Bill targeting landfill expansion weighed by NH House panel

Despite warning on higher costs, proponents call for moratorium, study

New Hampshire would stop expanding private landfill capacity for two years to give the state more time to look at public solid waste districts that could turn away trash from out of state, according to a bill heard Thursday by the House Environment and Agriculture Committee.

While state and waste industry officials warned House Bill 1319 could drive up disposal costs, proponents said the measure would lengthen landfill life, especially in conjunction with other efforts to increase waste reduction and discourage the importation of garbage, which accounts for half the trash disposed of at landfills.

HB 1319 and a subsequent bill – HB 1411, banning landfills near federal and state parks – were clearly aimed at a proposal from Casella Waste Systems, which wants to site a new 180-acre landfill near the 397-acre Lake Forest State Park in Dalton. The Dalton plan emerged after Casella failed to obtain a permit to expand its landfill in nearby Bethlehem, which is due to close in April of next year.

The Bethlehem landfill and Waste Management’s Turnkey Landfill in Rochester are the only two privately owned landfills in New Hampshire. Turnkey is permitted through 2034. Four other landfills, one owned by a solid waste district but run by a private company, is outside of Berlin. The municipal landfills in Nashua, Lebanon and Conway primarily take local trash.

“We believe it is time for a pause,” said Ellen Hays, a member of Lake Forest Association. “We think that New Hampshire should make solid waste management as much a municipal function and take the trash out of cash. I think that no private corporation has the right to dump trash from all over New England into our state in order to earn money for themselves.”

Hays added that the bill dovetails with other solid waste legislation introduced this year. One would impose a trash tax to better fund state and local recycling efforts, and another, HB 1702 (which the committee voted to support Thursday morning) would establish a solid waste working group to help the state update its waste management plan for the first time since 2003.

The state Department of Environmental Services supports these efforts and agrees that the agency is understaffed. It has only one engineer to work on permitting landfills.

“We are falling down on the job – we know that,” said Michael J. Wimsatt, the director of DES’ Solid Waste Division.

DES opposes HB 1319, especially as originally proposed, because it would create “permit chaos” and would only distract from the other studies. He also noted that state laws require that the state take into account public benefit and environmental considerations in siting a landfill, though he admitted that public benefit doesn’t really take into account where waste comes from or whether disposal is too concentrated in one region.

Waste districts

Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with slogans like “No Landfill,” “Save the North Country” and “Dump Casella,” Jon Swan, founder of the organization Save Forest Lake clearly had enough.

“It’s all ching-a-ling. They make a lot of money at our expense, our kids and our future,” he said.

But it isn’t just a local issue, said Tom Irwin, vice president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation in New Hampshire, since the state is not achieving its goal of recycling 40% of its solid waste.

The state, he said, “is still operating on the disposal model. Continuous expansion of capacity runs counter to the goal of reducing solid waste at the source.”

He also said that while the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution restricts a state from preventing a private firm from taking out-of-state waste, a municipality or a publicly owned solid waste management district could turn it away.

Representatives of the two landfills noted that such districts are rarely successful.

“They get to the time when it comes to get a permit and a municipality would fall out of the district because they don’t want a landfill in their community,” said Robert Magnusson, district manager of Waste Management.

Magnusson also defended the landfill for importing as much as 60% of its waste from out of state, saying it was “appropriate” for Rochester, since it is at the “corner” of two other states.

Casella claimed to have taken steps to reduce its out-of-state waste to about 30% last year and a projected 20% his year. The regional company accomplished this not by turning away waste, but by directing its haulers to bring their loads to their home state.

“We are not here to tell you everyone loves landfills,” said Brian Oliver, regional vice president of Casella. “But siting new landfills are a highly capital-intensive business that takes five to seven years to permit. Small municipal ones or even solid waste districts are not a viable alternative.”

Pinard Waste Systems, one of the state’s biggest haulers, also warned of skyrocketing garbage disposal costs as haulers drive farther to dump their loads.

That’s the “economic cost of restricting free commerce,” said Tony Belanger, Pinard’s director of municipal services and major accounts.

But there is also an economic cost of allowing a landfill so close to a state park, said Hays. State parks attract tourists, but landfills emit odors and attract scavenger birds. The last thing a state attracting tourists wants to be remembered by is “how it smells,” he said.

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