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Science or Politics?

Proponents say Northampton's plan to expand its landfill over the Barnes Aquifer poses no threat to public safety. Opponents vehemently disagree. Whom should you believe?

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Thursday, August 21, 2008
Andrea Burns photo

On a balmy June day in 2006, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), under Gov. Mitt Romney's Commissioner Robert W. Golledge, did something new: it gave a small city in the western part of the state permission to circumvent drinking water protection regulations in the interest of expanding a landfill. The city? Smart and trendy Northampton, the arts-friendly "Paradise of America." The regulations? 310 CMR, which prohibit landfill development over so-called "Zone II" recharge areas for public drinking water supplies. The drinking water supply? Specifically, the Maloney Well, which serves not Northampton but its neighbor to the south. By issuing this waiver, the DEP for the first time in its history let a landfill enterprise take precedence over drinking water protection regulations.

The Maloney Well provides a backup water supply for the city of Easthampton, an historically working-class farm and factory town on the Manhan River, which in recent years has attracted artists and musicians who can no longer afford to live in "Noho." Not unexpectedly, the DEP's decision inspired a wave of protest. The entire City Council of Easthampton sent a letter to new DEP Commissioner Laurie Burt (Governor Deval Patrick's pick—the waiver had been granted by Romney's Commissioner Golledge), requesting that the waiver be reconsidered. "Landfills and Aquifers Do Not Mix," Council president J.P. Kwiecinski wrote. "Intuitively and ecologically, this combination is a recipe for disaster... We ask you to intervene to protect our water supply."

The Zone II aquifer recharge area of a public well is as much a bureaucratic designation as a hydrogeological one. While science, computer models, and field studies may determine the capture zone for a well, a Zone II is not a Zone II until the Massachusetts DEP says it is. These DEP-approved wellhead protection areas are covered by state statute—certain uses, such as landfills, are absolutely forbidden within their bounds—and are eligible for a high level of land use regulation by local governments.

Maloney is an artesian well, pressurized by a thick, vertically impermeable layer of clay that extends for miles over much of the Barnes Aquifer. Because of this confining clay layer, the rainwater recharge area for the Maloney Well is geographically removed, existing in sandy and gravelly uplands.

In June of 2001, the Massachusetts DEP had Easthampton map the outlines of Maloney's Zone II, and verified that the Northampton landfill fell within its boundaries. This was an inconvenient determination for Northampton, which, in 1988, had purchased 20 acres adjacent to the existing landfill on Glendale Road for the purpose of building new landfill cells. A comprehensive site assignment application was prepared by Stantec engineering consultants and submitted to the state. The DEP, satisfied, issued a positive determination to Northampton officials, complete with an unprecedented waiver of state Zone II wellhead protection provisions.

Why would the DEP be willing to waive its rules for the Northampton landfill expansion? I have posed this question to a range of opponents and proponents of the project: city officials, neighbors of the landfill, scientists and engineers, and a DEP spokesperson. The responses have been diverse—I have been reminded of the story of the blind men and the elephant, each touching only a part of the animal, hence drawing quite different conclusions about the nature of the whole beast. "The problem with this landfill issue," remarked a fellow journalist as we conferred over coffee a few weeks back, "is that you don't know who to believe."

 

Proponents

"The state balanced the costs and the benefits and decided to issue the waiver... There is a feeling that Massachusetts should deal with Massachusetts trash, and not ship it out of state... There is not much landfill capacity left in Massachusetts... We are providing a regional public service." I was interviewing Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins on Valley Free Radio, Northampton's low-power FM station. "Yes, we get some financial benefit, probably around $800,000 a year with the host community fee and other payments from the solid waste enterprise fund, but within the total 72-million-dollar municipal budget, that is a very small percentage. We're not doing this for the money."

I was happy to give Mayor Higgins and Northampton Department of Works (DPW) director Ned Huntley a chance to talk about their support for this project on the air. The opponents had been far more successful in attracting media coverage, mustering plaid-shirted bluegrass musicians, monkey-wrench-throwing citizen activists, and an aquifer-defending geologist straight from central casting. Higgins and Huntley must have a case, I mused. Let them explain themselves.

