Controversial Coventry landfill expansion set for Act 250 hearing


Casella landfill

Waste is dumped in one area of the landfill every day, then covered with soil to mitigate odors and pests. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Proponents say a 51-acre expansion of Vermont’s sole remaining open landfill is key to the state’s waste management. Opponents say “Mount Casella” poses significant environmental and public health risks.

After months of heated public meetings, the proposal to expand the Coventry landfill, which has divided locals and sparked backlash across the Canadian border, is set for a hearing before the District Seven Environmental Commission this week that will determine whether the project can continue.

Landfill owner Casella Waste Systems has said that the the highly engineered, double-lined Coventry landfill is integral to Vermont’s solid waste disposal. Without an expansion, the landfill will fill up in four to five years.

“Feelings or biases aside, the inescapable fact is that a modern landfill like the Coventry landfill — highly regulated, highly engineered, relentlessly permitted — currently plays an important role in how our Vermont manages the waste it produces and is a crucial part of the infrastructure necessary to manage public and environmental health,” Joe Fusco, vice president of Casella, said in an interview this fall.

With the new acreage, the landfill could keep accepting trash for an additional 22 years. The town of Coventry, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars annually for hosting the landfill, has written a letter in support of the expansion, referring to the landfill operator as “a responsible community partner.”

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Visualization by Felippe Rodrigues/VTDigger

Rutland-based Casella owns nine open landfills spread across the northeast — in Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. The company also owns Southbridge landfill in Massachusetts, but after facing significant opposition to an expansion plan, decided to shutter that landfill at at the end of last year.

In addition, Cassella owns composting and recycling sorting facilities, and 80 waste transfer stations. The company also offers garbage and recycling pick-up services.

A key state agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, gave the go-ahead for the expansion of the landfill in Coventry this fall after a lengthy review process. Cathy Jamieson, manager of the DEC’s solid waste program, said in an interview that DEC granted Casella a final certification for the expansion because the proposal complied with all of the state’s solid waste rules.

But the expansion has faced steep opposition from some nearby residents, neighboring Canadians and multiple conservation groups concerned about the landfill’s location in the far northern part of the state near Lake Memphremagog — a border-straddling source of drinking water.

“It’s time to close this mega-dump and find another location,” said Charlie Pronto, a Newport resident leading the charge in opposing the expansion, in an interview this fall.

The last major regulatory hurdle the expansion has to clear is the Act 250 review process. An array of landfill expansion opponents have applied to testify at the upcoming hearing.

Casella applied for an Act 250 permit amendment in October 2017 for an expansion on the south side of the 78-acre existing operation. The commission paused the Act 250 review process until Casella received the final solid waste certification from DEC.

About 70 percent of Vermont’s waste goes to Coventry, with the rest going to landfills in New Hampshire or New York. The landfill is permitted to accept up to 600,000 tons of waste a year.

At a public meeting DEC staff held in Coventry in June, some nearby residents expressed concerns over odors emanating from the landfill and impacts to the nearby Black River and its receiving water body — Lake Memphremagog. The international body of water is located mostly in Canada and provides drinking water for almost 200,000 Quebec residents.

Opponents formed the group DUMP — Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity — in an effort to block the expansion. DUMP members have said that Vermont should have regional landfills, rather than trucking in trash from the rest of the state and New England up to Coventry. While the landfill cannot take in municipal trash from other states, roughly 25 percent of its waste consists of construction debris, contaminated soil and other “uniform” trash from out-of-state.

At a packed meeting DUMP hosted in Newport this fall, residents expressed frustration that the DEC does not have a plan for disposing of Vermont’s trash aside from continuing to add to “Mount Casella.”

Chris Roy, of Newport, said during the meeting that his parents had bought the house where his family lives near the landfill 30 years ago, when the waste disposal site was much smaller.

“My parents were sold the property with the premise it would include a million dollar view of the South Bay,” he said. “That million dollar view is gone forever. Who wants to get up early in the morning and walk out on your deck and have to look at trash?”

Ringed by agricultural land, homes and patches of woods, the Coventry landfill is located just south of the Newport town line and the South Bay of Lake Memphremagog. From a distance, the landfill looks like another low-slung hill in the rolling landscape, albeit one conspicuously bare of trees.

Casella landfill

Area residents have taken to calling the Coventry landfill “Mount Casella.” Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The relatively small working area of the landfill — where trucks dump trash for bulldozers to spread out — is covered with a layer of soil every night to minimize odors and loose garbage. From inside a truck, driving around the landfill on a winter day feels like a lunar expedition through a landscape of white slopes veined with pipes and gas lines that collect methane — a potent greenhouse gas released by decomposing gas — to convert into electricity.

