Editor’s note: This commentary is by John W Casella, chairman and CEO of Casella Waste Systems.
As a lifelong Vermonter I have been a staunch advocate of the environment for my entire life. Over the last 45 years I have surrounded myself with the most forward thinking, hardest working, and intellectually capable people in the waste management industry and together we have worked every day to build a world class environmental services company.
Today it is one of the largest resource management companies in the country. Our team spends their days focusing on helping our customers meet their sustainability goals through our substantial investments in recycling, organics, and environmentally sound management of municipal solid waste.
Our company just finished a six-year process to expand our landfill in Coventry, Vt. This is the only landfill in the state that meets the solid waste needs of all Vermonters. This operation is critical to the health and safety of Vermonters and without it we would be putting ourselves and our natural environment at great risk.
Americans are monumental consumers who have moved further down the path as a disposable society. As consumers we are constantly seeking new and better products, the latest and greatest gadgets, and the convenience of a modern lifestyle.
As such, companies across the country and the globe race to produce products and provide conveniences that leave us in search of answers at the end of their collective lifecycles.
We can pretend that landfills shouldn’t exist, but that’s emotion rather than clear-eyed fact. Emotions aside, the inescapable fact is that modern landfills — highly regulated, extensively engineered, relentlessly permitted — play an important role in how our society currently manages the waste it produces and are a crucial part of the infrastructure necessary to manage public and environmental health.
We may not like them — we may even loathe them — but they make modern life possible, and safe. And, they are a bridge to the future as we make greater and faster progress towards conservation, renewal, and regeneration of resources.
If you really stop and think about it, our company lives at the end of the life of products and materials. Society consumes products and then we either recycle, repurpose, or dispose of those items.
With that in mind, I would argue that Vermonters need to do more at the beginning of the product lifecycle to combat the impacts of emerging contaminants to ensure that these new products are safe for our families and the environment. That is not the case today. There is intense scrutiny and regulation at the death of products, and much less so at the birth of products.
During the latest permitting process at the Coventry landfill the process bogged down as regulators shifted from traditional environmental reviews to studying emerging contaminants, or “forever chemicals” as some like to call them, such as PFAS, which have gained national attention in recent years.
While it’s tempting — and too easy — to point the finger at landfills, the truth is that for decades many of the products and day-to-day items used in our society contain these compounds and end up in our environment through many sources.
Landfills do not manufacture PFAS compounds — it is a social and environmental challenge that has been flowing from our modern lifestyle. It is everyone’s responsibility to find ways to get PFAS out of water and other sources.
We continue to do our part — and do it well — at the end of the waste stream using advanced technologies.
The Act 250 Commission and the Agency of Natural Resources have reviewed volumes of data to determine the safety of wastewater treatment plants throughout Vermont.
One of their most interesting findings?
Wastewater treatment facilities that accept landfill leachate and those that do not, produce similar test results. In other words, whether or not a plant processes landfill leachate, they discharge PFOA and PFAS—it is that persistent of a compound.
In fact, if the members of Memphremagog Conservation Inc. (MCI), and Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity (DUMP) are serious about addressing the purity of Lake Memphremagog, they have to be willing to confront the fact that wastewater being discharged into the lake from the Canadian side has the potential to be significantly more harmful.
Canadian wastewater discharge standards for PFAS — and I use that term very loosely — are vastly less stringent than Vermont’s.
In fact, Quebec has no standards as they have failed to adopt even Canadian national wastewater discharge standards. So, sadly, our Canadian friends at MCI (and their US allies at DUMP) may be the real threat to this important body of water.
Their focus on the already stringent Vermont standards is taking time and resources away from addressing the real issues that are putting this natural resource at risk.
A determination was made by ANR that treated effluent from the Newport Wastewater Treatment Plant would have no adverse impacts to human health or to the environment.
Regardless, we will continue to work with our wastewater treatment plant partners as new treatment solutions emerge.
We urge you to do your research and understand the science before believing the scare tactics of anti-landfill groups.
Reach out to ANR and the Department of Health to get the facts about leachate and its treatment in Vermont.
If you want to change as a society, everyone needs to look in the mirror. What are we consuming? What do we throw in our garbage can each day? Have you ever cooked an egg in a Teflon Pan? Do you own a waterproof coat?
Do you have stain proof carpets? If you answered yes to these questions, you are part of the problem as all of these products used PFOA/PFAS.
I respect my fellow Vermonters who are passionate about protecting the environment. I am as well.
However, I challenge you to refocus your efforts on the true source of these emerging contaminants — the products that are coming into our state — and not on the infrastructure designed to protect us at the end of their lifecycle.
Let’s refocus our passion and resources on making sure that we have safe and environmentally sound products entering our state, and that our neighbors in Canada do their part to protect the environment.