I had a stack of letters in front of me—letters of support written to the DEP on letterhead from a collection of regional politicians and administrators, including Senator Stan Rosenberg, Mayor Higgins, Easthampton Mayor Tautznik, the directors of the Franklin County Solid Waste Management District and the Hilltown Resource Management Cooperative, former Northampton public health director Ernest J. Mathieu, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission's Tim Brennan, and the administrator of the Town of Granville. All cited the importance of keeping tipping and transportation costs, if not low, then at least predictable from year to year. I asked Huntley if it could be said that the landfill's existence in Northampton has helped regional towns in the area of budgetary planning.

"Yes, that would be accurate... We have been able to keep tipping fees relatively stable over the years for towns in western Massachusetts... If there wasn't a publicly-owned regional facility, then all facilities would be run by private waste hauling or private landfill companies, which would create a kind of unfair market practice... We run the landfill as a municipal enterprise fund; we're not in it to make a huge profit."

I could see that cash-strapped cities and towns in western Massachusetts were eager to go to bat for the landfill expansion, and that a powerful state senator was in their corner. That the landfill brought some money into Northampton's coffers, and that the loss of the landfill would probably mean higher costs for trash disposal for Northampton residents, for city government, and for institutions and businesses. I imagined that large private haulers would be unconcerned—they could simply pass costs along to their customers. Smaller trash haulers might not be able to compete, and would probably go out of business. Small towns would need to find new, potentially more expensive solutions. If Easthampton's Maloney Well were to nix the landfill expansion with its pesky Zone II recharge area, a fair amount of economic and institutional readjustment would be necessary in all of Western Massachusetts.

 

City Engineer

I rode my bike to DPW headquarters on Locust Street in late spring of this year. City Engineer James R. Laurila offered me a chair at a large brown conference table and hauled out the public documents that I had requested. He walked me through a taxonomy of Stantec monitoring reports. He answered my questions about wells and surface water in the area of the landfill. The time had come to pop the question. "So, Mr. Laurila, can you tell me why the Zone II waiver was granted?" I asked.

He stopped and almost smiled. "Do you know about the contaminant transport model?"

An hour later, I left the DPW with my head swimming: I had just been told that the city had commissioned a piece of science that had predicted no contamination to the Maloney Well, even under a conservatively-modeled worst-case scenario, by the past, present, or planned expansion of the Northampton regional landfill on Glendale Road. This piece of science—the Dufresne-Henry contaminant transport model—predicted what would happen within the Barnes Aquifer if there were an accidental leachate release at the landfill. It was, according to Laurila, a key piece of evidence in the city's waiver application to the state.

"The DEP granted the Zone II waiver largely on the basis of the contaminant transport model," Laurila told me. "The city paid to have the model independently reviewed by consultants of Easthampton's choosing. It was amended to incorporate new information about the aquifer. The model was reviewed and approved by the DEP.

"The model predicts near-total attenuation of any chemical contaminant from landfill leachate by the time groundwater reaches the Maloney Well. All five chemicals used in the study returned values below detectable limits. There is no potential contamination of the Maloney Well from the landfill."

The model report, on consultants' letterhead, had been signed by Laurila. "You used to work for Dufresne-Henry?" I asked. "And you worked on this project, on this contaminant transport model?"

"Yes," he said. "That was before Dufresne-Henry was acquired by Stantec."

Stantec. The company that had recently won the bid to design the Phase 5/Phase 5B landfill expansion. The company that has performed environmental monitoring at the landfill and generated many of the reports that I had been looking at. That designed the current leachate collection system. That had the contract for capping and closing the current and past areas of the landfill. Laurila was from Stantec.

I later learned, while going through documents at the DEP, that Laurila had been involved in managing the complicated permitting process for the Northampton landfill expansion since at least 2000, as a private sector engineer. He was hired full-time by the city of Northampton late in '06, very soon after he had successfully handled the DEP site assignment process while on Stantec payroll. The persuasive waiver application from the city to the DEP had indeed been written by Laurila, while he was at Stantec. Now he was working for the city, still shepherding the Northampton landfill expansion.

I asked Huntley if he had any thoughts on Laurila's passage from Stantec to the DPW. While I had absolutely no reason to believe that Laurila was using the "revolving door" to benefit his former colleagues or himself, I still considered the situation to be curious. "It looks funny," I told him. "Was he brought on for the express purpose of promoting the landfill expansion? Might he be biased toward his former colleagues? And if the expansion goes through, won't Stantec be positioned to make a lot of money?"

