North Shore residents concerned about health impacts of landfill, incinerator

SAUGUS, Mass. -- North Shore residents and environmental activists are raising concerns over a proposal by a company to continue operating its landfill, which along with an ash incinerator, sits on top of an environmentally protected salt marsh.

For months, Boston 25 News investigated claims that Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had repeatedly allowed Wheelabrator, which operates the landfill in Saugus, to expand multiple times, despite an initial order from the state that ordered the site to be shut down in 1996.

That order came after the Rumney Salt Marsh was designated by the state as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) back in 1988.

"It's one of the most significant natural areas north of Boston, particularly in terms of coastal wetlands," said Joan LeBlanc the executive director of the Saugus River Watershed Council. "No site like that would be able to be located in this type of location today."

Previous violations and DEP settlement

Wheelabrator's site is situated inside the salt marsh, and in 2011 the company paid a $7.5 million settlement to DEP, the largest in state history, after whistleblowers from the company told state investigators that employees were illegally dumping contaminated water and sludge into the marsh and not properly treating toxic ash.

The current permit expires at the end of this year and Wheelabrator has filed an extension that would allow the company to fill in existing valleys in the landfill with ash from the incinerator.  DEP issued a provisional permit on Nov. 1 that would allow the site to continue operating for another ten years.

"It breaks my heart," State Representative Rosalee Vincent told Boston 25 News. "Because when I was a little girl, this used to be pristine. There was no Wheelabrator, no ash landfill."

Environmental and health concerns

Vincent represents the residents of Revere and Saugus who she said have expressed concerns about potential effects from living in close proximity to the landfill.

The Wheelabrator site in Saugus is one of only two unlined landfills in Massachusetts and is the only landfill that sits in an ACEC.  According to a state list of active landfills, the Saugus site is "not lined", which means it doesn't meet federal standards for keeping what's in the landfill from getting into the soil.  The DEP says Wheelabrator has taken the necessary steps and put in the proper safeguards to remain compliant with state environmental standards.

"You don't have to be an expert or rocket scientist to know, that's the ash landfill right there, that's an incinerator," Rep. Vincent said. "How can that not be an environmental injustice, an environmental danger?"

The 2011 complaint from Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office said the ash inside the landfill includes chemicals like lead, cadmium and mercury.

"What's not known or recognized, and the public hasn't been educated, as to what the side effects of that really are," Revere resident Elle Baker told Boston 25 News.

A state cancer evaluation of the area in 2016 found no unusual pattern of cancer in Saugus, but they did find significant incidences of brain and testicular cancer.

The area around Rumney Marsh has historically been home to a number of manufacturing plants and factories, and state environmental officials said there is no way to link any sort of illness to Wheelabrator.

"We want to be transparent, we want to make sure there is a public process to hear people's comments, and we will continue to try to be as transparent as we can, knowing of the community concerns," DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg said.

A history of changes

Suuberg did admit that over the past twenty years, as DEP allowed the landfill's former owner, RESCO, and later Wheelabrator, to amend its original permit and expand, and that DEP did not always hold public meetings or make residents aware of what was happening at the site.

Suuberg told Boston 25 News that the current proposal facing DEP is being carefully monitored and that existing safeguards are in place at the site.

"If we find violations, we are not shy about making sure that we are prosecuting them," Suuberg said.

Suuberg said the current proposal from Wheelabrator will be the last, and promised residents that shutdown of the site is inevitable. Paperwork filed by Wheelabrator says the Saugus site will be fully capped and closed by 2027.

Wheelabrator refused multiple requests over a several week period for an on-camera interview with Boston 25 News, but gave is this statement:

"Wheelabrator Saugus has been an integral part of the state's environmental infrastructure for over 40 years, as well as an important economic partner to Saugus.

As one of the town's largest taxpayers, we generate $30 million in annual economic activity, including 130 jobs, and make hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to town programs and causes each year.

The energy-from-waste industry is among the most stringently regulated in the U.S., and Wheelabrator Saugus has operated in full compliance with all local, state and federal regulations for the past 40 years.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses energy-from-waste as the preferred method for waste disposal.  Wheelabrator Saugus diverts waste from landfills, reducing the region's solid waste by 90 percent and producing as much as 37 megawatts of clean energy -- enough to power 38,000 homes.

Wheelabrator is also the steward of the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, a 370-acre wildlife refuge that is home to 17,000 trees, 200 bird species, 10 beehives and 9 ecosystems.

The change we seek to the ash monofill would simply add capacity within two of five internal valleys in a configuration that is consistent with the other three.  The change would not increase the height, footprint or lateral measurement of the Saugus ash monofill."

The public has until the end of the month to comment on the permit and the DEP will hold a public hearing at the Saugus High School auditorium about the extension on Thursday, Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m.