The Wheelabrator waste-to-energy plant in Saugus

Credit: Craig LeMoult/WGBH News

Massachusetts May Extend The Life Of Controversial Ash Landfill In Saugus

March 21, 2018

Loretta LaCentra’s home is on a narrow strip of land in Revere. On one side, a few blocks away, is the ocean. On the other side, she stood in her lawn looking west across the Pines River at a salt marsh.

 “I've lived here 34 years," she said. "My husband's been here in this house for 40 some odd years, and in the neighborhood for his entire life.”  

In the middle of that salt marsh, across the river in the town of Saugus, is a giant incinerator building that burns 1,500 tons of garbage a day from 10 Massachusetts communities and turns it into electricity. Anytime you burn something, you get ash.

I can’t help but think that there’s an impact from living across from that plant.

Loretta LaCentra, Revere resident

Wheelabrator is the company that runs the incinerator. It stores all the ash in a landfill on the site. LaCentra said she’s seen serious illnesses in her neighbors and in her own family, and she’s worried about the ash.

“I can’t help but think that there’s an impact from living across from that plant,” she said.

LaCentra wants to see the landfill shut down, and says that’s overdue. The landfill was originally supposed close 22 years ago, but Wheelabrator has received extensions from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

In 2011, Wheelabrator paid a $7.5 million settlement to the state for allegedly breaking environmental laws on the site in a lawsuit triggered by whistleblowers working for the company. Wheelabrator denied any wrongdoing. Now, the company is asking the state, once again, to let them keep the landfill open. They’ve applied to open up part of the landfill, giving them 400,000 cubic yards where they can put more ash.

“The ash is very, very toxic," said Kirstie Pecci of the Conservation Law Foundation. "It contains heavy metals, dioxin, anything that the scrubbers capture is in that ash and is dumped there.”

She pointed out that because the ash landfill was built on top of an existing dump, it doesn’t have a state-of-the art plastic liner designed to keep any contamination from escaping.

“By today's regulations, you would be required to put a double-liner system down in order to build an ash landfill," she said. "You also would not be allowed to build an ash landfill or any kind of landfill in a wetland or a marsh.”  

At a public hearing last November, Jim Connolly of Wheelabrator said the ash is nontoxic. Connolly also disputed that there’s any problem with the liner.

“While it's not the traditional plastic liner, it is a clay soil barrier wall with a leachate collection system that serves the same function and meets the same technical standards for protecting groundwater as the more typical plastic liner,” he said.

The system there pumps water out of the landfill. The goal is to keep the groundwater level inside the landfill lower than it is outside. That essentially creates something like a bathtub, and since liquids want to run downhill rather than up, it means groundwater should run into the bathtub, rather than any potentially contaminated water escaping it.

In a video on the Wheelabrator website, Jim Connolly walks around the site and points to pipes coming out of the ground, which he says are tools called piezometers.

“They're used to measure the level of groundwater inside and outside the barrier wall," he says in the video. "The barrier wall runs underground between them. And it's the measurements from these piezometers that allow us to demonstrate that our systems — the capping on the closed areas, the leachate collection system — are functioning properly and are in compliance.”

Wheelabrator declined to be interviewed for this story, but did release a statement, which reads, in part, "The energy-from-waste industry is among the most stringently regulated in the U.S., and Wheelabrator Saugus has operated in full compliance with all local, state and federal regulations for the past 40 years."

But environmentalists say just being compliant with regulations isn’t enough to make sure the site is not contaminating the salt marsh and community around it.

“There is no monitoring of the waterway adjacent to this facility,” said Joan LeBlanc, executive director of the Saugus River Watershed Council. “There's no information that we have that could answer that question as to whether or not anything is leaching, because there's no monitoring in the Pines River adjacent to the facility. There's no monitoring of the sediments to see if any contaminants are leaching from the base of this into the waterway.”

The state DEP confirms that while Wheelabrator does share data on the level of the groundwater, they don’t give the state any data on water quality outside the landfill — and they’re not required to.

By not reporting or not being required to report, it only makes me wonder if there's any analysis being performed at all.

Christopher Swan, Tufts University professor

So, who’s right? Is the landfill storing non-toxic ash in a secure facility with no risk of contamination to the outside environment, or could it be leaking potentially cancer-causing waste? The answer is not necessarily so simple, says Christopher Swan, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts University. First of all, determining whether the ash is toxic or not is a question that depends on what kind of definition you use.

“Legally, from a regulatory sense, it's not toxic," Swan said. But that doesn’t mean that the ash is free of contaminants. “It does contain those,” he added.

How can both those things be true? The Department of Environmental Protection requires tests to determine whether any toxins escape when the ash comes into contact with a liquid, like groundwater. The agency doesn’t require tests to determine what’s in the ash itself.

Swan, who has taught on topics including groundwater sampling and screening techniques as well as the fundamental mechanics of groundwater flow, said the type of system employed by Wheelabrator to contain its waste can be effective even without a plastic liner.

“The method has worked out very well," he said. "It’s a very common method used.”  But Swan noted that’s it’s not 100 percent foolproof and there’s a chance there could be a spot where some water could leave the site. 

Wheelabrator could confirm no contamination is leaking out by testing the water quality outside of the landfill, Swan said.

“By not reporting or not being required to report, it only makes me wonder, if there's any analysis being performed at all," he said. "And that, are they even recognizing or even attempting to recognize that maybe there is a spot that isn't being captured?”

Wheelabrator declined to say whether or not they’re conducting any water quality tests.

In November, the state DEP issued a provisional approval of Wheelabrator’s plan to keep the ash landfill operating. A final decision on the proposal is expected shortly. 


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