DES neutral on bills to prevent out-of-state trash

Garbage pile in trash dump or landfill.

Garbage pile in trash dump or landfill.

By SRUTHI GOPALAKRISHNAN

Monitor staff

Published: 02-15-2024 4:30 PM

Tom Tower found the decision to privatize solid waste management in New Hampshire decades ago to be a logical choice. However, with the state’s sluggish pace in updating its plan to deal with its trash and the alarming influx of waste from neighboring states, Tower now advocates for a shift in approach – private hauling but public ownership of landfills.

“The one I believe rallying cry or one of them anyway is that New Hampshire doesn’t want to be the dump for New England. It’s that simple,” said Tower, vice president of the North Country Alliance for Balanced Change. “Why would we? It makes no sense especially since the material that is coming into the state is a dangerous commodity.”

Tower is in support of House Bill 1145, which would prevent private entities from owning landfills.

Under this legislation, the state would retain ownership of any new  landfills, while private waste management companies would handle their operation through contracted agreements with the state.

By prohibiting private ownership, the legislation would give the state authority to restrict the types of waste accepted, navigating around potential conflicts with the Interstate Commerce Clause. This could involve targeted restrictions similar to Massachusetts’ bans on discarding textiles and mattresses. The broader scope opens the door to an outright ban on out-of-state trash. Regulations in place in Maine and Vermont restrict out-of-state trash from being dumped there.

While the state won’t reap the profits of landfill operation, the Business and Industry Association (BIA) opposes the bill, labeling it as “anti-business” in nature.

Kirsten Koch, vice president of public policy for BIA expressed concerns that the bill would be a “roadblock for future economic development for the solid waste industry.

“Our concern is that now the government is going to be doing this instead of businesses,” she said. “There’s a lost opportunity to be the ones in control. They [private companies] are just operating. It’s not the same.”

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Several bills addressing solid waste management and environmental protection from leachate contamination were hot topics in the state legislature this week. However, the Department of Environment Services refrained from taking positions on certain bills, like the public ownership of landfills.

According to DES, passing HB 1145 might pose challenges for public entities considering permits for new landfill construction. Concerns range from liability issues to the difficulty of identifying suitable sites, among others.

“If public entities do not opt to get permits to construct new landfills and this bill is enacted, this could lead to supply pressures on the solid waste disposal market which could drive up the cost for solid waste disposal costs,” said Sarah Yuhas Kirn, the assistant director of DES’ waste management division.

Almost half of New Hampshire’s trash comes from out-of-state, with 900,000 tons dumped in commercial landfills in 2020.

House Bill 1632, which was introduced as a result of a committee established to study landfills servicing unlimited areas, may alter the state’s landfill landscape.

The bill aims to cap the out-of-state trash accepted by landfills at 15%. While this regulation won’t impact already permitted landfills, it would apply to all landfills, whether publicly or privately owned if it became law.

“It would be possible that disposal costs would decrease because more landfill capacity would be available for local solid waste. It’s also possible that by limiting the universe of waste that a facility could receive, the facility’s ability to operate at fully permitted capacity would be limited,” said Kirn with DES not taking a position on the bill. “So the operation costs would increase which would also increase waste disposal costs.”

With Casella Waste System continuing its efforts to receive a permit to construct and operate a landfill near Forest Lake in Dalton, another bill was discussed this week that would require waste management companies to identify brownfield sites to build landfills before choosing a greenfield site.

“New landfills that can be located on brownfield sites will both protect and restore the environment and public health in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Linda Massimilla from Littleton, sponsor of House Bill 1132. “It will help protect by ensuring that new landfills will not be located in pristine environments unless it is necessary to do so and it will help restore it by steering landfill developers to brownfield locations that are already polluted, but ripe for cleanup.”

However, DES opposes the bill.

Kirn raised concerns about space limitations and the suitability of brownfield sites for landfill development.

“I would say that there are a small handful of sites that exceed 100 acres but for other reasons related to characteristics, it would not be suitable for a landfill,” said Kirn.

New Hampshire has 313 brownfield sites. These sites are former manufacturing buildings, mills or gas stations that are now abandoned or unused because of the presence of hazardous substances.

Brownfield sites, usually located in urban centers are smaller than the state’s average landfill acreage of over 100 acres. However, not all landfills are of the same size; for instance, the Lebanon Regional Solid Waste Facility occupies only 15.35 acres.

DES’s opposition to the bill is also rooted in concerns about the ambiguity of the bill’s language regarding the determination of public benefit between greenfield and brownfield sites.

“I’m a little bit puzzled about the opposition here because this bill actually provides precisely that criteria by saying a brownfield should always be preferred if they meet [landfill siting] conditions,” said Rep. Nicholas Germana, a Keene Democrat.

However, even if the language could be clarified, DES maintained its opposition and said that there were additional concerns.

DES does not have a report that includes summaries of all sites, but it does have separate files for each brownfield site.

New Hampshire’s landfill capacity is projected to last for a decade, given the current waste disposal rate. However, the state’s landfill capacity could be extended by diverting waste from landfills and implementing effective waste reduction measures, particularly targeting out-of-state trash that constitutes nearly 50% of landfill waste annually.

Despite DES’s stance, several lawmakers have expressed a desire to explore all opportunities presented by the 313 brownfield sites in the state.

Representative Kelly Potenza questioned why the state isn’t considering the full spectrum of possibilities, especially given the projection that the state doesn’t require many landfills over the next several decades.

“We only need possibly one or two landfills in the entire state of New Hampshire over the next 60 to 100 years. So to me, it just seems crazy to not look at it. It seems as if you’re just blanketly saying that this wouldn’t work,” said Rep. Kelly Potenza, a Strafford Republican. “Why aren’t we looking at all of the opportunities that we have in the 313 [sites]?”