Coalition opposed to sludge landfill expansion weighs next steps

  • The proposed Gardner sludge landfill gets very close to the Otter River, which is a major tributary of the Millers River. FILE PHOTO

For the Athol Daily News 
Published: 11/21/2022 3:20:28 PM
Modified: 11/21/2022 3:20:19 PM

GARDNER — The regional coalition fighting the proposed expansion of the landfill where sludge from the city’s wastewater treatment plant is dumped is now considering its next move in the wake of a decision that favors expansion.

At the conclusion of a public hearing, Gardner’s Conservation Commission last week voted to approve the Notice of Intent submitted to the commission by the city’s engineering consultant, Woodward & Curran. Ivan Ussach, Watershed Coordinator for the Athol-based Millers River Watershed Council and spokesman for the coalition, said an appeal of the commission’s decision is among the moves now being considered.

Ussach told the Athol Daily News that, while the decision moves the project forward, it does not mean expansion of the landfill can begin.

“This was a matter related to local jurisdiction by the City of Gardner over issues specifically related to wetlands impact and stormwater impact,” he said. “So, it was fairly narrow in terms of the (Conservation Commission’s) jurisdiction and the city’s jurisdiction. What will happen next is that the city is probably now ready to submit its environmental notification form, the ENF, to MEPA (Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act) review. Once that submission is published in the Environmental Monitor, that will start a public comment clock during which anyone can comment on the project. The agency will then either decide to approve it or to disapprove it or ask for more information.

“We had been sort of anticipating the submission of the ENF and the MEPA review for quite some time, but then this matter of the NOI came up with Gardner, and it was unclear whether the city was going to wait until the (Notice of Intent) thing was resolved, but that was how they wanted to play it. They wanted to get the (Notice of Intent) approved, and now they are quite possibly very soon to submit the ENF. It’s probably loaded and ready to go.”

The city’s plan calls for expansion of the existing sludge landfill from six to 10.3 acres. The Coalition for a Sustainable Alternative to the Gardner Sludge Landfill Expansion argues expansion would endanger more than 70 private wells in Gardner and Templeton, while leaching pollutants in the Otter River, a tributary of the Millers River.

Regarding the Conservation Commission’s approval of the Notice of Intent, Ussach said, “We, some of the coalition members, had made the point that some of the issues raised in the peer review report should be resolved and addressed prior to the ConCom issuing its decision on the NOI. But the ConCom decided it did not want to wait any further. As a result of that, we are considering an appeal of that decision because there were several substantive issues which, in terms of due diligence, it would have been much better for the ConCom to straighten those things out prior to approving it.”

An independent peer review of the Notice of Intent conducted by the firm of Tighe & Bond identified several issues of concern.

Those issues, said Ussach, had to do with erosion control, vernal pools and the potential for contamination as well as with compliance with the Massachusetts Stormwater Standards.

“On a general level, we felt some of those comments (in the peer review) were important to resolve prior to approval of the NOI, but the ConCom ruled differently,” Ussach said. 

Ussach said the coalition is urging the city to look for workable alternatives to landfill expansion.

“One development we think is rather important,” he continued, “is that the city of Fitchburg is now working to develop a biosolids processing plant that would be able to accept waste from surrounding towns, like Gardner and its sludge. This would be and AD (anaerobic digestor) facility that would be a repurposing of their wastewater treatment facility into a biosolids management facility.

“With Fitchburg now pushing to make this a reality, I think that opens up the whole question of whether there’s any need for projects like the landfill expansion, with all of its negative impacts, and whether the city of Gardner would need to do anything else other than work with Fitchburg,” he said. “Gardner still has several years left, in terms of the lifetime of the current sludge landfill, and this Fitchburg plan is a tremendous opportunity that, in some ways, would make things very easy for Gardner, not to mention much less expensive.”

Ussach added that there are AD facilities in other communities in Massachusetts where Gardner could ship its wastewater sludge, noting the coalition has been urging the city to look at these alternatives for several years.

“These other projects in the stage deserve a closer look,” he said.

Ussach said the coalition would continue to lobby members of Gardner’s city council and other city officials to support the search for alternatives to landfill expansion.

The coalition is made up of the Athol Bird and Nature Club, Clean Water Action, Connecticut River Conservancy, Gardner Clean Air, MassPIRG, Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, Millers River Watershed Council, Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, and North County Land Trust. It is receiving technical support from the Sierra Club.

Greg Vine can be reached at 

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