Like a fireman rescuing a cat from a tree, the legislature appears poised to save my town of Franklin from becoming the site of a large ash landfill.
If the state House of Representatives takes action that mirrors the state Senate's 27-4 vote of last week, the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority may be barred from buying land in either Windham or Franklin to use for an ash dump. If that happens, the agency, which must open a new landfill in the next nine years, would have to search anew for a site, even though tests are not yet completed on this one.
Such a prospect delights much of Franklin. During a nonbinding referendum held in a mere two hours one recent evening, 43 percent of the town's voters showed up and overwhelmingly nixed the idea. I voted against it, too. Aside from the property taxes the landfill would generate, it is difficult to cheer about a project that would bring 300,000 tons of ash to the acreage annually for 30 years — a total of 18 billion pounds of chemicals — stored in a double-lined repository by the placid and beautiful Shetucket River.
Yet it's important to understand the potential limitations of a legislative vote against the proposal. Assuming the governor even signs the bill, such actions wouldn't kill the project. They would only move it from Franklin to some other town on a list that the CRRA keeps under wraps, the better to negotiate the next real estate deal and presumably avoid public hysteria. And even if Franklin ultimately dodges the dump, the problem of what to do with our garbage won't go away.
State government began more than two decades ago to force most cities and towns to close their landfills, and decided to build trash-to-energy plants as the answer to waste disposal. As a direct result of this state policy, Connecticut is now more dependent upon incineration to get rid of garbage than any other state in the union.
But the legislature has not adequately addressed other equally crucial steps. The state has not forced towns in any meaningful way to divert their waste. Our recycling law makes the practice mandatory in name only; the Department of Environmental Protection has neither the authority nor the manpower to increase recycling rates, and the rates have stagnated for more than 10 years.
Connecticut recycles only about 30 percent of its trash, less than any other New England state except Rhode Island, and ends up diverting far less trash than many other states. This cannot continue.
The DEP, for its part, has a policy that puts landfills on rivers — ironically, to protect groundwater from contamination. Although much of the state's population obtains water from municipal supplies, nearly three-quarters of Connecticut's geographic area is dotted with residential wells. So state regulations dictate that any dump must be built with the most up-to-date safeguards and be placed in an area where, in the event of a leak, the discharge is short, predictable and will be unlikely to affect groundwater. Thus, most of the state's landfills are on rivers.
DEP staff members insist that their overriding goal is to keep rivers "fishable and swimmable." I believe them. I do not think they are attempting to find new and interesting ways of poisoning our waterways. But it did not give me confidence that when I called a half-dozen national environmental experts to ask questions about Connecticut's practice of putting dumps on rivers, they laughed hysterically, then expressed disbelief.
I'm no scientist, but since this policy was formulated more than two decades ago, wouldn't it be reasonable to subject it to a periodic rigorous review — with oversight from the legislature?
Franklin, where "dump the dump" signs are a common sight, awaits its rescue from the General Assembly. But this issue is about much more than one town. It's about all of our towns.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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