By Brian Lee
Telegram & Gazette Staff
After cursing at a Southbridge resident during a heated meeting about the municipal landfill, Board of Health member Dean Cook has resigned from the five-member panel, Town Manager Ronald San Angelo said Thursday.
Mr. Cook, a 55-year-old computer programmer with a degree in chemistry, who once worked at Clean Harbors and ran for governor as a Libertarian candidate twice during the 1990s, resigned in an email to Mr. San Angelo's assistant. A signed and dated letter of resignation is still required, Mr. San Angelo said.
“Get the answers to these people that have the (expletive) contaminated wells and let’s get it closed and shut down,” she said of the landfill.During an April 14 health board meeting, resident Erin Cummings-Lapriore, accompanied by her children, ages 2 and 5, accused officials from landfill operator Casella Waste Systems of affecting the health of area residents by contaminating groundwater and polluting private wells.
Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore then demanded that Mr. Cook not roll his eyes while she spoke, to which Mr. Cook snapped, “I’ll roll my eyes at anyone I damn well (expletive) please.”
In an interview Thursday, Mr. Cook said his term is ending in June, and he had learned that the council's majority had decided not to reappoint him. "They supposedly had enough votes to remove me, so why make a sideshow," he said.
Mr. Cook said he has served on town boards for 10 years, accounting for what he called "hundreds of hours of work."
Moreover, 1,4-dioxane is not bioaccumulative, he said.He said references to 1,4-dioxane, one of the contaminants found in private wells of homes in Charlton, as "a human toxin," while "technically accurate," were misleading. Aspirin and Vitamin A are toxic, too, he suggested. It's a matter of consumption levels, he said, and someone weighing 220 pounds would have to take in 510 grams, which is "like drinking half a liter of pure 1,4 dioxane."
Meanwhile, Mr. Cook said he did not believe resigning was the proper course of action, but "I don’t think anything I could do at this point would make it better."\
He said a student of "Geology 101" would reason that the plume is headed toward the landfill, not away, "because the basic principle of plumes is the higher concentrations are closest to the source." In this case, the highest concentrations of known contamination in Charlton are farthest from the landfill, he said.He asserted: "All you can do is get along with the people in front of the camera who are misquoting poorly sourced facts, repeating inaccuracies over and over and over again, and basically standing up there saying the only source is the landfill. Well, that's not true - no matter how many times you say it."
Asked why he cursed at Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore, Mr. Cook said, "I was frustrated. Out of 10 years, you have a moment of bad judgment. I didn’t swear at her, I swore in front of everybody. There’s a difference, and I apologized to everybody right then."
He added that his patience was low because his wife is recovering from surgery, he hadn't slept much and he had been stuck in traffic.
When Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore asked landfill site manager Tracy Markham and her colleagues how they slept at night, Mr. Cook said he found the comment "outrageous" and "uncalled for." He called Ms. Markham "the most competent person" and said she "takes so much abuse from these people who are spouting misinformation all the time."
Mr. Cook said his board "put tons of requirements on Casella," including making the landfill operator put in extra wells and air protection measures.
"We are collecting data left and right on these people," he said. "If there was anything to be seen, I’d be the first person to say they were at fault."
Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore, 38, said she was happy that Mr. Cook resigned. She called his behavior "unprofessional and uncalled for, especially in front of children."
She said she hopes the town replaces Mr. Cook with someone of a more diverse background and "maybe these meetings won’t weigh on the side of Casella, as they tend to do so."
A resident of Route 169 near the landfill, Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore said her family suffers from constant truck traffic to the landfill six days a week at 7 a.m. She said the family constantly picks up trash in the yard from trash trucks.
Although the home is on public water and sewer lines, Mrs. Cummings-Lapriore, who also has a 7-year-old child, said she feels badly for people with contaminated wells.
"This town owes them an answer and a solution," she said. "It breaks my heart that people are showering for two minutes (to limit potential exposure) and are brushing their teeth and cooking with bottled water."
The town manager thanked Mr. Cook for his service and wished him well.
"The town appreciates all the volunteer time he gave to make Southbridge a better community," Mr. San Angelo said.
Though pleased that Mr. Cook publicly apologized during the meeting, Mr. San Angelo said that "clearly, this is something that the town does not expect from any of its board members, and I think Dean made a very good choice in deciding to resign."
Mr. San Angelo he had discussed options with Mr. Cook, including the manager's power to recommend that he be removed or not be reappointed.
Mr. San Angelo said he received calls from residents and councilors about the incident. Mr. Cook had both detractors and supporters.
The call to fill the vacancy comes at an important time, given Casella's looming request for a site assignment to expand the landfill, a source of many residents' frustration in Southbridge, Sturbridge and Charlton.
But because the health board covers a variety of topics, Mr. San Angelo said, the landfill would not be a litmus test for any applicant, and he was "not looking for anyone who's taken a big public position for or against" the landfill.
"I’m looking for people who are honest, intelligent, can be objective and look at the facts of any public health issue that comes before them."