A Simmering Conundrum

John Clark feeling conflicted, perhaps more than at any point in the past thirty years. When I was campaigning last year, I got a phone call from a lady I knew from my days as the Hartland librarian. She said that her parents were having a terrible time with a foul odor coming from our town landfill and weren’t getting anywhere with the powers that be here in town.

Site of the former tannery annex, we’re hoping new industry will locate here.

I stopped by the town office to chat with Chris Littlefield, our town manager. The upshot was a meeting a week or so later with Earl and Paula Hughes, the affected couple, Chris, a representative from Department of Environmental Protection-DEP, the engineer overseeing our wastewater treatment plant and the landfill and the town employee overseeing the landfill operation. It was at least a two hour meeting and I came away feeling like everyone was on the same page. I also realized that I had developed an interest in exploring new methods of recycling and if elected, planned on running with that interest. (Still very interested in this.)

Fast forward to the election. I wasn’t elected, the problem of odor at the landfill had gotten worse to a point where family members on different sides of the issue weren’t speaking to each other and the number of affected citizens had grown significantly. Some of them who lived on Martin street which was right above the landfill, were experiencing an infestation of rats, while others were so affected by the smell that they could no longer open their windows. In short, it was a mess in more ways than one and was on the verge of splitting Hartland into two camps. Some of the citizens who were hit by the smell told me that they felt uncomfortable when shopping in the local grocery store because the tension was palpable and they were unable to look other people in the eye because they weren’t sure what their take on the odor issue was.

The landfill as it currently looks.

Between November and March, the issue simmered, then exploded. A group calling itself Heartland Environmental Advisory Team-HEAT, began attending most, if not all selectman’s meetings, videotaping them, and then published a flyer demanding the landfill be closed, following that up by circulating a petition for voters to sign demanding the landfill be closed.

What brought this tension to the surface? First some history. The landfill was approved in the mid 1970s by the DEP. At that time, the Irving Tannery, the town’s biggest employer, needed a place to dump their waste. Unfortunately, the lining used for the original landfill cell wasn’t anywhere near what’s used today and leachate spread. One contaminant from the tanning process is chromium. When water samples began showing high levels of it, the tannery worked with the Maine Water Company to create a public water supply/distribution system and connected anyone thought to be at risk for free. As time went on and technology improved, better liners were used as new cells were added to the landfill and chromium levels began to decrease. Any leachate (liquid settling at the bottom of the landfill) was piped to a lined lagoon and then trucked to the wastewater plant where it was processed, essentially creating a closed leachate system.

The closed leachate system

One hard fact of life is that when a landfill closes, it must be monitored for thirty years after closure. That creates an ongoing expense for the town and while funding to start things is often easily obtainable, funding to close or monitor something isn’t. This was, in part, how the stink came to be. Chris wanted to try to get ahead of the future costs by taking in waste from outside Hartland. That came in the form of septage from Brewer. While that was arriving daily, the odor increased. If you talk to one side of this equation, you hear that the odor got a hell of a lot worse after Brewer’s sludge started arriving. Talk to the other and you’ll get a different response. The truth, like in most controversies, probably lies somewhere in between, but sides have been taken and angry words exchanged.

To the credit of Chris and the selectmen, they asked a number of citizens representing different disciplines and perspectives to form a community focus group to come up with factual information and answers to questions that some in town feel haven’t been answered. Both Beth and I were asked to be on it. Our first meeting was last night and lasted two hours. We will meet as long and as often as necessary to get as much factual information as possible. we’re likely to face some hostility and disbelief, but that goes with the territory. Stay tuned to see what shakes out in this process.

On a very positive note, we will soon lease town land below and around the landfill to a company that will install 4.3 megawatts of solar panels, something I’ve been advocating for for the past four years.

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4 Responses to A Simmering Conundrum

  1. bethc2015 says:

    It certainly is hard to see the town dealing with issues for which there is no easy solution. Human waste, in many forms, is going to be an increasing problem that each of us will have to deal with in some way. Thanks for your advocacy for solar panels.

  2. Community controversies can be so intense! I’m glad you and Beth are part of the group trying to get to the underlying facts. You’re smart to recognize that presenting those facts won’t necessarily be a panacea. There are lots of dynamics at work in small towns. Sometimes it’s not about the facts, even though folks claim it is.

    In my nightly work on my WIP, I’ve been writing a scene this week about a community-wide meeting that gets hot, so this is a timely post for me.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Thanks for all you’re doing for the environment — and Maine!

  4. Julianne Spreng says:

    You may not have been elected this time, but you are proving you can serve. Most often individuals want to complain only to refuse the opportunity to get involved in correcting the problem. Thank you for taking on this probably thankless job.

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