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Inside the fight to expand a burnt trash landfill in a Saugus marsh

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A bulldozer moves along the top of an ash pile in the Saugus landfill, next to the Salem Turnpike on Rumney Marsh. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A bulldozer moves along the top of an ash pile in the Saugus landfill, next to the Salem Turnpike on Rumney Marsh. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

A waste company in Saugus is pushing to expand its landfill, despite regulations that forbid enlargement because it sits in a protected wetland.

WIN Waste’s landfill is located in the middle of Rumney Marsh, home to a wide variety of bird species — some of them endangered — as well as shellfish and other wildlife. The marsh also helps reduce the impacts of coastal flooding. The state has recognized it as an area of  critical environmental concern.

The landfill is expected to reach capacity in the next two-and-a-half years, and WIN Waste’s efforts to expand has the town divided.

The company proposed a “host community agreement” that garnered support from the majority of the town’s Board of Selectmen. The agreement would allow the company to use the landfill in exchange for financial benefits to the town, and a slight reduction in emissions of different air pollutants from its stacks. It's not clear if it would increase the footprint or the height of the landfill or both.

The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus in located at Rumney Marsh. Its ash landfill stretches to the right next to the Salem Turnpike. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus in located at Rumney Marsh. Its ash landfill stretches to the right next to the Salem Turnpike. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“The only way that the expansion of this landfill would be possible is if there was a change in the current law and current regulation,” said Eric Worrall, a regional director at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), during a recent community meeting in Saugus.

That hasn’t stopped some from backing the agreement. The board’s chairman, Anthony Cogliano, is leading the effort in support of the company, formerly known as Wheelabrator.

“Saugus has never won a lawsuit against Wheelabrator. Wheelabrator has continued to operate and get basically whatever they want from the DEP. This is a proactive approach to put Saugus in a better place than we've been in the past,” he said.

Cogliano has sided publicly with the company in the past. When some Saugus residents sued WIN Waste about air pollution in 2021, he worked to help the company drum up support among residents. He admitted in a court deposition that he called about 20 people and asked if they had a problem with WIN Waste and then signed declarations on their behalf. He also allegedly failed to inform them their conversation would be a declaration to be used in a lawsuit.

"If I had to do it over again, I would have had someone from WIN go to those homes” to get signatures, Cogliano said.

The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Because of a history of concessions to the company, activists are concerned the host agreement could persuade the state to change the regulation.

“I believe the reason why WIN Waste is doing this is because they want to go to the MassDEP holding a piece of paper and say, 'See? Look at this. Saugus wants it,' ” said Debra Panetta, the vice chair of Saugus Board of Selectmen.

Even if the selectmen approve the agreement, WIN Waste would still need sign-offs from the Saugus Board of Health, the town manager and MassDEP.

Panetta said she hopes these other controlling parties won't accept the proposal.

“I truly believe that they're going to stand with Saugus, Revere, Lynn, all of the communities, and say, 'No is no.' So any vote that we take on this host agreement is moot. It doesn't make a difference,” she said.

Debra Panetta, vice chairman at Saugus Board of Selectmen, stands in Rumney Marsh near the WIN Waste incinerator. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Debra Panetta, vice chairman at Saugus Board of Selectmen, stands in Rumney Marsh near the WIN Waste incinerator. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Panetta wants both the landfill and the incinerator to shut down and to create a “closure committee” to deal with the environmental impacts of the landfill in the area.

Not only does the ash landfill sit right in the sensitive wetland, but it doesn’t have a double-protective lining to keep waste from leaching into the marsh. The incinerator and the landfill were built before Rumney marsh became a protected area in 1988.

“It would never be allowed or permitted now, in current day time,” said Jackie Mercurio, a Saugus resident and health and environmental activist who grew up less than a mile from WIN Waste and the marsh. For decades, Mercurio’s family has fought to stop expansions and force the incinerator to improve air quality and reduce noise.

Jackie Mercurio, a Saugus resident and member of Alliance for Health and the Environment, stands in Rumney Marsh near the WIN Waste incinerator and landfill. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Jackie Mercurio, a Saugus resident and member of Alliance for Health and the Environment, stands in Rumney Marsh near the WIN Waste incinerator and landfill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Some people living across the tidal Pines River and downwind of the incinerator feel the same way as Mercurio, but neighboring communities have no jurisdiction over the plant. Loretta LaCentra, a resident and activist from Revere, lives less than a mile from the incinerator. The wind frequently blows from the plant toward her neighborhood.

When the incinerator burns trash, it emits different pollutants in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, particulate matter and lead. These emissions are regulated by federal and state limits. Residents are especially concerned with nitrogen oxides emissions coming from the facility; WIN Waste has a permit to exceed the state's limit on how much of the gas a facility can release.

Philip Landrigan, director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at Boston College, said nitrogen oxides cause respiratory problems in certain concentrations.

“It's a very potent, irritating gas, [it] can cause asthma; in very high doses, it can actually cause burning of the lungs, but you only see that in industrial settings,” Landrigan said.

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He and other researchers mapped health impacts of air pollution in every city and town in Massachusetts in 2019. They estimated about 13 people die due to cancers caused by air pollution in Saugus every year, almost double of Boston's estimate.

Loretta LaCentra stands near her home in Revere, across the Pines River from the Saugus incinerator and landfill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Loretta LaCentra stands near her home in Revere, across the Pines River from the Saugus incinerator and landfill. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

“I asked to be on the committee, and I was told that it was for Saugus residents only, even though we are just [as], if not more, impacted,” she said.

LaCentra said that ash lands in her backyard and that she has installed air filters in her home. She's concerned because the incinerator emits more nitrogen oxide than the state allows.

“They have purchased what they call emission reduction credits, which allow them to be compliant on paper. But the air is dirtier that we breathe,” she said.

For the past two years, other researchers have monitored the air quality in LaCentra’s neighborhood. The data suggest that when the wind blows from the direction of the incinerator and landfill, the concentration of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter increases. At times, the air pollution surpasses the healthy limits established by the Clean Air Act.

Researcher Scott Hersey, from Olin College of Engineering, presented data on air pollution levels measured by the Revere air sensors in a special town meeting in Saugus. WIN Waste then sent a letter to the university calling the research “allegations,” asking to review the data and questioning the college’s policy on “review of studies, transparency of data, and communications with affected parties prior to faculty making substantial allegations at public meetings.”

MassDEP doesn’t have air monitors in communities in Saugus, relying instead on air monitoring at the plant and occasional inspections.

WIN Waste declined an interview to discuss the proposed landfill expansion. In a statement, the company said, “We continue to work on modifying the agreement, as directed by selectmen, and look forward to presenting them with a revised version in the near future.”

The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
The WIN Waste incinerator in Saugus. (Credit: Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

The Saugus board vote is on hold until the company comes back with a new proposal clarifying the financial benefits for the town. The selectmen requested changes to the original agreement, adding emission reductions and air monitoring in some Saugus neighborhoods.

But plant opponents say none of this should matter, reiterating the landfill is not legally allowed to expand.

Mercurio said once the landfill reaches capacity, she thinks the plant should shut down. But the company could keep the incinerator open and truck the ash elsewhere. And that’s the air pollution Mercurio and others say they don’t want to bear anymore.

“Hopefully, once we can close that part up of the ash landfill, we can move on to the incinerator and start making it a cleaner environment for the people that live around here,” she said.

This segment aired on March 1, 2023.

Headshot of Paula Moura

Paula Moura Reporter, Climate and Environment
Paula Moura was a reporter on WBUR’s climate and environment team.

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