Carmen Montes bought her house in Hampden about the same time trash-hauling conglomerate Casella Waste Systems took over the neighboring landfill.
The home was ideal, even with the landfill less than a mile down the road. Her living room had a fantastic view of downtown Bangor all lit up at night.
“We understood, when we bought the house, that the landfill was near the end of its life,” Montes said. “It was not supposed to be expanded any further.”
Eight years and two expansions later, the view is gone, obscured by the rising mound of the landfill.
“You don’t see a pile of dirt from my house, you see a pile of trash,” Montes said. “It’s disgusting, with sea gulls flying all around it.”
She’s ceded her yard to it, as well. She can no longer compete with the smells.
She blames Casella for the transformation. With its cadre of slick lawyers and engineers, the company overwhelmed the small town and did exactly what it wanted.
“They know every single loop, every single hole and how to intimidate a little town,” Montes said. “They’re smooth-talking pros in big suits, selling a product and making it look like the gravy train for the town. But it’s not.”
Lewiston has been trying to ink a deal with the company for the past year. The city had hoped to hire Casella to manage the Lewiston Sanitary Landfill for the next four years. The deal would have allowed Casella to bring in up to 300,000 tons of construction and demolition debris – concrete, wood, asphalt, pipes and metal conduit, including debris from out of state.
The deal would have meant $1.1 million in new revenues and savings for the city, but state legislators this week declined to introduce a bill supporting the contract. Instead, the Legislature is considering a ban on out-of-state trash at municipal landfills through 2006.
Casella opponents say Lewiston should be grateful for the delay. Casella has a reputation for starting small, then overwhelming communities with expansions.
“They force-feed you with their projects,” said Laura Sanborn of Alton, an opponent of the Casella-managed Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town. “I’d be very careful, if I were Lewiston.”
Feet in the door
It’s a story repeated across the Northeast by opponents: Casella moves in to buy or manage a landfill, then they transform it before the townsfolk’s eyes.
“Once they get their foot in the door, they push it as far as they can,” said Bill Lippincott, the leader of the Hampden Citizens Coalition. His group has kept an eye on the landfill since Casella bought it in 1997.
Pine Tree Landfill is a 19.8 acre landfill just off Interstate 95 south of Bangor. Casella began pushing a big expansion – with room for 3.3 million cubic yards of waste on 40.6 acres in 1998.
The Maine Department of Environmental Protection gave the project its blessing. The town challenged it in court, arguing that the expansion violated zoning ordinances. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled against the town in 2000, saying the town’s regulations could not be more strict than the state’s.
Casella faces similar challenges elsewhere:
• Bethlehem, N.H., attempted to block Casella’s expansion of the North Country Environmental Services landfill. A Feb. 13 decision in Grafton Superior Court sent that case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
• Casella is challenging the town of Hardwick, Mass., as it attempts to rein in expansion at the Hardwick Landfill using zoning regulations and to limit the kind of material being sent there.
Both cases are pending.
Activists challenge Casella
Community activists, not town leaders, are challenging Casella in Old Town. Earlier this month, a Penobscot County Superior Court justice ruled in favor of an expansion at the Juniper Ridge Landfill. The former Georgia-Pacific landfill was bought by the state in 2004 through a deal in which Casella gave the state $26 million to buy the landfill and agreed to manage it for the state.
“All along, that decision was more concerned with saving jobs than it was with doing the right thing environmentally,” said Sanborn, a member of We The People, a group fighting the expansion. The deal was designed to keep the Georgia-Pacific mill open while solving state landfill questions.
“They just answered the economic questions, but nobody seemed to worry about the environmental concerns,” Sanborn said.
Casella hopes to triple the landfill’s capacity to 10 million cubic yards, allowing it to accept 500,000 tons of trash for the next 20 years. It’s asking for a height expansion, which would make it about 180 feet taller than the surrounding ground.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen there, how much trash is coming and what is going to happen to help us deal with it,” Sanborn said. “I understand that trash hauling, landfilling, is necessary. But let’s slow down just a little, and look at where we’re going.”
Casella officials say they are going slow.
“When I hear people say, Slow down,’ I believe they’re really saying, If we stall long enough, Casella will just give up and go away,'” said Don Meagher, Casella’s manager for planning and development. Even if Casella goes away, the problem would not, he said.
“The problem of solid waste has to be solved, whether it’s Casella or somebody else,” Meagher said.
Hampden Town Manager Sue Lessard is wary but determined in dealing with Casella.
She spends one-quarter of her time monitoring the landfill for complaints and violations. Most complaints are for the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide rising from the rotting trash.
There have been seven smell complaints so far this year, but the problem was worse last summer. There were 15 complaints in July, 11 in August, 14 in September and 16 in October.
The company responded to the late-summer complaints by installing a new venting system to burn off the gases.
“Miserable’ does not begin to describe the smell,” Lessard said. The company forwards all complaints to her office via a 24-hour hotline.
“We have a good relationship with the company,” she said. “I’d hate to have a bad relationship. We’re not buddies, you know, but they do give us all the information we request.”
She expects them to get bigger. The 1998 DEP license allowed Casella to pile trash as high as 320 feet above sea level in two peaks – about 220 feet above the surrounding ground, according to Cynthia Darling, project manager at the DEP’s Bangor office. It’s near that level now, with trash piled highest in two 200-foot-plus peaks.
Now the company is looking for another expansion at the landfill – not out this time but up.
Casella filed an application outlining the benefits of the expansion with the state in November, but abruptly withdrew it on Friday. Both opponents and town officials expect the company is not finished, however. If approved, this latest expansion would fill in the space between the two peaks.
“They told us before it was going to be this nice, undulating landscape,” Lessard said. “That’s gone. This might give them the ability to put in another 30 or 40 feet on those low spots and give the thing a flatter look.”
She thinks it could be different for Lewiston, however.
“I’ve said it about a billion times in meetings – if we just owned the damn landfill, this would be so much easier,” Lessard said. “Well, Lewiston does and that could give them a lot more power dealing with the company. We’re not dealing from a strong position, but Lewiston is.”
Lewiston’s deal may be down, but it’s not out. Martin Eisenstein, the lawyer representing the city, said options exist even without the state’s approval. He declined to speculate on what those options might be.
“The bottom line is, the city owns its own landfill and the city should have the right to determine what it will do,” he said. “It should be a local decision, not one mandated by the state.”
And Casella is not going away. Whether it’s in Lewiston, Old Town or Hampden, the trash has to go somewhere, Casella’s Meagher said.
“We still have a certain amount of waste to deal with,” he said.