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Toxic leachate accident should never have happened | Peggy Stevens

2 mins read

Two weeks ago, on February 24th, an experimental leachate treatment system- fully operational on the Coventry NEWSVT landfill without a permit- malfunctioned. Nearly 9,000 gallons of toxic leachate escaped the system and spilled downhill towards the Black River and South Bay of Lake Memphremagog.

The leachate was, according to NEWSVT, prevented from crossing the landfill boundaries and contaminating public wetlands and waters. But the fact is that accident, involving highly toxic landfill leachate, should never have happened.

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Not only was the pre- pilot operation of a relatively recent leachate treatment technology allowed by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to operate without a permit, but it was allowed to operate 24/7, staffed only 25% of that time- 8 hours a day on week days and 2 hours on the weekend.

This was a concern raised in the public comments hearing on December 12, 2023, when commenters reminded the DEC of the leachate spill that occurred at the Casella-owned landfill in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, on a weekend when no employees were on duty. That spill of many thousands of gallons of leachate threatened contamination of the Amonoosuc River.

If the experimental project had been staffed at the time the system failed, which no one knows exactly when that happened, the personnel on duty would have shut the system down- simple as that. But the “fail safe” “measures failed to alarm and engage” according to NEWSVT personnel and the rest is history.

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The concern expressed by local citizens here in the Memphremagog watershed- at the public hearing and since the accident occurred- is wholly legitimate, given that landfill leachate contains multiple toxic contaminants harmful to environmental and human health, including “forever” PFAS chemicals, proven to cause many negative health effects, including cancer.

In a better world, corporate industry would take responsibility for ensuring that every possible precaution was taken in order to protect the public and environmental health. Unfortunately, industry has abdicated that charge, and it is left to the legislative and regulatory branches of government to fulfill that responsibility.

And yet, the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and Department of Environmental Conservation have handed over the heavy burden of environmental protection to NEWSVT, with totally predictable consequences.

Lake Memphremagog is not only the crown jewel, the beating heart, of the Memphremagog regional economy. It is the drinking water reservoir for at least 175,000 Quebec neighbors, family, friends and economic partners who deserve the respect that precautionary environmental protections would provide. All citizens on both sides of the border require that due diligence be paid to protecting our shared natural resources.

This experimental pilot leachate treatment project is essential to cleanse leachate of its toxic chemicals. But it must be undertaken only using the most effective and safest technologies and protocols available, under strictest oversight and according to stringent requirements

established by the legislature and the regulatory agencies. And it must be sited on a geologically safe site, not adjacent to precious wetlands and uphill and within a half-mile or less of a drinking water reservoir.

We must learn from history, or we are doomed to repeat it. Wake up, ANR/DEC and the Vermont legislature. Do your most important job now, protecting the health and safety of our public and environment. No more unpermitted projects, no more cutting corners or costs, no more insufficient policy and practice when it comes to fulfilling your ultimate responsibility to our international community. The time is now to set straight the crooked path you are on. Public and environmental protection must be your highest priority.

Peggy Stevens
Member, Don’t Undermine Memphremagog’s Purity (DUMP) Advisory Committee

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