The ash landfill at WIN Waste Innovations in Saugus is likely to close and be capped within the next several years, and local and state officials are planning for what comes next.
Revere State Representatives Jessica Giannino and Jeff Turco, along with the Alliance for Health and Environment, held a public forum with state Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) officials at the Point of Pines Yacht Club on Tuesday night in the shadow of the WIN Waste incinerator on Rumney Marsh.
Late last year, MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg issued a letter stating that MassDEP would not allow the expansion of the WIN Waste ash landfill as it’s currently proposed.
At Tuesday night’s meeting, MassDEP representatives estimated it would be about four years before the ash landfill reaches total capacity and would have to begin closure procedures. However, the WIN Waste incinerator could remain in operation and ship its ash to a separate location.
While there was a generally an upbeat tone to Tuesday’s meeting and the possibility that the decades-long battle against the ash landfill may be over, there were a number of residents who live near WIN Waste who said they would believe it when they see it.
“I want to thank Commissioner Suuberg for sending us the letter back in the fall that his understanding of the current law is that once the landfill reaches its capacity it will not be able to expand beyond that,” said Turco. “That led to a discussion among people who said let’s start talking about what happens after the landfill reaches capacity.”
Loretta LaCentra, who has lived across the river from the incinerator and ash landfill for decades, talked about the carcinogens caused by the plant and the long history of cancer, odors and other health concerns in her neighborhood and beyond. “With the landfill reaching its full height of five stories in the coming years, we are once again being promised its closure,” said LaCentra. “I’m a little skeptical, but I am pleased that MassDEP has stated that they cannot move forward with any further expansion of the ash landfill. So the final closure will be a relief for me and, of course, all of my neighbors who live in this area.”
“It is imperative that we start planning now for the landfill closure,” LaCentra said.
Kirstie Pecci, director of the Conservation Law Foundation’s Zero Waste Project, ran through the long legal history of the WIN Waste site, which stretches back over seven decades to its original use as a trash dump. In the 1970s, people were sick of the odor from the landfill and the site was transformed into an incinerator plant. “What really happens is nothing goes away, and they were emitting the chemicals and the toxins and heavy metal into the air, and they were creating ash,” said Pecci. “For every four tons of trash, they generated a ton of ash, and that ash has to go there, and they put it on top of the municipal solid waste – and they made the ash mountain you see now.”
By the late 1980s, it was no longer legal to have an ash mountain in the middle of a marsh, Pecci said, and the area was declared an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. “In 1989, there was what’s called a consent order, saying this is closing December 1996; this landfill is done,” Pecci said. “They put a wall around it and put a slurry wall around it. They never built a liner or dug in, they just put a slurry wall around it.”
But the state then ruled that the landfill would be shut down when it looked like the final engineering plan. “Then they proceeded – instead of closing the landfill down in December of 1996 – they proceeded to amend that consent order and the final engineering plan 11 or 12 times over the years,” said Pecci.
The legal battle continued over the years over the differences between an expansion of the landfill versus an expansion of capacity, allowing WIN Waste to fill several remaining stormwater valleys on the site.
Pecci said Suuberg’s letter from last fall shows him holding to his word that MassDEP would not allow any further expansion at the ash landfill. “Being in an Area of Critical Environmental Concern did not save us last time, but it should do so this time,” said Pecci. “I think you should feel confident that this will shut down, but we keep our eyes on MassDEP because we have to make sure that their bosses don’t change their minds. But I think we have got this beat, so we are actually going to shut this landfill down.”
Eric Worrall, MassDEP’s regional director, said Wheelabrator is required to give the agency an annual update on the estimated remaining capacity at the landfill. “From November 2021, the most recent estimate is 3.6 to four years, so that would take us to the end of 2025,” said Worrall. “The final engineering plan – the closure plan – has already been approved by the department, so that is already in place.”
Once the landfill reaches the 50-foot high elevation across the entire landfill, WIN Waste will be required to cap and close it.
“There are a couple of ways you can cap a landfill; one is with a clay liner; another is a geomembrane, which is pretty much what everybody uses these days because it’s much easier to work with; it’s a very heavy, thick, polyethylene-duty liner, which once you shape and grade the landfill to the final contours, that goes down,” said Worrall. “Then you have your drainage layer on top of that and you loam and seed on top of that.”
Once the landfill is filled and capped, there also needs to be a post-closure plan in place for 30 years that includes monitoring, Worrall said.
In November 2020, the Saugus Board of Health formed a Landfill Subcommittee for the purpose of sitting down with WIN Waste to determine how the town can better benefit from the presence of the company. That committee has met many times, with WIN Waste representatives attending every meeting. Committee members have had the opportunity to express what they would want to see in a Host Community Agreement, and the company is expected to present the Landfill Committee with a proposal this spring.
“We are pleased to have worked collaboratively with the Landfill Committee over the last 17 months,” said James Connolly, Vice President Environment, WIN Waste Innovations. “Based on those conversations and priorities expressed by members of the committee, we look forward to the opportunity to present our proposal for a Host Community Agreement and continuing a dialog that allows us to enhance our economic, environmental and community value to Saugus and the region.”