A recent expansion at Vermont’s only landfill could be its last. What happens next?

  • A loader moves recently dumped garbage at the landfill in West Lebanon, N.H., on Feb. 16, 2011. (Valley News - Jason Johns) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jason Johns

Published: 1/16/2022 6:43:27 PM
Modified: 1/16/2022 6:42:22 PM

COVENTRY — In early December, the driver of a tractor-trailer made his way down a dirt road carved into the side of a brand new, 14-acre cell — the newest phase of Vermont’s only operating landfill.

At the bottom, the driver dislodged the body of the truck from the cab and hooked it up to a lift, which hoisted it diagonally into the air. Discarded objects from the everyday lives of Hyde Park residents tumbled from its opened back doors.

A new, 51-acre expansion makes the landfill — what locals not-so-lovingly call “Mount Casella” — a 129-acre behemoth. It accepts the majority of trash produced in the state, and it’s a well-oiled machine.

Like cars on a model train set, trucks descended into the new cell every few minutes to lift, empty and drive away. Bulldozers and trash compactors intercepted the flow, spreading and compressing the mounds of plastic, splintered wood and dried septic sludge to make room for years’ worth of trash to come.

Casella Waste Systems, Inc., which owns the facility, plans to build three more cells like this one. When they’re full, around 22 years from now, no one’s sure where the state’s waste will go.

“There are site limitations with future expansions at Coventry,” said Matt Chapman, director of the Department of Environmental Conservation’s waste management division. “You have the road on one side, the airport on the other, the Black River surrounding it and the wetland complex surrounding it on the other sides.”

The state “basically serves the function as a regulator in this capacity,” Chapman said. On a broad scale, the state does some planning — determining how to divert and lessen waste, for example — but the state does not have a long-term plan that outlines where waste will go when Coventry’s landfill is full or how it will be handled.

Casella could, theoretically, expand one more time. To do that, it would need to excavate an old, unlined section of the landfill — otherwise known as Nadeau’s dump — and move it to a new, lined area, which would be filled with old and new trash. The project would be called Phase V.

Constructing that project would be incredibly challenging, Chapman said, partly because it is located next to a wetland.

“That means, when you start digging into it, you’re likely to have wetter, saturated soils and waste material in it,” he said. “So it’s gonna be smelly — there are going to be all sorts of challenges.”

That section would provide 3 million yards of capacity for new trash, said Jeremy Labbe, general manager at Casella, compared with the 13 million yards included in the new expansion.

Even if Casella decides to move ahead with those plans and gains the necessary approval, Labbe said the expansion would provide only “another few years of life.”

Labbe said it’s impossible to say, this far out, what other disposal options could emerge on the company’s land in Coventry, which totals more than 1,000 acres.

Meanwhile, members of the grassroots organization DUMP, or Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity, have tried to limit the landfill’s impact on residents and the environment for years. The group formed to fight the expansion, and they pushed back against the landfill’s expansion for nearly a year and a half.

They have argued that its location near wetlands and Lake Memphremagog makes it the wrong place to dispose of the state’s waste. The group reached a settlement agreement with Casella in November 2019 stipulating that Casella would increase odor monitoring measures, provide DUMP with copies of permit applications and reports submitted to the state and other measures.

Several members of DUMP told VTDigger they are calling for the Legislature to require the Agency of Natural Resources to create a plan for the future of solid waste in Vermont by 2025.

According to members of DUMP, residents of Coventry are tired of hosting the dumping grounds for the rest of the state.

Significant obstacles

Vermont has around 22 years to figure out what to do with its waste. While that sounds like an ample amount of time, solutions can get complicated fast.

Vermonters should not be worried, Chapman said. Garbage is “an interstate commodity,” and Vermont is better poised in that respect than many other states in southern New England where landfill capacity is tighter.

“Having said that, I think we should all be cognizant of what’s going on” in Coventry, he said.

The state is relying on another entity — either a private company or a municipality — to propose a new facility, such as a landfill or an incinerator, also known as a waste-to-energy facility, Chapman said.

