Friday, March 5, 2010

Ash Landfills: Someone’s Gotta Have Them

Kendra Richardson wrote this piece for her Magazine Journalism course at the University of Connecticut:

Ash landfills are necessary in Connecticut, whether residents like it or not. These landfills, a disposal site for what’s left after garbage is incinerated, are not developed until the state Department of Environmental Protection has ensured they met environmental standards. Yet the idea of dumping ash is a scary concept for residents who live near the sites.

On March 26, 2008, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority announced it had chosen Franklin as the site for a new ash landfill. The small town is located in the “Last Green Valley” of northeastern Connecticut.

The CRRA chose a 350-acre site in Franklin, of which approximately 90 acres would be used as the actual landfill. The remaining acres would act as a buffer between the landfill and the surrounding residential area.

Residents of Franklin quickly protested, and now the CRRA has announced it will suspend its efforts to develop the landfill. However, a need remains since the Hartford landfill has reached capacity and closed down in late 2008 after 64 years of operation.

Connecticut now has one active ash landfill in Putnam. This is privately owned by Wheelabrator Technologies Incorporated. According to Robert Jacques, Wheelabrator’s Manager of Business Development, the landfill has space to accommodate ash for 17 years. However, according to Paul Nonnemacher, the CRRA’s Director of Public Affairs, the estimated 17 years may be correct, but not exactly accurate.

Wheelebrator’s Putnam landfill accommodates space for out-of-state plants that bring their ash in. Nonnemacher said that after nine years the landfill will have reached its capacity with in-state ash and that the remaining eight years is reserved for out of-state plants. Nonnemacher said, “Whatever is there [Putnam] is a short term solution, to a very long term problem. Garbage is not going to go away, and Putnam is not the best solution.”

This leaves Connecticut with unresolved trash problems. Why wasn’t an ash landfill installed in Franklin? In order to answer this question a person needs to understand the disposal process.

Connecticut is one of the approximately 30 states in the U.S. that uses an alternative energy process for waste disposal. There are six plants currently running in Connecticut. Ash, the non-combustible residue left after incineration, has been dumped in Hartford or Putnam for years. Its wet consistency means it does not blow in the wind and residents of the surrounding area in Putnam have never had a problem with it.

Jessica Wilson, a resident of Woodstock who lives on the Putnam town line, said, “I have never had a problem with the landfill, it never really even comes up in town news. All I know is it brings in money for the town of Putnam. I’ve never even noticed trucks carrying ash.”

Correct she is —— the landfill does bring Putnam money. The landfill is expected to bring in almost $3 million this year.

The ash that is left from the incineration process, which is about 70 to 80 percent less by volume than before, must go somewhere. That is where the landfill comes in. Trucks carry the ash from the incinerator to a landfill, where the ash is dumped into a massive pool-like deposit area.

When Franklin residents caught wind of the CRRA’s plan to start testing the proposed site for the landfill, the town went into an uproar. Residents started a campaign called “Dump the Dump.” Even months after the plan was squashed, yellow signs appear plastered on nearly every family’s front lawn reading, “DUMP the DUMP! Keep Franklin Green and Clean.” Many residents were determined to stop an ash landfill from being developed.

Residents expressed legitimate fears. Their fears included a traffic increase on Route 32, the possibility of the landfill leaking, hundreds of acres of the beautiful country land being ruined, toxins flowing into the air and into their drinking supply, the threat to biodiversity, and archeological history being destroyed. They said it could lower property value as well, and raise unknown environmental concerns.

Nonnemacher believes residents concerns were unfounded.

“I would not feel bad [to have such a facility near his house] because I understand how these things are built, engineered and operated. And so, if they found a site that met the criteria, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “Even if I lived next door, I wouldn’t have a problem with it because I know enough about them.”
Nonnemacher said however that while these fears were genuine, they simply were not backed up by factual information. He said the potential of a double-lined landfill leaking was slim to none.

“The facts and the science indicate there was no cause for concern here,” he said, “Nobody else had ever monitored the groundwater [before we had]. DEP would not let us build there if there was any indication that there were any possibility chemicals could get into their drinking water. No cause for concern on this score either.”

The ash landfill would have three layers of plastic liners, two layers of clay liners, would sit more than five feet away from the ground water, and two wells would monitor on opposite ends of structure. Also, the DEP requires that ash landfills are built adjacent to a Class-B river or stream, thus making the Shetucket River a very viable option. The DEP would prohibit a landfill from being built anywhere near a body of water that was used for drinking.

Nonnemacher said Windham once operated an ash landfill that has since closed down, but remains unlined. He said water flows under this unlined ash landfill upstream from the Franklin site, and into the Shetucket River where swimming and fishing is permitted. There have been no ill effects from old ash landfill and the DEP has not deemed the fish unsafe to consume. Yet, there is still a huge objection to a safer, new ash landfill.

Another main concern is destruction of the land. Of the 695,000 acres in the Last Green Valley, 90 of that would be transformed to accommodate the landfill. The CRRA assured residents that only those acres would be excavated and the remaining would be left in its natural state. The Putnam landfill, in accordance, has walking trails and paths that the town has maintained since it opened. The CRRA also speculates that since there is a reasonable amount of gravel underneath the Franklin property, there is a good chance a mining operation could be installed. If this were the case—the excavation would far exceed that of the CRRA’s.

In May of 2009, Wheelabrator held a 10th-anniversary celebration for visitors who were interested in learning more about the site. According to an article in the Norwich Bulletin, residents were provided with charts and graphs to help them understand the intricate process of the landfill. They were also given samples of honey made by the on-site beehives, and flower seeds that were grown there, as well. Author James Mosher said, “former skeptics were won over.”

Johanne Boisvert, a resident who lives only miles from the Putnam ash landfill, said the site is “perfect for walking your dogs, it's peaceful and quiet. I don’t think many people even know the walking trials are on the site of a landfill.”

Now that there is no potential for an ash landfill in Franklin, residents have suggested the CRRA begin to look elsewhere. The conundrum lies in where else the state should put the landfill. The CRRA says it did extensive research and Franklin was absolutely the best place. The Franklin residents have also suggested the CRRA try to find another spot. If an ash landfill is unacceptable in their town, however, why would other towns want them? Franklin residents are offering ideas that are really not a solution.

After the plan was squashed, the CRRA went back and checked all of its work and checked if there were any other potential sites in Connecticut. Nonnemacher said, “we sent a letter to every town in Connecticut except Franklin and asked them if they may happen to know a site that would be suitable for one. A couple of towns did offer sites, but they didn’t meet all the criteria.”

Nonnemacher said they contacted Cheshire, Conn., but it was “just an effort to make sure we didn’t overlook anywhere.” He said CRRA is shopping for privately owned landfills.

Since the Hartford landfill closed, the CRRA has been sending ash to privately owned companies, which has increased in price by 14 percent. Sending the ash out of state would cost Connecticut taxpayers even more money.

For right now, Nonnemacher urges Connecticut to recycle as much as possible as they try to figure out the best solution to this problem.