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Lawmakers Get More Questions Than Answers About Coakley Cleanup, Health Risks

Annie Ropeik

Members of the New Hampshire legislature’s Seacoast Cancer Cluster Commission said they didn’t want to debate facts about Coakley Landfill and its effect on public health at their meeting Monday – but that’s mostly what they ended up doing.

State and federal regulators told legislators repeatedly they can’t prove or disprove whether Coakley Landfill Superfund Site is causing cancer on the Seacoast.

Environmental Protection Agency project manager Richard Hull says they haven’t permanently ruled out a more aggressive cleanup plan – a groundwater treatment system, which was tabled in 1999.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a design or an alternative that we can just grab off the shelf and build tomorrow,” he says.

Instead, he says the EPA and the entities deemed responsible for the pollution – known together as the Coakley Landfill Group – will start studying the bedrock under Coakley this summer, to see if it's leaching toxins into drinking water.

They’re holding a private meeting on Friday to hash out details of that study. It could last two years, but some lawmakers and other stakeholders fear it won't be comprehensive enough.

Hampton town attorney Mark Gearreald told legislators Monday he wants the EPA and Landfill Group to drill wells that will show whether contamination is spreading toward his town.

“Unless you ask the questions, you won’t get the answers, and you won’t get a remedy if it’s called for,” he says.

Legislators asked state regulators who will attend Friday’s meeting to be sure to bring that up.

They also asked that minutes from the private meeting be released next week, before the EPA's next public meeting about Coakley April 5 in Greenland.

Bryan Olson, who oversees all the Superfund sites in New England, tried to reassure legislators Monday that the EPA is doing everything it feels it needs to at Coakley.

He also told them New Hampshire can’t override the EPA’s direction and demand money from the Landfill Group or apply stricter standards for chemicals in water until the EPA says it can.

Next week, the state Senate will discuss a bill that supporters say spells out why the Department of Environmental Services does have the authority make the Landfill Group pay for more aggressive remediation at Coakley. 

Olson disagrees.

“If we find something where we feel there’s a significant public health threat, where our remedy isn’t working, we will take action,” he says. “And if we determine that there’s certain aspects of our remedy that aren’t protective, the state’s requirements will kick in.”

Lawmakers also learned Monday that the Landfill Group could owe the federal government millions by the time cleanup is finished.

Portsmouth owns the majority of the Landfill Group’s pollution liabilities. North Hampton, Newington and more than two dozen private businesses are also on the hook, under a 1992 court settlement with the EPA that laid out how they’d all pay for remediation.

That consent decree included a promise from the U.S. military to chip in more than $5 million to cover its share of the pollution. If the Landfill Group never installed a groundwater treatment system, the agreement said they’d have to pay back about half that money – with interest.

Landfill Group spokesman Robert Sullivan, who’s also Portsmouth’s city attorney, told legislators he couldn’t say for sure they would never install such a system.

Either way, he says they won’t know for sure if they’ll have to repay the money until the EPA says cleanup is officially over.

"The remedy is certified complete when monitoring and testing shows it's complete,” he says. “The Coakley Landfill Group, for its internal purposes, now anticipates that that may be in the year 2035."

The Landfill Group currently owes about $6.1 million, and trends in Superfund interest rates suggest that total could be between $7 and $11 million by 2035.

The city of Portsmouth and its taxpayers would be responsible for more than half that money.

Sullivan says the Landfill Group has spent the original $5 million or so it got from the U.S. military. The group's finances aren't public, but Portsmouth is expected to release a huge cache of documents detailing its side of the Coakley story this week.

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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