Energy & Environment

Environment board issues Act 250 permit for Coventry landfill expansion

Truck in landfill

A major concern of opponents of the landfill expansion is an increase in traffic from trucks carting waste to Coventry. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

[A] state board has issued an Act 250 permit for a controversial expansion of Vermont’s only open landfill, located in the Northeast Kingdom.

The District 7 Environmental Commission handed down its decision Tuesday. The approval will allow Casella Waste Systems to expand the current landfill in Coventry by an additional 51 acres. Estimates showed the current landfill will run out of space in 2022.

The double-lined, two-cell landfill expansion is expected to handle trash for the next 25 years. The current landfill, also lined, takes up 76 acres on a parcel of more than 1,000 acres; three areas are closed and capped and one section is currently in use. (There are also two closed, unlined landfill areas that date back almost 50 years. The company plans to unearth those two areas and put them in lined areas several decades from now.)

The Coventry landfill typically takes in 600,000 tons of trash per year with a maximum of 5,000 tons allowed a day. The facility accepts about 70 percent of the state’s municipal trash and out-of-state waste, including coal ash and construction debris, which must be approved by state officials.

The Act 250 permit contained several conditions, including a requirement Casella contract with an independent third-party to monitor odor complaints, one of the biggest issues cited by neighbors of the expansion. The contractor would also inspect the trash coming in.

The company will be required to expand leachate monitoring, including for PFAS, a class of chemicals whose effects on human health have recently come to the fore, and find a new place to have the leachate treated. Opponents raised concerns that landfill leachate could migrate and pollute the Black River, which feeds into Lake Memphremagog, though the decision notes there is no indication pollution has occurred. The commission ruled the company could no longer use the Newport treatment facility to dispose of the leachate.

The owners also must set up a trust fund to pay for the eventual closing of the landfill. The district commission held off approval of a proposed cover the company had suggested.

Casella Vice President Joe Fusco said he was “delighted” with the decision, but was reluctant to comment on specifics until the 63-page decision was further reviewed.

“On the surface, we are delighted to have gotten that permit and to be in this place,” Fusco said Tuesday, “but in terms of specific comments, I think we have to wait and spend some time to understand some of the more comprehensive parts of it.”

Project opponents, including members of DUMP — “Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity” — have 30 days to appeal the Act 250 decision. Henry Coe, DUMP’s secretary, was disappointed with the decision.

“That’s a shame,” Coe said Tuesday, “but we knew our chances were slim. It was the ninth inning when we got involved.” The group is raising funds to fight a separate decision by the Agency of Natural Resources approving the expansion, he said. It’s unclear if the group will also pursue a legal appeal of the Act 250 permit.

Landfill expansion area

The proposed expansion of the Coventry landfill covers 51 acres adjacent to the current site. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“It really shows we need to be more vigilant about protecting the environment,” Coe said. Many in the Northeast Kingdom feel they are the “dumping zone” for the rest of Vermont, he added

“It’s a sorry thing, economic development through the waste industry,” Coe said. “I’m sure the Burlington people and Rutland people are happy to pay to have their waste transported.”

An earlier permit granted by ANR, also required for the expansion, has already been appealed, so no construction can begin, Fusco said.

Opponents argued during the review process by ANR and the District Environmental Commission that Coventry should not have to handle so much state trash. They raised concerns expansion could result in a greater chance of leachate causing pollution in Lake Memphremagog, the drinking water source for about 150,000 Canadians. The lake lies mostly in Canada and a portion, about a fifth, in Vermont.

Even though the project will represent a significant expansion and rise higher than the current landfill, the commission found it would not be “offensive or shocking.” They also ruled it would have an impact but that it would not be “adverse” enough to deny the project permit.

The expansion is proposed in a mixed-use area including “an active solid waste landfill, open spaces, wetlands, farmland, rural residences, a state airport and a wildlife management area. (It) represents a significant expansion of the industrial solid waste landfill, and has potential for an adverse effect with respect to aesthetics and odors. The Phase VI expansion will extend vertically higher than the present Facility, and will thus be more prominent on the area landscape.”

Henry Coe, secretary of the grassroots group DUMP, addresses a crowd gathered in Newport to hear about the Coventry landfill expansion in September 2018. Photo by Elizabeth Gribkoff/VTDigger

The expansion “extends the potential for off-site odors and overall aesthetic impact of the industrial operation on the area, including noise from equipment and truck traffic.”

The decision listed numerous neighbors who have complained about odors and noise.

From 2010 to 2019, 62 odor-related complaints were filed, with 33 coming in the last six months of 2018 and the first three weeks of this year after ANR issued its draft certification. The Department of Environmental Conservation, which is under ANR, has investigated 62 complaints and found 11 resulted in objectionable odors being documented off site, according to the Act 250 decision.

“None of the documented off-site odors were characterized as strong or very strong,” the decision noted. No odor violation notices have been handed down to date, according to the commission, though the decision noted violations could occur if the odor problems are more frequent and of longer duration.

This April, ANR sent Casella a notice of alleged violation about an odor detected at a home in Coventry in late March. The company has said the recent increase in complaints was a tactic used by opponents; residents said there was a better reporting system.

The Act 250 decision said the neighbors’ complaints were credible but noted the difficulty of state investigators getting to the site quickly — an hour’s drive from Montpelier and sometimes after hours — after complaints are filed.

As part of the decision, the commission required Casella to have a full-time inspector based in the Newport-Coventry area, who will be within 30 minutes of the site and report complaints to the Natural Resources Board and ANR.

The independent third-party will “monitor, investigate, and document landfill odor occurrences, respond quickly to off-site odor complaints, and inspect solid waste loads being delivered to the facility for nonconforming waste,” the commission wrote.

The landfill operators will also have to cover the trash that is disposed of every day with a layer of dirt and also a temporary cap to keep the amount of leachate down. Systems that collect leachate — liquid runoff from the landfill — will also be extended. The expansion is expected to increase the amount of leachate by 6.6 million gallons a year. The current landfill produces 9.5 million gallons of leachate annually.

The proposal includes an expansion of the methane gas collection system, which is used to reduce odors and provides electricity for approximately 7,000 Vermonters.

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