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Seacoast Reps. Sue for Coakley Group Records as Portsmouth Prepares to Release Toxic Waste Documents


The city of Portsmouth says it expects to release a trove of documents about toxic waste cleanup at Coakley Landfill Superfund Site around the end of this month.

It comes as a group of Seacoast lawmakers files suit to get records from the entities responsible for that pollution, known together as the Coakley Landfill Group. 

When the landfill first became a Superfund site in the 1990s, an Environmental Protection Agency settlement laid out who belongs in that group and what share of the overall environmental damage each is responsible for.

Almost two-thirds of that damage is attributed to municipalities – primarily Portsmouth, as well as the towns of Newington and North Hampton. The rest is split among more than two dozen private businesses.

But some state representatives argue the Coakley Group's communications and financial records still constitute public information.

On Friday, Rockingham County Reps. Mindi Messmer, Renny Cushing, Phillip Bean, Henry Marsh and Mike Edgar, along with former Portsmouth Assistant Mayor James Splaine, sued in Superior Court to get those records. (Read the lawsuit.)

Earlier this year, those plaintiffs filed requests under the state’s Right-to-Know law with the Coakley Group, as well as with Portsmouth, Newington and North Hampton.

Coakley Group chair and Portsmouth city attorney Robert Sullivan responded in early February. He said the city of Portsmouth hoped to fill its part of the request within six weeks, but the Coakley Group could not.

"Who do they report to? What kind of entity are they? It's all very murky to us."

“Because the Coakley Landfill Group is a voluntary association of parties and not a governmental entity the Right-to-Know law would not apply to the Coakley Landfill Group,” Sullivan wrote. (Read his entire letter.)

Messmer disagrees, but says Coakley’s parameters as a public-private entity aren’t clear.

“Who do they report to? What kind of entity are they? Who do they have to tell where their expenditures are going? It’s all very murky to us,” she says.

Her new lawsuit seeks records on how the Coakley Group handled at least $10 million in public funds. Some of that money was initially supposed to fund a comprehensive treatment system for contamination at the Superfund site.

"We just want to get to where all this money went, why was the system never installed, and try and work toward finding a solution right now that works for the communities of the Seacoast,” Messmer says.

The goal, she says, is making that erstwhile treatment system a reality, and preventing potential leaching of contamination from Coakley into surrounding towns’ drinking and groundwater.

Messmer also sponsored legislation in the State House this session that would have spurred the release of Coakley documents. She says the issue is currently on track for interim study.

Messmer did get House approval for another Coakley bill, which would compel the state Department of Environmental Services to get money from the Coakley Group for remediation. That proposal goes next to the Senate.

Meanwhile, a hearing on the public records suit is set for April 12 in Rockingham Superior Court.

It's unclear whether Portsmouth's documents will answer the questions lawmakers have raised.

But Robert Sullivan says Messmer and her colleagues may get some of the answers they’re looking for before then, when Portsmouth fills its part of their records request.

Sullivan says they're preparing to release reams of paper files spanning the 26-year history of the Coakley Group and the Superfund site.

“The completion of that calls for assembling a tremendous number of documents – certainly over a hundred thousand pages,” Sullivan says. 

He expects that work to be complete, and the documents available for public review, “on or about March 28.”

It’s unclear whether the city of Portsmouth’s documents will overlap enough with Coakley Landfill Group records to answer the questions lawmakers have raised.

Sullivan says he views some of those issues, such as the spending of federal money on the landfill, “as a matter of public record.” He says he expects to produce documents about them as part of this month’s release.

Messmer remains skeptical.

“The city of Portsmouth was not the only responsible party in this, and so we don’t know that we’ll get the types of things that we’re looking for,” she says. “There’s going to be a whole set of records that we will not be able to access through just the city.”

And she’s not optimistic the answers lie in any EPA records. The agency manages the settlement that formed the Coakley Group, but Messmer says federal officials don't have much oversight of the group’s finances. 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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