Solid waste disposal: a growing N.H. problem

While in recent legislative sessions the spotlight has been on “high-profile” waste issues such as sludge-spreading, burning construction and demolition debris, electronic waste, medical waste, mercury, and hazardous waste, the very mundane but important issue of municipal solid waste disposal has been practically ignored until recently. Yet it is our trash and garbage that is New Hampshire’s biggest problem. It is not going away anytime soon, and it is very expensive.

Department of Environmental Service statistics show that solid waste disposal may be a town’s second or third most expensive budget item, only surpassed by such expenses as school funding. Towns are required to dispose of their trash and garbage. To do so, they have converted their old town-owned dumps into transfer stations, way stations for trash on its way to a landfill or incinerator.

While 225 of the state’s municipalities operate transfer stations, there are only seven publicly owned and two privately owned landfills. DES estimates that by 2022 the state’s population will have surpassed the available landfill capacity. At the same time, there are no new proposed facilities or landfill permits filed.

This last aspect is not the fault of any one person or entity; it is the result of a failure in long-range planning and in state law that does not protect host communities – communities where private landfills currently exist or could be sited in the future.

This session’s House Bill 1429, the legislation addressing a community’s input into the proposed expansion of the 50-acre private landfill in Bethlehem, has brought to light these problems. There is an almost total reliance on private facilities for much of the state’s municipal trash disposal as well as the need to expand capacity. Private landfills take a significant amount of New Hampshire’s trash, but DES estimates that more than 40 percent of the trash currently being landfilled comes from outside New Hampshire — trash which cannot be refused under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause.

Bethlehem, through no fault of its own and a benign public complacency, has become a repository for much of the state’s trash, including much of the trash imported into the state. The policy of “public benefit” defined in the solid waste laws has unintentionally sacrificed a town, its people and their sense of community under the guise that such an expansion would be best for the rest of the state.

There must be a true balance between towns and the state when considering “public benefit,” and there must be a competitive balance between private and public landfills in order to preserve future capacity.

Our solid waste laws need to be thoroughly re-examined to see why the state’s inaction has allowed reliance on private landfills as the major repository for our trash. It is time for the Legislature to take a more modern and responsible position on solid waste disposal, create standards that are more clear and uniform and protect individual towns from carrying the burden of a problem that is statewide in nature.

By allowing communities a voice in the process and ensuring the financial burdens of hosting a landfill are covered, we can begin to address New Hampshire’s bigger challenge, of how cities and towns will deal with their waste in the future.

Democratic Rep. Jay Phinizy of Acworth is chair of the House Committee on Environment and Agriculture and Rep. Martha McLeod, D-Franconia, represents Bethlehem.

Categories: Opinion