Landfills are “highly regulated, highly engineered environments,” Chapman said, and opening another one is a multi-year process and a significant financial challenge — one estimate puts the cost between $300,000 and $800,000 per acre.

Many of the problems cited by DUMP members are linked to the magnitude of the 129-acre facility, along with its location. But economically, according to Chapman, it’s hard to make something smaller work.

“What happens behind the scenes is an incredible upfront capital investment that a company or a municipality needs to make in order to site, design, permit and then ultimately construct the landfill,” he said. “It’s a really hard thing to do.”

Two municipal solid waste management districts, in Sheldon and Hartland, have considered hosting small landfills — though Chapman said neither plan to move forward anytime soon.

These conceptual sites “face significant obstacles to being viable for operation,” the report said.

Sheldon’s Northwest Vermont Solid Waste Management District Landfill site has retained a conceptual design permit from the state, according to the Report on Landfill Operation in the State, prepared by the Department of Environmental Conservation in January 2021.

Located on a 155-acre parcel in the northwestern corner of the state, the landfill would be 13 acres and hold trash for 16 years at a rate of 20,000 tons per year. In 2020 alone, the Coventry landfill accepted a total 496,170 tons of trash.

Hartland’s proposed site, which would be managed by the Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District, “was long regarded as a technically and environmentally promising location for the development of a regional lined landfill,” according to the landfill operations report.

The district voluntarily revoked its standing certification before it expired in 2015 because of anticipated operational costs.

“The previously issued conceptual design permit was for an operational capacity of 50,000 tons per year; however, it was estimated that 75,000 to 125,000 tons per year would need to be accepted in order for this landfill to make economic sense with consideration of potential capital and operating costs,” the report said.

Generally speaking, capacity for landfills in New England is shrinking, Chapman said.

“There’s definitely a pinch from that perspective and tightness in the regional disposal markets,” he said.

Another option, Chapman said, would be to follow the lead of southern New England and ship waste to other states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Or, Vermont could push forward and accomplish an age-old goal: shrinking the amount of waste consumers produce.

“To some degree, there’s limits to what we can do, or what we do do, with respect to consumer behavior,” Chapman said.

Pile of trash in front of landfill walls

Reducing waste

Though the state has designed a plan to reduce waste, called the Materials Management Plan, it has yet to show meaningful progress.

In 2019, the Coventry landfill accepted the most household trash from Vermonters in any year since 2004. The same year, the state created the plan, which sets goals for the amount of reduction, disposal and diversion that will take place in the next several years. For example, it calls for a 10% reduction in the amount of annual waste generated — down to about 606,000 tons generated per year — by 2024.

“However, Vermonters continue to generate more waste each year, with per capita waste disposal up 8% since 2014, and diversion remaining at (around) 35%,” according to a 2021 Biennial Report on Solid Waste, created for the Legislature.

“More work needs to be done to meet the diversion and disposal goals” of the 2019 Materials Management Plan, it said.

Evidence suggests the Universal Recycling Law — which banned food scraps from landfills and single-use products from stores and restaurants on July 1, 2020 — is working. Food scrap collection has increased every year since 2016. Since 2014, Vermont has seen a 10% increase in recycling, and 72% of mandated recyclables are recycled, the report said.

Still, it likely isn’t enough to meet the goals outlined in the Materials Management Plan.

“Even with improved recycling, food donation, and composting rates, waste generation in Vermont increased 11% from 2016 to 2017,” the Materials Management Plan said. “Unfortunately, this reversed decreasing disposal trends seen in 2015 and 2016.”

Data from 2020 shows some progress. Vermonters produced about 625,000 tons of municipal waste, according to the state’s 2020 Diversion and Disposal Report. That’s 6.8% less than Vermonters produced in 2019, which the state attributes to ripple effects from the pandemic.

“Periods of economic downturn often correspond with decreases in waste generation,” the 2020 report said. “As the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered many businesses and institutions, waste, recycling, and organics from these commercial sectors dropped off and haulers reported an increase in the amount of these materials collected from the residential sector.”

