Sludge landfill expansion proposal awaits next step

  • The proposed Gardner sludge landfill gets very close to the Otter River, which is a major tributary of the Millers River. Athol Daily News file photo

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 5/12/2022 9:06:07 AM
Modified: 5/12/2022 9:06:06 AM

GARDNER — In an interview with the Athol Daily News, Millers River Watershed Coalition (MWRC) Director Ivan Ussach said Gardner’s proposal to expand the city’s sludge landfill off West Street/Route 68, near the Templeton town line, is currently on hold pending an environmental justice review. Ussach heads up the Coalition for a Sustainable Alternative to Expanding Gardner’s Sludge Landfill. The coalition is made up of Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, the Athol Bird and Nature Club, Clean Water Action, Connecticut River Conservancy, Gardner Clean Air, MWRC, MassPIRG, and the North County Land Trust.

“The state DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) issued a determination of administrative completeness regarding the city’s proposal,” said Ussach, “which means that the administrative information in the application is deemed acceptable. Now, that kicks off the technical review, which is digging into the content of the application.”

Ussach added, “That process has been complicated by the fact that the city of Gardner is recognized as an Environmental Justice Community by the Commonwealth because of its income and ethnic profile. That requires a special review process involving the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA), which requires that projects that have certain criteria, or a certain threshold, have to be subject to a public review process.”

Ussach said the process includes a review of the environmental justice situation in Gardner. He said the city and the state’s MEPA office met in April to discuss “various environmental justice concerns and considerations,” including the need for the city to reach out to Gardner’s environmental justice population. Ussach said he is still awaiting news of the results of that meeting.

Ussach said the coalition undertook its own review of the environmental justice situation as it relates to the landfill expansion.

Addressing the issue of climate justice, the coalition’s report says, “The proposed expansion (of the landfill) will cut down 4.2 acres of forest. Cutting down a forest and taking on methane-generating waste will increase the likelihood of Gardner residents being at risk for urban heat island effects and more intense heat waves, which is one of the largest risks climate change poses to human health.”

In terms of water pollution, the report notes that the area surrounding the landfill is a wetland, some of which feeds into Otter River, a tributary of the Millers River. The drinking water supply, it says, could also be affected. Chemicals that have been found in water samples taken from around the landfill include several heavy metals, including copper, iron and lead, as well as other “health harming chemicals.”

The report goes on to say expansion of the landfill will likely increase the levels of methane, air pollution and “smell and particulate matter.”

“The expansion of the sludge landfill,” the report concludes, “will negatively impact the health and well-being of city residents, disproportionately effecting the 79.8 percent of the city environmental justice population.”

The coalition’s report, said Ussach, was sent to several state environmental justice officials.

Ussach said the DEP’s review of Gardner’s permit application is temporarily on hold until the city has submitted an Environmental Notification Form (ENF), which must then be reviewed.

“Depending on the size of the project,” he explained, “some projects require a mandatory submission of an Environmental Impact Report (EIR). So, the city, while it has submitted its permit application to DEP, it has not yet submitted its ENF form, which could end being an EIR, which is a more substantial analysis of the project. That’s going to, I think, partly depend upon the conversation the city is having with the environmental justice officials.

“So, there are two related pathways here for project review. One of them has been started and is now on hold pending the second one moving forward.”

Once the city’s ENF — or possibly EIR — has been submitted, said Ussach, “that initiates a clock for public comment. So, all of this time, we’ve been working on our comments — both why the landfill expansion is a bad idea and why the need for an analysis of some of the other alternatives is so important. But we can’t do anything to directly affect the project until the public comment period begins.”

Gardner wants to expand its landfill in order to handle the sludge which is produced at its wastewater treatment plan. City officials argue shipping it out of the city is too expensive.

Ussach said members of the coalition are hoping to meet with Mayor Michael Nicholson to discuss the landfill later this month. He did say that when the city submitted its permit application, it reduced the size of the proposed expansion “from between 8 to 10 acres, to 4.2 acres.”

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