By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — Conflicting interests collided Monday over a bill to require a two-mile buffer between a state park and a landfill.
Although the bill does not target a specific project, residents of a North Country community fought their local battle over a proposed landfill that would be close to Forest Lake State Park before a Senate committee.
The division within Dalton over the Casella Waste proposed landfill reflects the split between competing state interests as environmental groups supported House Bill 177, while professional engineering and design groups supported the project along with a lineup of Casella officials.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee heard about 50 people voice their opinions on the bill which passed the House last month — with members overturning the House Environment and Agriculture Committee’s 10-9 recommendation to kill the bill — on a 197-159 vote.
Supporters said the two-mile buffer makes perfect sense to protect the state’s natural resources that attract tourists and their dollars, while providing residents with recreation and respite.
“When the noise dies down, does it make sense to locate a landfill next to a state park that closely,” asked Dalton resident Wayne Morrison. “It is an economically sound decision for the developer and a willing land owner, but it makes no sense for the state of New Hampshire.”
But opponents of the bill called it spot zoning, intended to do an end run around the state’s landfill siting rules, regulations and statutes, while a number of Dalton residents said they should be making the decision on the project.
Pamela Kathan, who said she has lived in Dalton for 20 years, maintained only the true residents of the town should decide on the project, not the “elites who are part-time residents.”
She said many people in the town are low-income or elderly and they would benefit from the property tax relief the landfill would provide.
She and others said the residents who support the project have been bullied, harassed, and stalked.
“A group of well-to-do elitists are trying to push their agenda,” Kathan said, “and are opposed to hearing from the little guy who needs your help.
The project will not have the impact opponents of the landfill claim, said supporter Kevin Whittum of Dalton.
“The site is a logical location and perfect for those it is going to help,” Whittum told the committee. “If you pass this bill, it takes it out of our hands and we cannot make a choice – you made it for us.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, said it is not about one landfill in one location, but about saving all state parks.
“This bill would protect all state parks in the State of New Hampshire and we all understand how important state parks are in New Hampshire and are to tourism in the North Country,” she said.
Many supporters spoke of protecting the state’s natural resources, its pristine waters, and scenic views – and the impact they have on the state’s tourist industry and economy.
They said a landfill will negatively impact the environment and way of life, will increase truck traffic, and devalue nearby property.
Other bill supporters lamented the amount of out-of-state trash the facility would take and the amount existing commercial landfills accept, and suggested the state needs to find a way to slow down the inflow while reducing the amount of in-state trash to prolong the life of existing landfills.
The state cannot ban out-of-state trash under the commerce clause in the federal Constitution.
“Fifty-percent of the trash will be coming in from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York,” Morrison said, “and they are going to bury it next to our rivers, our mountains, and our streams. You should not view that as sound policy.”
Casella officials turned out in force to oppose the bill, arguing the state’s regulations and statutes do a good job of protecting the environment and residents, something bill supporters argued was not the case.
Company officials said landfills are needed now and into the future to take care of the state’s trash and indicated the company may build a materials recovery facility (MRF) to separate the trash into recyclables, reusable, and renewables before it is landfilled, if the project is approved. They said New Hampshire and Mississippi are the only two states without such a facility, noting it would save communities money on transportations costs, which have slowed recycling.
Joseph Fusco of Casella, based in Rutland, Vt., said the bill amounts to spot zoning.
“Despite the amendment or spin, it is otherwise very clear this is targeting a specific industry, a special company and a specific project,” he said.
But several attorneys hired by bill supporters disputed that saying the bill does not treat one project differently than any other.
Manchester attorney Ovide Lamontagne said the state Supreme Court has clearly stated spot zoning only occurs when similar property is treated differently without justification, which is not the case.
And he said the state public policy since the late 1800s has supported state parks for conserving, maintaining, and preserving the state’s unique natural resources for the benefit of the state’s citizens and visitors.
Samuel Nicolai of Casella said the current state setback for landfills of 200 feet from surface water and 500 feet from a home are sufficient protection, while the two-mile buffer has no scientific justification.
“To ban one specific project and say that this is not spot zoning,” Nicolai said, “is false.”
But others argue that despite the state’s regulation and rules, there is no way to truly protect the ground and surface waters from the negative impact of landfills.
And supporters said there are other issues such as attracting seagulls, landfill odors and gases, as well as noise and truck traffic, although Mike Wimsatt, director of the waste management division of environmental services, said most of those issues can be eliminated under permit conditions and provisions.
The agency did not take a position on the bill.
Nina Webb of Bethlehem warned against the lure of benefits promised by developers, noting her community has spent millions of dollars fighting Casella’s attempt to expand its landfill in her community.
She noted Casella has not followed regulations and cited several instances in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
“If you don’t pass this, there is no going back,” she said. “They make money by bringing garbage to our backyard.”
Sarah Doucette of Whitefield asked the committee to stand back and look at the fundamental simplicity and good sense of what the bill would do.
“You’ve been asked to plunge down any number of misleading rabbit holes today. This is not a clash of equally weighted values,” she said.
The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.