Practicalities aside, the practice raises concerns among some environmentalists, who say it defies logic.
“We have opposed this concept that the DEP has put in place about ‘re-opening’ landfills in order to close them,” says the Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel. “It’s sort of like fighting for peace or drinking for sobriety.”
The new debris that’s allowed to be dumped at such sites can include things like construction materials, tires, and scraps of masonry bricks and glass. Under other circumstances, that debris would be considered “solid waste” and could only be accepted at modern-day sanitary landfills, built to current environmental standards., those standards include having a liner underneath the landfill’s footprint to prevent contamination from seeping into the ground and a leachate collection system to isolate and treat any contaminant runoff from the site.
Most so-called legacy landfills like Fenimore, which ceased operations prior to 1982, were not built to these standards. But these sitesas part of their closing processes. In these cases, the debris is regulated not as “solid waste” but as .”
That’s not necessarily problematic, argue some waste-industry insiders, who say the use of beneficial reuse materials is a widespread practice that rarely causes any problems. State officials need to sign off on a list of acceptable materials on a case-by-case basis for each site, and -- at least in theory -- the approved types of debris are not supposed to create any issues.
But in the case of the Fenimore Landfill, there’s one particular type of beneficial reuse material that’s drawn more attention than the rest. Along with construction site fill and water treatment plant residue, thefor the site’s owner to accept C&D screenings, a byproduct of construction and demolition debris recycling that consists of small pieces of material less than two inches in diameter and often includes scraps of gypsum wallboard. Problems can arise when the gypsum decomposes under certain environmental conditions, releasing hydrogen sulfide, a toxic and flammable gas. In high enough volumes, that gas can cause a variety of health concerns including respiratory issues, fatigue, dizziness, memory loss, or even death.
It was in November of 2012 -- nearly a year after SEP began accepting truckloads of beneficial reuse materials at Fenimore -- whenbegan having problems.
“We had family here for Thanksgiving, and the smell of rotten eggs -- which we later learned was hydrogen sulfide -- was so bad that our eyes were burning. People were tearing. My guests had to leave. We were choking. It was terrible,” recalled Shannon Caccavella, who’s been told her home is ground zero for the worst of the fumes. “Then my daughter started in December with massive headaches. And we went to every doctor, every test imaginable: MRIs, CAT scans, pediatric neurologists . . . And it was concluded that it was from the environment, which is the Fenimore landfill.”
Elsewhere in town, kids began vomiting and getting nosebleeds as their school bus made its way along the mountainous roads circling the landfill. Residents had to cancel soccer games and barbecues. Even some dogs got sick and died, people believe, from the fumes.
And it wasn’t just the air quality. Residents say the contamination also seeped into their private wells, forcing them to purchase expensive filters to drink their own tap water or wash their clothes.
Caccavella had lived near the edge of the landfill for a decade, including the year beginning in late 2011 when new debris was being trucked in. All that time, she says she rarely if ever had any health complaints. She’s pretty sure the problems she and her neighbors now face are the result of storm debris that ended up in the landfill.
“It’s amazing how all of a sudden, Hurricane Sandy -- the tragedy that happened there -- was brought up to Roxbury. We just have to connect the dots,” she said.