Last week, state Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, introduced S.236, an “extended producer responsibility” bill, which he said would hold manufacturers responsible for reducing their waste.

“There always is a cost to handling trash,” Bray said. “If the manufacturer is going to have a role to play in paying part of that cost, then they may think differently about the packaging being used.”

The bill would encourage manufacturers to shift to materials that can be more easily recycled, use more recycled products in the materials, and reduce the total materials used in the product and its packaging, Bray said.

In 2020, Vermont sent around 74,000 tons of household waste and 17,000 tons of construction waste to facilities in New Hampshire or New York.

While the Coventry landfill does not take household waste from other states, it accepts construction materials, sludge from sewage treatment plants, asbestos, ash, contaminated soil, medical waste and more.

Planning and community impact

One of the biggest hurdles for prospective landfill operators is community opposition, according to the 2021 Report on Landfill Operation in the State.

Locals and members of DUMP say their opposition is backed by good reason, particularly because the landfill places an outsized burden on a small number of people — and an international body of water.

The Black River runs to the west of the landfill and empties into Lake Memphremagog, a drinking water source for more than 175,000 Canadians. The lake’s South Bay is located several thousand feet to the east.

Odors also present a problem. Bob Fortunati, a Coventry resident who lives on a ridge overlooking the landfill, said the smell near his home can be unbearable. He moved into his house in 1983, back when the landfill was small and handled only local waste.

Now, the landfill has grown to “something bigger than a small town like Coventry, really, is capable of even comprehending,” he said.

In an essay written before Casella expanded, Henry Coe, a leader of DUMP, wrote that one of the group’s main points of opposition is the “social and environmental injustice of transporting 70% of Vermont’s garbage long distances from areas of greater population and affluence which generate such waste, through formerly quiet small communities, to a remote community at the source of a major international drinking water body.”

Canadian officials have already detected trace amounts of the toxic chemical group PFAS in a body of water connected to the lake. The news sparked concern from locals on both sides of the border that the contamination may be coming from the Newport wastewater treatment facility, which treated leachate from the landfill, though that has not been confirmed by state officials.

A February 2020 report from Vermont’s Department of Conservation shows that water exiting wastewater treatment facilities in Montpelier and Newport, which both treated leachate from the Coventry landfill at the time, contained significantly higher amounts of PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, than other wastewater treatment facilities.

Chapman said the facility is monitored frequently and extensively. At least once a year, state officials conduct a “canoe survey” in the wetlands, among other quarterly inspections and an annual third-party report. While other landfills in the state, now closed, have received complaints that have caused the state to deny permit renewals, “we haven’t seen similar levels of complaints or issues at Coventry,” he said.

The environmental concerns have prompted DUMP to call for the state to play a bigger role in solid waste management.

DUMP members Peggy Stevens, Teresa Gerade and Coe outlined their suggested plan in a joint statement to VTDigger. It would include an evaluation of new waste technologies and “of potential regional landfill sites close to areas of greatest population density, whose geology, land use, ground and surface waters are found appropriate for siting.”

Communities in the state that produce the most waste should handle it locally or regionally, they wrote, and waste disposal should “not be left to the initiative of the private waste industry.” The state should work to site any forthcoming landfills away from waterways, wetlands, public drinking water sources or wildlife management areas, they said.

The Legislature, they said, should “oversee and approve the development of an updated set of criteria, rules, and regulations for landfill siting, operation, and leachate pretreatment management, requiring input of local and state level public agencies.”

Bray, the state senator from Addison County, chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. In the past, legislators have had some conversations about siting another landfill, he said, but not in the context of Coventry’s eventual closure.

Other issues — COVID-19, the state’s new Climate Action Plan, the opioid crisis, the housing shortage — have taken precedence over an issue that’s decades away. What will happen when the “day of reckoning” built into the landfill’s eventual closure eventually arrives is still an open question, Bray said.

Labbe, general manager for Casella, thinks the state needs a broader plan for solid waste. Whatever comes next, he said the company wants to be involved.

“I think at some point in time, that’s their call,” he said. “But we’re going to do what we can to secure disposal, because we need that opportunity.”

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