"There's no story here," replied Huntley. "Jim, like all professional engineers, adheres to a strict code of ethics. There is no bias. In '06, I put together an independent selection committee to find a city engineer. I stayed completely out of it. Laurila's resume rose to the top. I was surprised that he had even applied. I interviewed three candidates, and hired him. There are quality-of-life issues that prompt people to move into the public sector. Stantec competes for contracts in the same way that any other engineering firm does. They won the Phase 5/Phase 5B design contract in an open bidding process. There's no guarantee that they will win additional contracts if the landfill is expanded."

"But if the expansion is quashed, nobody makes any money," I countered.

"Not true," Huntley responded. "There would be plenty of closure, compliance and monitoring work. Not as much work as there would be with an expansion, but plenty of work nonetheless."

It had become clear to me, after going through a stack of DEP-related reports, that Laurila was frighteningly capable. The waiver application itself was a wonder of exactitude. It artfully developed an argument that the landfill expansion's benefits would be significant, and that its risks would be low. From the perspective of a city hall that might need help with a complicated permitting process, I could see how Laurila might be invaluable. But from the perspective of a skeptical citizen, Laurila's movement from Stantec to the DPW might look different. At the very least, it presents evidence that the decision about the landfill has already been made, and that the expansion is being carefully and aggressively promoted from both sides of the public/private wall. In this view, there will be no meaningful public discussion about innovative approaches to waste management in western Massachusetts—the landfill solution is the only solution, developed years ago.

(Stantec will be delivering an "options study" to the city soon—consisting of cost/benefit analyses of several solutions to the solid waste problem, one of which is the current expansion plan.)

 

Carts and Horses

Was the waiver pre-ordained by a state government eager to preserve active landfill capacity in Massachusetts? Was the contaminant transport model submitted by the city as a formality merely to satisfy appearances?

Landfill opponents have speculated that an over-close relationship exists between Northampton's DPW, the Massachusetts DEP, and Stantec Engineering and its subcontractors—and that city-commissioned science cannot be trusted. "They all work together," landfill opponent Linda Heiseger has said. "Stantec, HydroAnalysis, the DEP, and the Department of Public Works. The city council and the mayor are all in favor. The Board of Public Works is pretending to be neutral, but they've made up their minds a long time ago. They all know what the answer is going to be. The contaminant transport model just serves to justify their position. It got them the waiver. That's science that was bought and paid for."

The DPW's Huntley bristles at this suggestion. "We work with some of the best scientists and engineers in the business... You can be assured that the science used in developing the model is of the highest quality. The state would not have granted the waiver if there were any doubt at all about the safety of the Maloney Well."

But it is reasonable to ask, as a citizen, if public health-related science is neutral. Funding bias is a well-documented phenomenon. While it does not necessarily follow that science will be biased toward its funding source, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand. Best practices must be adhered to. Independent peer review is necessary. Debate should be welcomed. Data sets and methodologies should be available to the public. Finally, empirical field observations should lend credence to a scientist's assumptions.

As of press time, I did not have complete figures on how much the city has paid over the years to develop and package the contaminant transport model. Suffice it to say that consulting engineers do not work for free.

Stantec subcontracted much of its work on the model to HydroAnalysis, Inc., an Acton-based consulting company run by one Dr. Peter Shanahan. Shanahan possesses multiple degrees from Stanford and MIT (where he currently teaches), and a CV that includes work for the World Bank, multinational corporations, municipalities, environmental organizations, and insurance companies. He provides services as a consultant and expert witness in the areas of groundwater hydrology, aquifer modeling, and contaminant fate. While his academic background is in pure science and engineering, his bread and butter comes from his role as a hired consultant. Would he be biased toward his funding source, which in this case was the city of Northampton?

I sent Shanahan a series of questions, one of which raised the bias issue: "If you had been hired by the opposition, would you have constructed your model differently? I do not mean to question your character; I am just curious."

Within his long and detailed response, he remarked, "As a general matter, developing a ground-water model is a technically unforgiving exercise: if it is not developed correctly, it will not match the field data. It really is not possible to construct a model 'differently' and still hope to have a model that passes the test of matching field data.

