Today’s Southbridge News carries an article by Town Councilor Gus Steeves expressing his views on the proposed amendment to the Casella contract.
A ‘First Amendment’ we should not invoke
by Gus Steeves
“The devil’s in the details” is a common cliché, but in some documents, it’s really an understatement.
Multiple demons jump out of the newly proposed “First Amendment” to the landfill site assignment, which is currently being considered by the Council. General Government talked about it Wednesday and I expect it to be on Monday’s full council agenda, but both were after this column’s deadline.
On the surface, this agreement, if approved, would lead to Southbridge Recycling and Disposal Park, Inc. (SRD, better known as Casella) paying for the construction of a sewer line extension and leachate pre-treatment plant, a project estimated at $2.5 million, but for which the document’s $180,000 annual payments come to $3.6 million. Sounds good, right?
Not so fast. Strictly from a short-term point of view, the payments look good. But the $180,000 sum is not indexed for inflation, meaning it will fall in actual value over time. If the next 20 years follow the same pattern as the last 20 did, that amount in 2035 will have lost more than a third of its purchasing power, according to www. measuringworth.com.
Worse, the details seem to essentially blackmail the town into supporting the landfill’s larger expansion, something most of us oppose. That $180,000 is a “fixed” fee split by percentage between the two building projects, but Section 1j enables Casella to claw back any payments for the sewer portion “[i]n the event that SRD does not receive all necessary permits and approvals (including any site assignments) required to construct all of the additional landfill capacity in the Additional Areas.” It does state, though, that Casella is still required to pay the leachate plant portion despite permit delays or rejection. Section 1e contradicts that, however, stating the entire “Annual Infrastructure Fee” (the $180,000) payments last 20 years if the landfill’s life runs out by Casella’s timeline (estimated at 11 years in the recent Environmental Notification Form, but obviously they’d want to keep something going beyond that), but “shall not survive the earlier termination of this Extension Agreement.”
To me, the all-or-nothing phrasing bodes ill for the town. There should be a clause by which Casella pays some of the sewer fee if it gets some of the added acreage, since it will still conduct business for a while beyond the current mid-2017 filing deadline. Furthermore, the “additional areas” are rather ill-defined: The amendment lists the “airport triangle,” a small parcel surrounded by the landfill and the “Tower Hill” land, but maps and text in their ENF clearly depict using land in Charlton and the McKinstry parcel. The latter would legally be a whole new landfill, if it happens, but it violates town zoning: Nothing allows landfills except by special permit, and Casella would have to prove doing it “will not tend to impair the status of the neighborhood.” I bet Rosemeade residents would find their neighborhood “impaired” by the constant activity of a new, big trash hill.
Combined, the phrasing seems to put Southbridge on the hook for any permits denied by Charlton, the state or federal agencies. At least three of them are outside Southbridge’s control: Charlton will hold its own site assignment process at some point. The FAA requires a “minimum separation” of 5,000 feet between a new landfill and “airports serving piston-powered aircraft;” the McKinstry parcel is far less distant than that. DEP has to review the site for “suitability” and determine if a landfill there can “operate in a manner of minimal detriment to the environment.”
Do we want to play Russian roulette with those odds?
Obviously, any one of those could end the Extension Agreement early – something that would not be an issue had our Board of Health denied the tonnage increase in 2008. A challenge in that vein could come quickly, since I’d imagine building a treatment plant up there would require site assignment in itself as a major change to the landfill, even without further expansion. It would be open to “third-party” users – in short, outside trucks would bring untreated leachate to our town. The text doesn’t indicate how big it would be, but gives Casella “priority” over any third parties and requires the town to pay Casella an unstated per-gallon fee for such third-party use, despite indicating that Southbridge would own the facility.
This proposal feels like an attempt to stack the deck in upcoming site assignment and other hearings such that the ka-ching of the cash drowns out our community’s other genuine long-term interests. There’s already too much of a belief among some in town that we “can’t get rid of Casella” because of the millions we get from them, but that’s the same ideology as the heroin addict saying he can’t kick his habit because it feels too good. In both cases, the addiction has short-term apparent benefits but long-term harm, while breaking the addiction poses short-term withdrawal pain for long-term health, freedom of action, clearer decision-making and sanity.