Moretown Landfill neighbors recount problems they ascribe to blasting

David Belanger was kneeling at the entrance to his garage cleaning a vacuum filter last month when he heard a boom and the ground shook. He lost his balance and fell over at the same time that he heard a thud from the back of his garage. Checking the source of the thud, he found that a 4-by-5-foot chunk of the concrete floor had collapsed about 6 inches. The chunk of floor held a post that no longer supported the ceiling.

Belanger lives less than a quarter mile from the Moretown Landfill, where blasting for earth and stone to cover the landfill occurred several times a week for much of the summer. Residents of the area say the blasting damaged their homes and produced large quantities of dust, and that they’ve noticed marked changes in their well water since blasting began this year.

Residents’ concerns were aired at a public hearing of the Moretown Development Review Board on Oct. 11. The Development Review Board is considering the Moretown Landfill’s application for expansion into a fourth cell. If the landfill does not expand, it will be full in two years. It is one of two commercially operated landfills in Vermont.

It was also revealed at the hearing that the Moretown Landfill is ultimately owned by the largest waste management company in the United States.

The landfill expansion will involve blasting for the next 12 to 18 years. The cell four expansion would require moving 900,000 cubic yards of rock and earth; 140,000 cubic yards have been removed in the last three months, in more than 30 individual blasting sessions.

“We believe we’re doing everything appropriate” to address concerns, said Rob Sochovka of Moretown Landfill Inc.

Martha Douglass and other neighbors have formed a group called Citizens for Landfill Environmental Accountability and Responsibility (CLEAR).

Douglass and her husband Tom built a new home half a mile from the landfill after their previous home was damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. One weekend this summer, Tom surveyed the walls of the house to assess the final painting touch-ups needed. Later that week, after a day of blasting at the landfill, he found bubbles in the paint up to a foot long where screws had popped out of the wall and loosened the drywall tape.

Landfill officials said they offer surveys of neighbors’ homes to assess condition prior to blasting, warning phone calls prior to each blast, and portable seismographs to measure ground and air vibrations at homes. Several residents said they did not know about any of these offers.

Lisa Ransom and Scott Baughman, whose property abuts the landfill, said they received a pre-blast survey in 2008, but there was no followup after the blasting. Now they say a structure they built in 2010 has screws popping out of the wall and numerous foundation cracks.

Moretown Landfill subcontracts the blasting to Maine Drilling & Blasting, a company that operates throughout the East Coast. Ken Smith, a longtime employee of Maine Drilling & Blasting, gave a presentation at the Oct. 11 hearing that emphasized the safety and minimal effect of blasting on neighbors.

“I didn’t want to be in a business that destroyed people’s properties,” he said.

Smith showed videos of a couple blasts, pointing out in one how close the blast was to a gas line, and in another, which showed a lightning strike just before a blast, how it was the thunder that made the videographer jump, not the blast.

Several times during his presentation, members of the public and the Development Review Board asked him to get to the point.

Smith declined to answer whether the blasting at the landfill could be reduced in intensity because, he said, he is not directly involved in the project. He did say, however, that lowering the intensity would increase the duration of the blasting period, and that the blasting could not be reduced below a perceptible level.

According to Smith, federal limits on blast intensity are based on structural damage to buildings, not cosmetic damage or human perception.

Belanger said his well water had changed color, become reddish, in the last few months, and that it had a sulfur smell.

According to Smith, and the Sanborn, Head & Associates engineers who are the engineering contractors for the landfill, it’s highly unlikely the blasting could affect the groundwater. Smith said the physics of a blast is that the greatest vibration travels along the ground surface, rather than deep in the ground. The Belangers’ well is 250 feet deep.

Guy Keefe, Western Division manager for Maine Drilling & Blasting, said the Moretown Landfill had informed Maine Drilling & Blasting of complaints, but “This is obviously a more comprehensive understanding, being here and listening to you folks.”

Keefe noted that the blasting may have felt more intense this year because the drilling was deeper and more charges were used. Blasting ended for the season on Oct. 15.

Erick Titrud, a member of the Development Review Board, asked Sochovka if Moretown Landfill Inc. was associated with other waste management operations.

“I don’t think it’s related to other landfills,” Sochovka said.

Further questioning and comments by residents, however, revealed that Moretown Landfill Inc. is owned by Interstate Waste Services, which owns landfills throughout the Northeast. Sochovka said that Interstate Waste Services had recently merged with a sister company, Advanced Disposal, which owns landfills throughout the southeastern United States.

Not mentioned at the meeting is that Advanced Disposal is the largest waste management company in the United States. Advanced Disposal is owned by Highstar Capital, a venture capital group based out of New York.

Several residents complained that pictures had fallen off their walls.

David Russo, a Development Review Board member, said that Moretown zoning regulations prohibit “undue, adverse impacts” to neighboring residents, and that a picture falling sounded like an undue, adverse impact to him.

“Assuming that that’s the case [pictures falling], it doesn’t equate with the science that I know,” Smith responded.

“Our experience and the science you describe haven’t intersected in our neighborhood,” Martha Douglass said.

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Audrey Clark

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