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Environment and Outdoors

Environmental Group Seeks Stronger Water Protections For Norridgewock Landfill Expansion

landfill expansion.PNG
Maine Department of Environmental Protection
An Oct. 2020 presentation from Waste Management shows the 50 acres where the Phase 14 expansion of the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock -- highlighted in yellow -- would take place.

Maine’s largest private landfill will soon run out of storage space. As a result, state officials recently approved a 50-acre expansion of the Crossroads Landfill in Norridgewock that could open for business in three years.

But at least one environmental group, the Conservation Law Foundation, says it's alarmed by the project’s potential threats to nearby water supplies.

It argues that some of the restrictions on the project are not as strong as as they would be in other nearby states, and it has formally appealed the expansion.

Every year, the Crossroads Landfill takes in roughly 500,000 tons of garbage from inside and outside of Maine, including household trash, construction debris, and asbestos and other hazardous materials.

The facility is expected to fill up in about three years, so its parent company, Waste Management, has proposed an expansion that would allow an estimated 7.5 million additional tons of waste to be buried there over the next decade and a half.

In May, the state Department of Environmental Protection approved the project.

It says the expansion would follow state environmental rules and be critical to the waste disposal efforts of Maine communities. And it says that other upgrades in the project, such as a new composting center, would help advance Maine’s recycling goals.

The Conservation Law Foundation disagrees.

In June, the Boston-based advocacy group filed an appeal of the proposed expansion. Staff attorney Peter Blair says the state should instead focus on more environmentally friendly strategies such as recycling, composting and reducing waste.

"Building landfills just does not incentivize the actions you want to see. When you build this capacity, you’re not going to be recycling or composting or diverting as much as you should be," Blair says.

If it can't stop the project, Blair's group is seeking a number of stricter requirements.

As part of the expansion, for example, Crossroads will have to collect rain runoff that has mixed with trash and send it to two wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Kennebec River: one at the Sappi North America paper mill, and the other in the town of Madison.

Blair says that Crossroads should be required to filter contaminants out of the leachate before sending it to the plants. He points to a recent state report that found elevated levels of PFAS chemicals in fish from sections of the river below those facilities.

The appeal also argues that state regulators should have required more protection against fluids that might leak out of the landfill over time and reach the groundwater, potentially contaminating drinking water wells or the Kennebec River a mile away.

Crossroads is required to line the landfill with a single layer of plastic on top of engineered clay. But Blair says that the company should have to install a second plastic liner, as it has done in the past at Crossroads and as some other states require of new landfills.

The appeal claims that Waste Management is installing a double liner at another landfill expansion in Rochester, New Hampshire.

"The fact that it’s being developed with only one liner means that it’s not going to be as protective, that leachate leakage is going to happen much earlier than it would have with a two-liner system," Blair says.

He called it "completely unheard of for the region and against industry standards, especially for the type of waste that they're going to be collecting."

One expert on landfill design — Kerry Rowe, a professor in the civil engineering department at the Queen's University in Ontario — also questioned whether a single liner would be enough to prevent leakage given the size and expected amount of waste in the proposed expansion.

"Looking at it from technical perspective, I would strongly recommend a double-lined site for a landfill of the size that's being considered," said Rowe, who has co-written a book on barrier systems in landfills and helped design them in countries including the U.S. and Canada.

In the license for the Crossroads expansion, the Maine DEP cited research showing that there was "no unreasonable risk that a discharge to a significant ground aquifer will occur."

In addition, it's requiring that the liner be tested for leaks once it's in place and that other environmental monitoring continue once the expansion is constructed.

The Conservation Law Foundation argues some of that research was done at a time of dry conditions, which could have made it hard to tell how the groundwater normally flows there. And it also says that the required testing would not be adequate.

Its appeal now goes to the state Board of Environmental Protection, which has some independent authority over state regulators.

A Maine DEP spokesman, David Madore, noted that the proposed liner system meets state regulations.

But he declined to comment on most of the concerns raised by the Conservation Law Foundation, given that briefings still have not been filed with the Board of Environmental Protection. He says the agency will assist the panel as it reviews the appeal.

A spokesman for Waste Management declined to comment on the appeal.

Corrected: July 27, 2021 at 1:08 PM EDT
A previous version of this piece incorrectly identified the university where Kerry Rowe is a professor. He works at Queen's University; not the University of Queensland.