At the summit of the Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden, the stench is almost as breathtaking as the 360-degree views.
Bulldozers push mounds of garbage into piles. Tattered mattresses cuddle up next to bald tires.
Those are just the identifiable items.
For decades, there has been controversy over ownership of the landfill, complaints of irreversible environmental damage, debate over what current owner Casella Waste Systems Inc. owes the town, and consternation over how the facility should be closed.
After 35 years, the Pine Tree Landfill finally has stopped accepting waste, and by June it will be fully covered with a 4-foot-thick sandwich of various materials, including crushed stone and sod.
Hampden no longer is the area’s final destination for solid waste. That distinction now belongs to another facility farther up Interstate 95 — state-owned Juniper Ridge in Old Town.
The lingering question is: What happens to Hampden’s 44-acre trash pile now?
“It has been a source of community angst for years, so in that sense, I’m happy to see it closed,” Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard said recently. “But the story is far from over.”
For one, construction and demolition debris will still be collected at Pine Tree, even though it ultimately will be shipped to Juniper Ridge. Additionally, the collection and bailing of recycled cardboard also will continue on site in Hampden. Casella is one of the area’s biggest recyclers.
But the biggest remaining element of the landfill is a still-new “trash-to-energy” facility that was built to harness the methane gas byproduct of waste. That plant will operate until the gas runs out, perhaps for more than 20 years, and environmental monitoring of the landfill is expected to continue even longer.
“From our perspective, we intend to spend almost as much time in the next 30 years as we did in the previous 30,” said Cyndi Darling, a solid waste specialist with the state Department of Environmental Protection who oversees the Pine Tree Landfill. “This is the first secure landfill that has ceased to take waste in Maine, so certainly we will be learning from the closure process.”
On a recent tour of the Hampden facility, which is beginning to look more and more like a nondescript hill, Don Meagher, Casella’s manager of planning and development, said the landfill is in an unprecedented transition phase.
“The amount of effort and compromise that it took to get to this point is remarkable,” he said. “But I think things turned out as well as anyone could have expected.”
Norm Thurlow, who lives on Emerson Mill Road near the landfill, said he’s most excited about the decrease in heavy truck traffic. Bill Lippincott, a member of the Hampden Citizens’ Coalition, an active group that helped to ensure the landfill’s closure, also said he’s happy about the closure, but he hopes people continue to pay attention.
“We understand that it’s not going to disappear overnight,” he said. “But it’s important to hold Casella’s feet to the fire.”
History of Controversy
The Hampden landfill, which looms over I-95, began accepting waste in 1975.
At the time it was called the Sawyer Environmental Recovery Facility, which was a somewhat ironic name. For one, there was no liner separating the ground and tons and tons of waste, which is not exactly environmentally friendly. There were no environmental regulations to monitor gas emissions, either.
That all began to change in the 1980s and continued into the ’90s, when shifts in state policy resulted in the closure of hundreds of small municipal landfills — town dumps. The need for larger facilities like Pine Tree grew.
When Casella Waste Systems bought the facility in 1996, the company inherited some problems, Meagher acknowledged, but the problems didn’t end when Casella took over.
First, the company applied to expand the landfill’s capacity in 1998. The state approved the expansion, but the town said it violated zoning laws. So Casella sued the town, a case that made it all the way to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court and resulted in a reversal of the town’s decision.
Lippincott said Casella had a lot of muscle — at least the first time around.
“It was clear we weren’t going to stop them,” he said.
Not surprisingly, the expansion did little to alleviate concerns. Lippincott said the landfill continued to experience a number of small fires on site that have plagued its image and spurred concerns of safety.
And, of course, there were constant complaints over odors emanating from the giant hill. Other concerns included allowing out-of-state waste to be dumped in Hampden, and some even suggested that the landfill could create a cancer cluster in the future.
When Casella tried to expand again in 2005, DEP denied the request, thanks in part to the work of the Hampden Citizens’ Coalition, which helped negotiate a deal to close the landfill.
And so, the landfill has been slowly closing for the past three years. The first third was capped in 2008. Another triangle was closed off in 2009. The final piece will be covered by the summer.
Lessard, who became town manager in 2000, said Hampden historically never had a strong relationship with the landfill, and that’s one thing she has worked to change.
“We really worked hard to find a way to cooperate with [landfill] owners in order to make sure the town is a player in any decisions,” she said.
That included both environmental and financial considerations that never previously existed.
Since 2002, the town has received $8.3 million from Casella in host community benefits. In addition, Casella has paid nearly $1 million in property taxes since 2002 for approximately 50 homeowners who live close to the landfill.
Lessard said the town never became dependent on Casella’s money, but instead used it for projects that might otherwise have been overlooked or postponed. Hampden has used host community benefits to pay off debts to build the Hampden Business Park, to renovate the municipal pool and playground, and to build a significant reserve account.
Thurlow, however, said Casella has gone through all the motions of being a good partner with the town, but he’s not sure much has changed.
A New Life
As Casella prepared for the eventual closure of the Hampden landfill, the company always envisioned a plan to keep the facility as a viable taxpayer and business.
The result was a $10 million gas-to-energy extraction facility — the first of its kind in Maine — that consists of an elaborate network of wells and pipes that collects methane gas produced by decomposing waste within the landfill. That gas is then transferred to an extraction plant where it is scrubbed of contaminants and used to power generators that make electricity.
The scrubbing process is nontraditional, but cost-effective. Casella employs thiobacillus bacteria — a unique species of sea bug — to eat away the hydrogen sulfide from the methane.
Meagher said the transition from active landfill to inactive landfill and gas-to-energy plant allows Casella to keep all but one of its approximately 20 jobs in Hampden. Most will stay on site, but some will be transferred to Juniper Ridge in Old Town, which also is managed by Casella.“There have been a number of people who have historically opposed the landfill who have told me how wonderful the gas-to-energy facility is,” he said.
Casella also is a big recycler in the area — a fact that is often overlooked, according to Meagher.
“We get perceived as a disposal company, which we are, but that is not the only component of what we do,” he said. “We’re probably the biggest recycler in the area — 400,000 tons a year. It’s just not something that’s visible.”
Keeping a gas-to-energy plant on site also ensures a constant presence, although DEP’s Darling said environmental monitoring is required to last 30 years, but it will take place as long as is needed.
Casella “will be operating a closed landfill, which means extensive reporting, monitoring and inspecting by the DEP and landfill staff,” Darling said. “It’s not going to just be forgotten.”
Lessard said the town won’t let that happen.
“I don’t think there is anyone that wants to get to year 29 and say, ‘Oh … we better do something,’” she said.
Lippincott is not 100 percent convinced. He said the leachate, or runoff, from the waste that has festered for decades has filtered into area groundwater, and he believes it will continue to do so even after the landfill is closed. High rates of toxins, including arsenic, have been documented in the water around the landfill.
Meagher, however, said problems have been minimal and have been limited to the footprint of the landfill.
“If there were significant problems, they probably would have shown up by now,” he said.
From Thurlow’s perspective, he’s just as glad Casella is staying on site.
“They could have just left and it would be the town’s problem,” he said.
Either way, Lippincott and other members of the Hampden Citizens’ Coalition plan to keep tabs on Casella long after the landfill is dormant.
He said the biggest problem is the need for landfills at all.
“There is still a problem of generating too much waste and not recycling enough,” he said.
On that point, Meagher agreed, but said there isn’t much to be done.
“Landfills are the lowest priority in the waste cycle and they should be,” he said. “But everything that ends up here has been stripped of what can be recycled. Where else could it go?”