Landfill conflict persists

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Frustration and anger. Disbelief and distrust.

Residents expressed these emotions and more Tuesday night at a 3.5-hour meeting about a proposed regional landfill in Williston. The landfill, approved by voters in 1992, is planned for the site of the current trash transfer station on Redmond Road. Engineers are expected to complete a conceptual design of the facility around February 2007. The earliest officials expect the landfill would open is 2011.

Tuesday night’s meeting was likely the first in a series hosted by the Chittenden Solid Waste District to inform the community and solicit feedback on the project.

And feedback they got.

After a one-hour presentation by District General Manager Tom Moreau that included 95 PowerPoint slides, more than a dozen people in the audience of 130 hammered Moreau with questions. Property values, health risks, capacity and management were among the concerns raised.

Property values

“Why didn’t you take responsibility and go to the realtors in the greater Burlington area and say ‘you need to inform these people (about the landfill)’?” Gwen Blankenheim asked District representatives.

Moreau responded that the District did think it was important to notify people moving into new developments about the landfill.

“So we wrote (the Town of) Williston, and were frankly discouraged that they chose not to do anything with that,” Moreau said. The District sent a letter dated Nov. 30, 1995 to the Williston Planning Commission asking them to require XYZ Real Estate, the developers of the Ledgewood subdivision, to notify potential buyers of the project.

Bob Blankenheim said he stood to lose up to $600,000 on a house on Ledgewood Drive that should be valued at $800,000.

“A simple phone call, an ethical behavior on your part, would have directed me to buy in another part of this community,” he said.

Moreau said Tuesday night he heard the concerns about property values “loud and clear.” The District has spoken with waste management facilities in other parts of the country, he said, to determine how they’ve handled property value issues. After the meeting, he told a reporter there “appears to be a rule of thumb” that within a quarter of a mile from a landfill, there could – and he emphasized the word “could” – be an impact on property value; beyond that, he said, it’s speculative.

One way other waste districts have addressed property values, Moreau told the audience, is by increasing dumping fees. That additional money was then used to compensate abutting landowners for any loss in property value.

“I’m not saying we’re going to do that,” Moreau emphasized; he said it’s something they will study.

Health risks

District officials declined to comment on health studies cited by several members of the audience. The studies, residents said, indicate increased risk of disease for those living near landfills.

Without knowing the credibility or specifics of the studies cited, Moreau said it was difficult to respond.

Even if the studies are accurate and there are health concerns, Moreau said, continuing to send trash to Coventry and Moretown – where other people live – should be a concern for Williston residents. The landfills there are less technologically sophisticated than the one proposed for Williston, Moreau said.

“If our trash is causing (health issues) … we’re exporting our problem to someone else,” Moreau said.

Moya Muller asked Moreau if he lived next to a landfill; Moreau said he used to live near one in Burlington and felt it was safe. Muller said that sounded like the tobacco industry justifying to others decades ago that it was safe to smoke.

Moreau said he did not like being equated with the tobacco industry.

“It’s my trash, ma’am, it’s your trash,” he responded. “We’re trying to do the very best we can with that trash.”

“If you believe it’s so safe, if you believe it’s fine, why don’t you buy these people’s homes?” Muller asked, adding she did not live near the site.

“Frankly, I don’t think I could afford $800,000,” Moreau said. “If I could afford it, I would have no problem raising my family 1,400 feet from a landfill.”

Capacity and management

Steve Casale asked Moreau to give a one-word answer whether the Chittenden County landfill capacity was needed in the state.

“No,” Moreau said. “But I don’t believe in just capacity alone.”

Casale tried to interrupt, but Moreau continued.

“I share the concerns of other people,” Moreau said. He started to speak to environmental issues and was interrupted again by another member of the audience.

Casale, who is president of the Williston Neighborhood Coalition, a landfill opposition group, then turned to another topic.

“Can you go on record saying you’re not going to bring in trash from out of district?” he asked.

“If we get the trash from inside the district, we’re all set. If not, then no,” Moreau said.

Later the conversation swung back to this issue. Moreau emphasized the economic model behind the proposed landfill is based on receiving just 80 percent of the trash currently collected locally. Also, Moreau said he believes technology will be even better 15 years from now, requiring less to be put in landfills.

Moreau said he would “go on record” as willing to amend the host town agreement with Williston to limit the tons of waste accepted. Williston signed the host town agreement – which says the town will support the landfill proposal – with the District in 1992.

Casale had one more question about management.

“Will you go on record as saying you will never off-lease this landfill or sell this landfill to manage, to operate, or own for any reason?” he asked.

Bill Leach, the solid waste district board chairman, was among the responders.

“It would be my intention to have somebody operate it, but under our scrutiny and under our controls so they do it the way we want them to,” Leach said.

Zero waste

Gwen Blankenheim asked Moreau why the District doesn’t supplant the landfill efforts and money with education programs to move toward zero waste, which would not require landfills.

“I’m more willing to compromise and do what needs to be done,” Blankenheim said. “Why not start in Williston? … We can be a model to the whole state.”

Moreau said his heart tells him zero waste is the right direction, but he doesn’t believe it’s practical.

He likened issues of recycling and trash management to global warming. Even with all of the warnings about global warming, Moreau said, in 2005 the U.S. had the lowest mile-per-gallon average for vehicles in the last 25 years.

“We don’t get it,” Moreau said. “As a society, we do not get it.