By Thomas P. Caldwell, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — When testifying in support of his bill to create a waste management fund, Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, referred to the “solid waste capacity crisis” in New Hampshire. According to a 2019 report by the Department of Environmental Services, landfills in the state will soon run out of capacity to take trash and other refuse.
Testimony during hearings on a proposed landfill in Dalton revealed problems with that assessment. Michael Wimsatt, director of the DES’ Solid Waste Management Bureau, explained that the department only considers currently permitted capacity, not the landfill’s potential future capacity as the site is built out. That means that there is more potential capacity than official figures show.
On the other other side of the equation, DES considers only in-state capacity needs, while private landfills accept roughly 50 percent of their solid waste from out of state. That means that some of the capacity listed on the books is overstated because only a portion of that space will be available for in-state solid waste.
The latter problem could be eliminated if landfills accepted only waste generated within New Hampshire’s borders, but private companies cannot legally refuse out-of-state waste. Doing so would violate the Interstate Commerce Clause contained in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. As interpreted by the courts, it “prevents state and local governments from impeding the free flow of goods from one state to another” and “prohibits protectionist state regulation designed to benefit in-state economic interests by burdening out-of-state competitors.”
Rep. Karen Ebel, D-New London, who serves as chair of the Solid Waste Working Group that is taking a comprehensive look at the solid waste problem, notes that municipal entities such as those in Lebanon and Nashua are exempt from the requirement to accept out-of-state solid waste. The Mount Carberry landfill in the town of Success is operated by the Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District, so it also can refuse out-of-state waste.
Mount Carberry is awaiting approval of its next phase of development, which would extend its life at least into the 2030s or 2040s.
The problem of out-of-state solid waste is growing as other states reduce their own landfill capacity and need a place to dispose of what they generate.
Solid Waste Reduction
The answer, according to those involved in solving the solid waste problem, is to refocus on source reduction, through recycling, composting, and addressing the packaging that makes up a big share of solid waste going into the landfills.
Ebel got involved in the issue after China, which had taken a large share of recyclable material from the United States, stopped accepting it, leading to the collapse of the recycling market in 2019. She introduced a bill to create a study committee on solid waste. Over 14 hearings and participation from more than 50 “stakeholders,” they came up with several recommendations. Among them was a goal of reducing New Hampshire’s solid waste going to landfills by 25 percent by 2030 and 45 percent by 2050.
She noted that Massachusetts has a goal of a 90 percent reduction by 2050.
“Right now, our go-to method is landfilling,” she testified during a hearing on Watters’ bill. “It just can’t be that any more. It’s wasteful on every level. It’s getting increasingly expensive, and it won’t get better if we don’t do something now.”
Rep. Timothy Egan, D-Sugar Hill, agreed.
“Construction debris is about 40 percent of the waste that comes into New Hampshire from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts,” he said in a telephone interview. “So we’re basically the dumping ground for other people’s garbage, and we have to figure out how to sort of stop that.”
Egan said the Dalton landfill proposal galvanized the Legislature to face the problems.
“About six or seven North Country legislators got together and said building a landfill in a neighborhood isn’t just a North Country problem, it’s going to be everybody’s problem,” he said.
The bill they crafted would have created a buffer zone around state parks, but the bill was defeated last year.
“So the problem is how do we build less landfills, and the only way you build less landfills is by reducing the amount of solid waste,” Egan said.
His solution was to sponsor several bills, including HB 1652, which would encourage recycling by reimposing a deposit on beverage containers — something the state did away with long ago. Proponents say that bringing back deposits will encourage people to redeem the containers, putting them back into circulation, rather than ending up in landfills.
Egan also sponsored HB 1122, which would allow municipalities to resell the construction and demolition debris it collects. With the high cost of new construction material, he thinks people would be happy to reuse doors, windows, and other undamaged material coming out of home renovations or building projects.
He also sponsored legislation to increase the penalties for littering, with proceeds going to the Fish and Game Department.
The state currently lists nine permitted facilities for handling solid waste. The Solid Waste Management Bureau has 15 permit applications pending or under review, ranging from the establishment of a new landfill to new transfer stations. One is aimed at source reduction, calling for the establishment of a food waste composting operation in Lebanon.
Casella Waste Systems, Inc., which operates a landfill in Bethlehem and is proposing the one in Dalton, joined in a partnership with Rudarpa, Inc., for a renewable natural gas (RNG) processing facility that broke ground in Bethlehem last May. The company is collecting food waste to take to its plant in Vermont to turn it into biofuel.
The state’s long-range solid waste plan is now under review. It was last updated in 2003, and the new plan will focus more on other options than landfilling. Watters’ bill would provide money to assist the agency, and Ebel noted that most other states already fund their agencies through a portion of their tipping fees — the per-ton charge for disposing of solid waste. The federal infrastructure bill contains $275 million that could be utilized, and the bill would be a way of accessing those funds, Ebel said.
Other bills before the Legislature include House Bill 1454, which would restrict new landfills to sites where the flow of groundwater would prevent pollutants from reaching the tributary of a river for at least five years. That would provide time to take measures to prevent any contaminants from reaching nearby waterways.
HB 1420 would halt the siting of any new landfills until the state completes its update of the solid waste plan.
SB 380 would create committees to consider prohibiting landfills from accepting solid waste from any community that does not have a solid waste plan in place; establishing a site evaluation committee for landfills; and requiring the Department of Environmental Services to consider the net public benefit when reviewing solid waste permit applications.
HB 1040 would create a committee to study the landfill siting process; HB 1274 would establish a committee to study state agencies’ handling of solid waste; and SB 396 would require the DES to contract with a hydrologist when evaluating a landfill permit.
HB 1452 would rename the Department of Environmental Services, making it the Department of Environmental Protection and assigning the department responsibility for overseeing private drinking water wells.
There also are a number of bills addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which are associated with adverse health conditions. HB 1589 would prohibit the sale of items containing PFAS. HB 1546 would limit emissions of PFAS.
HB 1618 would establish a maximum allowable cumulative level for PFAS, while HB 1167 would establish a maximum contaminant level of PFAS in surface water. HB 1440 would address surface water quality standards for PFAS. HB 1602 would address PFAS in drinking water.
Biosolids and soil regulation are the subjects of HB 1547.
HB 1227 focuses on the definition of a prime wetland.
HB 1111 would establish a commission to study extended producer liability. HB 1338 would establish a committee to study imposing a tax on manufacturers based on the cost of disposing of product packaging.