"Back to your original question, note that to some extent we were 'hired by the opposition.' Our original model, although contracted by the city of Northampton, was prepared to determine a Zone II for the city of Easthampton and subject to review by DEP. As such, it needed to be satisfactory to those two parties and Easthampton would need to endorse the report to use the Zone II. We approached the model no differently than we had any other of our prior Zone II models."

DEP spokeswoman Eva Tor sent me a copy of the full waiver report, and added more. "There are two parts to the model—the groundwater flow model, which determined the Zone II, and the contaminant transport element. The assumptions used in modeling contaminant transport were extremely conservative, assuming catastrophic failure and chemical concentrations that far exceed typical values for leachate.

"The DEP actually rejected the original groundwater flow model, issuing a technical deficiency report. We made the consultants address a number of issues. We reviewed and really scrutinized their work. We would never approve a waiver for something that would compromise public health. That's the bottom line.

"We don't encourage waivers from our regulations. I can tell you that the impetus did not come from us. There is, however, an outlined process. The city informed us that they wanted to go the route of the waiver process, and submitted an application. The contaminant transport model was part of that application.

"The model was an important consideration, but not the only one. We required that the city develop a contingency plan to address foreseeable problems, that enhanced environmental monitoring be put in place, and that a financial assurance mechanism be established. These requirements, and several others, introduce new safeguards from potential problems related to the old unlined landfill area, so add enhanced levels of environmental protection that were not there before.

"The permitting process is far from over. The city must yet obtain from the DEP an Authorization to Construct (ATC) and an Authorization to Operate (ATO). They have yet to address all the requirements of the waiver—for instance, they have not yet submitted the required contingency plan. The Zone II waiver simply gives them permission to begin an extensive process."

 

David to Goliath

Geologist Dr. Robert Newton represents the Barnes Aquifer Protection Advisory Committee (BAPAC). He and a former student, Nick Newcomb, have produced their own model, without the benefit of consultants' fees, that represents the interaction of the landfill and the Barnes Aquifer. While there are striking similarities between the BAPAC and Stantec/Shanahan models, there are some important differences. For instance, while Shanahan believes that BOD, or biological oxygen demand, is not much of a factor, Newton and Newcomb suspect that the confining clay layer over much of the aquifer could prevent critical oxygen recharge over the course of transport, potentially mobilizing naturally-occurring arsenic into the Maloney Well.

Newton points out that there are two other decommissioned landfills within the same Zone II area. He criticizes the city's research for its failure to take the cumulative effect of all potential contaminant sources into consideration in calculating the threat to the Maloney Well. Unlike Shanahan, he believes that evidence of contamination from the current landfill is relevant in thinking about the impact of the expansion. He points to a steady climb in iron and manganese levels at a monitoring well near the landfill, and remarks that nobody knows why this is occurring. If, for instance, there is already a leachate plume traveling from the site, shouldn't this be acknowledged as an additional source of potential contamination to the aquifer?

Newton is skeptical about the value of models to serve as a basis for key decision-making. "Different models can produce different results," he cautioned. "If you're making a decision based on a model, you are going to be making potentially the wrong decision. Models are tools, and can direct us in our learning about the aquifer. But the aquifer is a complex, heterogeneous system that, for a number of reasons, cannot be fully and accurately understood by building a model.

"The landfill represents a liability. Clean water is our most precious resource, and we can no longer take it for granted... I believe that because of where the landfill is located, in a primary recharge area, you can never let contaminants escape. As you build up the waste in the landfill, it's got to be preserved forever. Not 50 years, not a hundred years, but forever. We all know that's not going to happen. Remediation will be needed, which will be very expensive. What I fear is that the cost of expanding the landfill will ultimately be borne by our children."

I couldn't let him off the hook. "Dr. Newton," I asked. "Why do you think the DEP granted Northampton the Zone II site assignment waiver?"

"I have no idea," he said. "I have absolutely no idea."

Comments (1)
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An excellent, thorough, informative article. I concur with Dr. Newtons contention that a model; when applied to hydrologic science is potentially innacurate. Considering what mankind has done to our air, water and food supplies; I think the city and state should back off and let nature be our guiding force.
Posted by Stephen LaPalme on 8.22.08 at 10:51
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