be another. They decided to expand here because it was next door, and it was for sale. Like the original dump, it will be built on a sand and gravel base. The entire burden will be on the technology working as designed. If you get a tear in the plastic liner or the clay layer that has been trucked in decays or cracks, the leachate and chemicals will be off traveling toward the water supply. 60 mil plastic can tear, and has torn in the past. Ten or fifteen minutes Googling this technology turned up warnings from specialists about the potentially very short effective life of our technologies compared to the long life of the bad stuff that we put in our landfills.

There are potential sites here in Northampton that would make a much better place to put a dump. Off Easthampton road, around Searles’ auto recycling yard, there is 18 feet of clay under the ground. Deep clay put there by Mother Nature, not a thin trucked-in layer, is the best defense against seepage. Their junkyard has been in operation a long time, and to my knowledge there never has been any problems with contamination.

The political strength and the deep pockets of this group dictates why it’s hard to look at this issue dispassionately. They know that the public can be manipulated, and because they can be manipulated, they will try. Lobbying works, public relations works, money works just splendidly to push the electorate and its representatives around. The Mayor won the last referendum issue by encouraging people to throw lots of money into it. MassDevelopment and other people ran big ads almost every day. This time the city has hired Stantec to do public education about the issue. Stantec will probably be first in line to do the engineering for the landfill. The group has put two influential members of the DPW on the city council, they have a joint DPW/City Council committee that is writing an alternative question to put on the ballot: they won’t have to come out on a cold rainy morning to get signatures for their measure. They hired attorney Mike Pill to intimidate councilors who represent the neighborhood. They have the Mayor and her machine, they will have the Gazette, who will probably editorialize fiercely for the landfill, and fight against the “red herring talk” about the aquifer. Money talks, and advertisers have a lot of power.

We need to educate people on this issue. Ultimately, it’s a moral question; it’s a public health question. It comes down to the immorality of Northampton opting for yesterday’s strategies, for the cheap and easy and risky, rather than adopt tougher long term answers to reduce our waste stream, restrict who uses the existing landfill in its final years, and tell the commercial carting people to go elsewhere. If the existing landfill just serves Northampton in its last years, it will last us long enough to come up with alternatives. The first thing we should do is to gradually raise the per price of bags up from a buck to some figure that has some realistic relationship to how much it costs the city to dispose of it.

See also:

Kirby on the Loose: “‘I married the landfill.'” (8/16/09)
[Bob Moriarty] says private landfills are well regulated. There is a good strong institutional barrier between the state and the private guys. But between the DEP and a city running a regional landfill? He doubts that a private operator like Waste Management would have ever got a waiver to build a dump over the Barnes aquifer. What worries him is what will happen if the city goes ahead with its plan and screws up and the DEP takes over, like they did in Wendell. DEP dumps can take a lot of stuff like mercury-tainted waste that private dumps can’t.

Latest Version of Landfill Ballot Question No. 2

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

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.
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.

Water Not Waste Seeks Signatures, Donations
Water Not Waste has launched a campaign to put the following non-binding question on the November ballot:

“Shall the City of Northampton expand the Northampton landfill over the Barnes Aquifer?”

You may download the petition signature form here.

Paradise City Forum: Landfill and Aquifer

Department of Public Works: Landfill Documents

Northampton Solid Waste Alternatives Google Group