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Concord Monitor – Environmentalists are concerned about the state's industry-friendly waste regulations

Conway Public Works employee Tim Shackford prepares to dump soil over trash at the city landfill on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023.
GEOFF FORESTER

After years of operating under outdated solid waste regulations, the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services has proposed updated rules. But environmentalists fear these changes could favor the waste industry over environmental protection.

The draft new regulations, first submitted to the Solid Waste Subcommittee in October, have been significantly revised. A public hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday at the DMV Building Auditorium in Concord.

One of the most controversial changes concerns hydraulic conductivity standards for landfills. Hydraulic conductivity is critical to controlling leachate—a toxic wastewater produced in landfills—by measuring how easily liquids can move through the soil or rock in a landfill.

Originally, the draft called for landfill sites to be selected so that leachate would not move more than 2 feet per day through the surrounding geology. However, the latest draft has relaxed this standard, allowing leachate to move up to 15 feet per day. The measure would allow landfills to be constructed in areas of the state where leachate could travel 50% further in one day than is allowed in Maine over a year.

The longer it takes for leachate to flow through the soil, the easier it is to control, clean and protect surrounding waterways and wells.

According to Adam Finkel, an environmental scientist, the state government is lowering standards to allow Casella Waste Systems' permit application for a landfill near Forest Lake, either “at their own request or because they're getting pressure from the company.” ”

“DES had to further weaken this to allow for approval under the new rule,” Finkel said. “They redesigned the ordinance to get the approval and that is definitely inappropriate, definitely shameful and I would say illegal because it shouldn’t be that way.”

The proposed Dalton landfill is in an area with sand and gravel, which allows liquids to flow more easily than clay, raising concerns about leachate contamination of water sources.

Michael Wimsatt, director of the DES Division of Waste Management, said during a subcommittee meeting in January that DES relaxed the original draft's regulations following feedback from industry. Industry representatives expressed concerns that the proposed rules would force the closure of all of their facilities in the state and prevent the construction or expansion of new facilities.

“So we have to figure out where in the middle we get the level of protection that we really want and desire without simultaneously eliminating all sites or creating a situation where the way we word the rule makes it truly unsafe whether a facility can demonstrate compliance with the rule,” explained Wimsatt.

Major landfill operators in the state, such as Casella Waste Systems and Waste Management, also manage landfills in Maine and Vermont, where stricter regulations apply.

“The concern is that the agency has weakened the requirements regarding the location of a landfill, the cited portion of the regulations,” said Muriel Robinette, a licensed geologist. “They have made it orders of magnitude easier to build a landfill in New Hampshire than in many, many, many other states.”

In Vermont, state regulations require that the conductivity of the soil at the selected landfill site not exceed 10 feet per month, while in Maine it is set at 10 feet per year.

In New Hampshire's new regulations, the time periods required for soil or other porous materials for leachate movement are shorter and also averaged. This means that conductivity measurements can vary within the landfill, with one area allowing 25 feet of leachate movement per day while another may only allow 5 feet per day and still remain within the rule.

Another factor that distinguishes New Hampshire's regulations and brings them below the standards of neighboring states are the setback limits for water sources, which are aimed at preventing contamination. Instead of measuring the time it takes for pollutants to reach surface water, the state agency uses distance measurements.

“The setback is a joke. The setback numbers are meaningless,” Robinette said of the state’s arbitrary increase in setback from 200 feet to 500 feet.

Environmentalists acknowledge that the new regulations have made improvements, particularly by expanding the flood zone and tightening requirements for liners. However, these rules are not based on site-specific conditions for environmental protection, but on the technical and operational aspects of landfills, which could prove inadequate in the event of human error.

“Other states are recognizing the value of relying on nature, Mother Nature, to contain pollutants rather than using double safeguards to try to protect them,” Robinette said. “Landfills have been a source of contamination for decades.”

Anna Harden

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