Want news delivered to your inbox? Sign up for our newsletter.
Board of Selectmen Chairman Anthony Cogliano believes the time has come for a new approach with Wheelabrator Saugus.
The Board of Health voted to move forward in establishing a subcommittee to explore post-closure uses for the Wheelabrator Saugus ash landfill.
In Cogliano’s view, this committee can begin discussions on the Wheelabrator ash landfill, look into developing a host community agreement between the town and trash-to-energy facility and come up with a plan that better addresses health and safety concerns.
“I think it’s long overdue to have this type of dialogue with Wheelabrator,” said Cogliano, who originally proposed the committee. “I think it’s high time Saugus gets a host community agreement with Wheelabrator. I’ve said all along we won’t sacrifice the safety of residents in doing so.”
Board of Health Chairman Bill Heffernan pointed out that Wheelabrator representatives haven’t attended any Board of Health meetings the last few years – even when they are invited.
Heffernan stressed the importance of setting expectations for improved collaboration between the town and Wheelabrator.
A major issue involving Wheelabrator is the ash landfill, Heffernan said – adding that he feels the company understands the landfill can’t stay open forever.
In April 2018, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection permitted Wheelabrator Saugus to dispose of ash generated at its waste-to-energy plant in two valleys of its adjacent landfill.
The Board of Health and Conservation Law Foundation challenged MassDEP’s ruling by arguing the modification occurred without a valid site assignment in place, but a Suffolk Superior Court judge denied the appeal.
Heffernan said his intention is for the subcommittee to work directly with Wheelabrator to focus on what a possible landfill closure date might be, or what other alternatives might exist.
Until that time comes, Heffernan expressed optimism committee members could collaborate with Wheelabrator to guarantee the highest safeguards are in place at the facility and to look at ways to modernize the operations.
Heffernan suggested that the subcommittee could push for a host community agreement to benefit the town. He noted that Wheelabrator has been supportive of an open dialogue with the town for a long time.
“I think we can get great representation from Wheelabrator at the table,” Heffernan said.
As to who might serve on the committee, Heffernan offered the possibility of two Board of Health members, two selectmen, the town manager and a few residents in Precinct 10 (where Wheelabrator is located).
Cogliano said he plans to discuss committee representation with Heffernan and then make a presentation to the Board of Health.
What isn’t productive is having a room filled with 30 residents who want to pound on Wheelabrator for an hour every month, Heffernan said.
“I want to avoid a bunch of people in a room pounding their fists, because then we won’t get anywhere,” Heffernan said.
Town Meeting members weigh in
Town Meeting member Peter Manoogian presented a letter to the Board of Selectmen signed by all five Precinct 10 Town Meeting members to state their position on the subcommittee.
In the letter, the Town Meeting members spell out how the unlined ash landfill is already 24 years beyond the closure date originally accepted by Wheelabrator
The letter goes on to communicate that the Town Meeting members support the creation of the committee, but don’t want to see any suggestions that more ash needs to be added beyond the permitted 50-foot height in order to close the landfill, or that presents a position that Wheelabrator will bring forth more money to Saugus if a site assignment is granted by the Board of Health for vertical expansion behind currently permitted areas.
“We do not want to see any ‘quid pro quo’ negotiating by this committee that will result in landfill expansion,” the letter reads. “This would be inconsistent with the role of the Board of Health as well as the stated policy of the Board of Selectmen.”
The Town Meeting members requested that the selectmen pass a motion indicating the subcommittee includes representation from their delegation, that meetings be held in accordance with the Open Meeting Law and that they don’t want to see the committee go beyond its stated purpose of closure.
Both Wheelabrator and MassDEP acknowledge that ash landfill vertical expansion or expansion outside of its boundaries would require a site assessment by the Board of Health, Manoogian said.
Wheelabrator is running out of space to put the ash incinerated in its stacks, Manoogian said, emphasizing that the committee shouldn’t propose granting a site assignment to the company in exchange for money and donations.
“What they want is ash expansion above and beyond what’s permitted and only the Board of Health can do that, and we will not lose if the Board of Health makes a determination it is not in the best interests of public health and the environment,” Manoogian said.
Selectman Michael Serino said that opening a dialogue with Wheelabrator is a good thing.
The makeup of the committee will be critical, Serino said, stressing that he wants to see members who are knowledgeable on the issues surrounding the facility over the last four decades and who never took donations from Wheelabrator.
Per Serino’s recommendation, the selectmen voted to have town counsel draft a letter to the Board of Health and Board of Selectmen that details who is the appointing authority for the committee and offers guidelines for open meetings.
Selectman Jeff Cicolini said there seems to be an appetite to a dialogue with Wheelabrator.
Personally, Cicolini said he doesn’t want to see expansion of the ash landfill.
Cicolini raised the possibility of reaffirming the policy that the previous boards have supported to strive for a net decrease in air emissions and ash disposal. The selectmen voted 4-1 to put the ash emissions policy on their next agenda for discussion.
Cogliano emphasized that he doesn’t want to handcuff the subcommittee before the members even sit down with Wheelabrator to talk.
Safety of residents is the top priority, Cogliano said, mentioning nitrogen oxide levels coming out of the stack as an important issue.
Selectman Corinne Riley felt that a different approach of talking to Wheelabrator is a good way to go.
“I think Wheelabrator wants to speak with us and get something accomplished because it’s been too many years of nothing,” Riley said, adding that the ash pile on the site needs to be closed at some point.
Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental health and safety at Wheelabrator, said the company would welcome a conversation with the subcommittee.
“It has long been our desire to have a meaningful discussion with the town about how we can best continue to provide economic and environmental value to Saugus and the region,” Connolly said.
Selectman Debra Panetta said she has confidence that residents can talk about issues pertaining to Wheelabrator without it turning into a complaining session.
Panetta said she would like to see a closure plan for the ash landfill and the landfill capped at 50 feet with grassy seed.
The town needs consistent communication from Wheelabrator when issues arise at the plant, Panetta said. She added that the subcommittee can’t operate with the idea of quid pro quo negotiating with Wheelabrator.
Heffernan said a quid pro quo arrangement isn’t what he intends.
“Let’s work together to find a common ground and get [Wheelabrator] to the table,” Heffernan said. “I’m not saying we’ll break bread, but let’s at least have an open dialogue.”
We want to hear from you you. Which Saugus topics do you think we should cover? Let us know here.