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BOSTON - Charlton residents and advocacy groups went to a state environmental office Friday, armed with more than 2,000 signatures in opposition to a planned expansion of the Southbridge landfill, which would add about eight years of capacity to the facility.
Casella Waste Systems has operated the landfill at 165 Barefoot Road in Southbridge since 2004. It owns land on both sides of the border between Southbridge and Charlton. The plan calls for the installation of a landfill liner on 5.7 acres in Southbridge and 5.2 acres in Charlton.
Plans were filed under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, with Friday the deadline for offering comments.
Joining four Charlton residents for a press conference at the state office of Energy and Environmental Affairs were representatives from the the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, Toxics Action Center and the Massachusetts Breast Cancer Coalition.
The petition demanded that the EEA and state Department of Environmental Protections reject Casella Waste Systems’ plan and require Casella to investigate and remedy contamination of Charlton residents’ wells.
Melissa Widing, whose home has a private well in which testing revealed human toxin 1,4-dioxane in excess of safe drinking water standards, and the presence of trichloroethylene, said during the press event:
"We’re begging for every bit of help that we can get. We absolutely need to stop this expansion and we cannot let it go forward because it’s going to ruin our lives now and in the future."
Kirstie L. Pecci, a Sturbridge resident and staff lawyer with MASSPIRG, directed the group to the MEPA office, noting that, "We're all about standing up to big powerful interests, and that's what Casella is."
Once inside, Charlton resident Mary Lou Skowron handed the petition to MEPA analyst Page Czepiga, who's reviewing the landfill project. The group then spoke to Ms. Czepiga and MEPA Director Deirdre Buckley about of their concerns.
Mrs. Widing and her husband Marc Widing Sr., said their home is among five others in Charlton that have “higher hits” of the two toxins. Mrs. Widing said they only learned about it while attending a Board of Health meeting in Charlton and seeing her home included on a map.
“They were not forthcoming with information,” Mrs. Widing said of Casella, which ultimately provided the Widings with bottled water.
But Mrs. Widing asserted it has nonetheless been a challenge.
"We have company come over and we say, ‘Please don’t use the water.’
“We’re showering, washing dishes, doing laundry with water that we probably shouldn’t be using, but we don’t have any alternative at this point,” she said.
Ms. Pecci said the group knows that it isn’t MEPA’s role to approve or reject the project. But she said it appreciated the agency for making sure that facts come out during the process. She accused Casella of “purposely obscuring facts, or just not mentioning” them, and asserted that the MEPA process should not conclude prior to the DEP's requirement that Casella further investigate the source of contaminated groundwater in the next six months.
Casella, Ms. Pecci asserted, knew that 11 acres is unlined, and "probably had already seen in some of their testing, that there were exceedances and contaminants that were already escaping, because the landfill had been there since 1981."
She continued: “This is a business plan that Casella has walked into with their eyes open. They know that they’re in an environmental justice community - Southbridge - that needs the money, needs the $2.5 million a year, and so their game plan is to put as much waste there, at as high a price as possible."
Once contamination presented itself, the company at first said it is not responsible, and then, Ms. Pecci predicted, will point to the unlined cells that predate Casella's management in Southbridge.
This could allow the company to "leave it on the backs of the town and eventually the state,” she said.
The lawyer also suggested she lacked faith in the Southbridge Board of Health.
“They truly don’t believe that this (contamination) has anything to do with the landfill - not based on facts, but because Casella has been telling them this, and Casella is paying salaries in the town," as part of a contract, she asserted.
Kevin Weldon, another impacted Charlton resident, said there are at least half a dozen homes for sale in his neighborhood, some of them years on the market.
“As soon as contaminated wells hit the news,” he said, it set the stage for cancelled appointments for showings.
At a health board meeting in October, Casella representatives reported that 1,4-dioxane had been detected in 21 private wells in Charlton, eight at levels greater than safe drinking water guidelines. The company is providing bottled water to nine homes, eight on H Foote Road and one on Eleanor Lane.
One of the eight with water safety exceedances, at 65 H Foote Road, is also contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE, and Casella has installed a whole-house water filtration system.
Although Casella reported detections at 21 homes, only eight had what the DEP has called indisputable positive hits.
In a statement, John Farese, general manager of Southbridge landfill, said:
"Casella’s economically and environmentally sound operation of the Southbridge Recycling and Disposal Park plays an important role in the financial and social well-being of the community of Southbridge. The SRDP is also a critical component in the Massachusetts Solid Waste Master Plan, as well as the ongoing management of solid waste across the Commonwealth.
“The expansion of the facility is essential to maintaining the highest standards for SRDP operations, including the investment in new technologies to reduce and repurpose solid waste, and to remain an important source of revenue and community benefits for Southbridge.”
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