North Country:Landfill Buffer Bill Passes House, Moves To Senate

Facing what appeared to be an uphill battle, opponents of a Casella Waste Systems landfill in Dalton, pictured here in September at a public hearing in Bethlehem, were buoyed Friday when a bill that seeks to prohibit new landfills within two miles of any state park passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives. It now moves to the New Hampshire Senate. (File photo by Robert Blechl)

In a surprise turnaround, the landfill buffer bill that a New Hampshire House of Representatives committee in February voted inexpedient to legislate (ITL) found new life on Friday and now moves to the Senate.

House Bill 177, sponsored by several local lawmakers, seeks to prohibit any new landfill within two miles of the boundary of any state park.

On Feb. 17, the House Environment and Agriculture Committee voted 10-9 to against recommending the bill to the full House.

But during a marathon House session on Friday, HB 177 was ultimately revived, though not before skittering a number of times to near death again, at least for the 2021 legislative session.

State Rep. Tim Egan, D-Sugar Hill, a bill co-sponsor, called the votes that led to its passing like being in a fight and going the full 15 rounds.

On Friday, there was an effort to table every bill that was ITL’d.

After slowly beginning to table all of the bills previously ITL’d, state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, special-ordered HB 177 to the floor, where the order passed 282-72.

A motion to table HB 177 was made, but was defeated 183-174.

A vote on a subsequent motion to ITL the bill lost in a 187-171 vote.

A vote to add an amendment to HB 177 passed 251-104.

A vote on a further motion to indefinitely postpone the bill was defeated 201-156.

In the end, HB 177 as amended passed in a 197-159 vote.

A final House vote on a motion to reconsider the bill was defeated 209-144.

Egan called the House vote “a true bipartisan effort.”

“It was a battle,” state Rep. Linda Massimilla, D-Littleton, said Monday. “It took eight different votes to get the bill through … There were a lot of Republicans working to get it passed, as well as Democrats, and we thank the Republicans who helped get it passed. I am pleased it will see the light of day again and move on to the Senate.”

Advancing HB 177 in the New Hampshire Senate will be state Sen. Erin Hennessey, R-Littleton, a co-sponsor.

“I will be working with my fellow senators on both sides of the aisle to gather support and address any concerns,” she said. “I will also be reaching out to governor’s office, which is an important part of this.”

Like many lawmakers and citizen supporters of HB 177, Hennessey was surprised that the bill made it out of the House on Friday.

“I think a lot of the people who voted against the bill saw it as a property rights versus environmental impact issue,” she said. “But we have to look at this as everybody’s property rights and and not just the environmental impact and not just one landowner’s rights. For all property owners in the surrounding area and lovers of the outdoors, this is a big win.”

Many area residents have voiced concerns about a proposed 180-acre commercial landfill by Casella Waste Systems beside Forest Lake State Park in Dalton, a project they said would have environmental, pollution and public health impacts from possible leaks into groundwater and local waterways, odor and noise, increased heavy truck traffic, and adverse impacts on the region’s quality of life and Forest Lake State Park as a tourist attraction.

In a February notice from Casella to abutters, the company estimates that 1,300 tons daily, equating 468,000 tons of waste annually, would be buried in Dalton during a period of several decades, for a total of 14 million tons or more during the life of the landfill.

Up to nearly half of all waste imported to Dalton (up to 49 percent, according to the notice) could come from outside New Hampshire in the New England region.

In 2019, Casella entered into an option to purchase land from Douglas Ingerson Jr., who owns 1,900 acres around the proposed landfill site.

Landfill impacts to the region’s tourist industry were concerns among a number of lawmakers who spoke in support of HB 177 on Friday, said Massimilla.

“They said we drive north not to see transmission lines or landfills, but beauty and nature,” she said. “The other piece of it is we take other states’ refuse and that can be a problem, especially where we know they don’t examine every single truck.”

In addition to Egan and Hennessey as co-sponsors, HB 177’s lead sponsor is state Rep. Edith Tucker, D-Randolph, with other local co-sponsors including freshman state Rep. Dennis Thompson, R-Stewartstown; state Rep. William Hatch, D-Gorham; and state Rep. Larry Laflamme, D-Berlin.

On Tuesday, Thompson said he supports HB 177 not solely for the impact it would have for Forest Lake State Park, but for all state parks.

“Everbody thinks it’s a local thing and it isn’t,” he said. “I’ve got 194 emails about this bill, 189 positive ones and five negative ones. It was clear to me through the emails that this is about the parks, Forest Lake and all the rest of them. It isn’t just about the landfill.”

If the Casella landfill isn’t approved for the land beside Forest Lake State Park, a future landfill could be proposed near another New Hampshire state park, said Thompson.

Lawmaker supporters who voted in favor of HB 177 include state Reps. Troy Merner, R-Lancaster, and Matt Simon, R-Littleton.

On Monday, Casella spokesman Joe Fusco was asked if the company was surprised by the House vote, what it believes led to the vote in favor of the bill, and how specifically Casella will be lobbying against HB 177 at the statehouse.

“We continue to believe this is bad legislation, potentially unconstitutional, and most certainly unnecessary given New Hampshire’s current siting criteria,” he said. “We will continue to advocate vigorously against this bill for those reasons, and reasons we’ve stated before, which have not gone away.”

The state already has a rigorous regulatory system in place to oversee landfill siting and there will be a significant decline in disposal capacity if no new capacity is permitted, said Fusco.

“Proposed legislation such as this, which seeks to target a single business entity and/or industry in a unique location, sets a dangerous precedent for future policymakers in the state,” he said. “It will effectively stop the development of a landfill project which is years into the process. This will result in just one privately-owned commercial landfill in operation in New Hampshire, eliminating competition, driving up overall costs and carbon impacts (due to increased transportation distances) to New Hampshire communities throughout the state.”

Others feel differently, among them Eliot Wessler, president of the North Country Alliance for Balanced Change.

“NCABC expected the vote on HB 177 to be close, but we were never discouraged because we knew that it is a very good bill,” Wessler said after the vote. “It’s simple; it solves a problem that needs a legislative fix, it doesn’t trample on anyone’s rights, and it doesn’t cost New Hampshire taxpayers a cent. We are truly grateful to the sponsors of the bill and all of our supporters in the House, who fought very hard … And we are grateful to a veritable army of New Hampshire voters who wrote letters, made calls, sent texts, and discussed the bill with House members for hours — they worked so hard to make this happen.”

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