Vermont didn’t always have a single landfill. There used to be small unlined dumps and waste disposal sites all around the state. Unlined landfills can lead to leachate — liquid contaminated with landfill pollutants — contaminating groundwater and nearby water bodies, creating a public health risk.

In 1987, the Legislature passed Act 78, which called for far more oversight of Vermont’s waste management. The law led to the closure of 58 landfills around the state that did not meet environmental standards, according to a report prepared for ANR. After the Moretown landfill was shutdown in 2013 due to repeated violations of state air and water quality laws, Coventry by default became home to the last open landfill in Vermont.

Tom Stelter, of Irasbug, said at the DUMP meeting that it was “never the intention” of the stricter environmental regulations to make one state landfill.

Cathy Jamieson of the DEC said that the state does not have the authority to determine how many landfills the state has or where those landfills should go — only whether waste management facilities comply with environmental regulations.

“Certainly we care about how things might change and economically what that might do to Vermonters (if the Coventry landfill closed), but we have no authority on pushing (waste) to go one place versus the other,” said Jamieson. “Our role is making sure facilities are designed and operated and maintained in a manner that protects public health and the environment.”

Northeast Kingdom residents have been joined in their opposition to the expansion by Canadians concerned about impact to their drinking water. This July, Canadian Member of Parliament Denis Paradis sent a letter to state officials calling on them to halt approval of the expansion until an international commission studies the potential impact to the lake.

“There are a lot of places that you can put your garbage that are not next to a lake,” Denis Paradis, Canadian Member of Parliament for Brome-Missisquoi said in an interview this summer.

Casella minimizes the risk of landfill leachate leaking into groundwater by double-lining the landfill cells and installing a collection system that stores the contaminated fluid in nearby tanks. There are also groundwater monitoring wells by the landfill to detect any leaks.

Casella landfill

Waste is dumped in one area of the landfill every day, then covered with soil to mitigate odors and pests. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The collected leachate is treated at wastewater treatment plants, with millions of gallons currently sent each year to plants in Newport and Montpelier. The state has found elevated levels of PFAS in leachate tested from closed landfills around the state, with Coventry — the state’s only open landfill — testing the highest. The PFAS levels were below the state’s recommended levels for leachate destined for wastewater treatment plants.

PFAS, considered “emerging contaminants” by the Environmental Protection Agency, are a broad swath of chemicals used in everything from cookware to food packaging to stain protectant.

DUMP and Canadian landfill expansion opponents have expressed concern that Newport’s wastewater treatment plant, which sends treated water into a Lake Memphremagog tributary, was not designed to adequately remove PFAS and other leachate contaminants.

Vermont does not currently have groundwater or surface water standards for that class of chemicals — meaning wastewater treatment plants do not currently have to ensure the treated water leaving plants meets certain levels of PFAS.

Conservation Law Foundation is one of the groups opposing the landfill expansion that has been granted “friends of the commission” status in the Act 250 process. Elena Mihaly, staff attorney, said the group is concerned about Casella’s plan for treating the “pretty toxic” leachate collected at the landfill.

“Casella is basically proposing to dispose of it via municipal wastewater facilities that are not equipped to safely and effectively treat those contaminants,” she said.

Joe Fusco of Casella said most leachate produced by landfills around the country is treated at wastewater treatment plants. He noted that the DEC has said that the PFAS levels in leachate from Coventry and other lined landfills are low enough to be treated at those plants with “no adverse impacts” to public health or the environment. The company is working with the DEC to study the “proper approach” to PFAS and other emerging contaminants, Fusco said.

One of the conditions of the DEC’s approval of the landfill expansion was that Casella test PFAS levels in landfill leachate and in incoming waste likely to have higher levels of contaminants, like biosolids. Additionally, the company will need to research options for pre-treating leachate from the Coventry landfill to reduce contaminant levels before sending it to wastewater treatment plants. Casella has hired a consultant who is analyzing potential leachate pre-treatment options, Fusco said.

The District Seven Environmental Commission issued a decision on Nov. 20 to reopen the Act 250 hearing process, allowing parties to respond to or rebut the landfill’s certification and air pollution permit within the limited scope of impacts to air quality and waste disposal.

In a memo earlier this month, the commissioners asked Casella to provide more information about leachate disposal and asked Canadian participants to describe whether their country’s water quality standards differ from U.S. standards.

Kirsten Sultan, district coordinator for the District Seven Environmental Commission, said the commissioners could ask the applicant to provide more information after the hearing before making a decision on whether to grant the permit amendment.

The Act 250 hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22 at 5:30p.m. at the Coventry Community Center.