The people who operate a landfill and state environmental officials tried to clear the air Wednesday night by spending four hours answering questions from Lower Saucon Twp., Northampton Co., residents.
The marathon session was hosted by Lower Saucon Township Council, who had its own group of experts on hand to answer residents' concerns about present and future environmental, safety and noise problems about the Bethlehem IESI landfill operation.
The biggest news of the evening came from landfill manager Sam Donato. He said that radioactive material in the debris that was brought to the landfill in January from the Allentown arena excavation site will be removed by next Wednesday, and that the contractor who brought it in will be responsible for taking it away.
"We never had any intention of accepting this [kind of] material," Donato said. But when it was discovered, "our plant did exactly what it's supposed to do. The Department of Environmental Protection was notified; the township was notified."
Donato also pointed out the DEP prevented the landfill from getting the radioactive material off its property sooner.
Township council vice president Tom Maxfield supplied more detail by summarizing an email he received Wednesday afternoon from the DEP. "The real issue [in deciding what to with the material] was cost," said Maxfield, noting that the concentration of radioactivity was low enough that officials could take their time. "It's important we understand the level of what we're talking about here."
Though people presented their points of view forcefully and with determination, the discussion remain civil and informative.
A report by Lauressa McNemar, the township's special consultant on the landfill, sparked the most disagreement. McNemar said quarterly chemical tests show the level of waste water from garbage -- called leachate -- being trapped in the landfill's liner has grown over the last 18 months and is cause for concern. "As the landfill gets bigger, the worse it gets," she said.
When Rick Bodner, president of the engineering firm Martin & Martin, which works for ISEI, said later that the chemical tests show the liquid is mostly storm water, council member Priscilla deLeon responded sharply, "I disagree," and restated what McNemar said.
McNemar then said the leachate level "is an indication that there is a malfunction in how [the liner] was constructed. There's a flag raised." She also said there's a public health risk if the leachate gets into the groundwater.
That prompted DEP program manager William Tomayko to say as long as no pollutants leave the landfill property, there is no threat to people's health or safety -- a statement that did not sit well with the audience of about 60 people.
Township engineer James Birdsall pointed out that IESI has a pollution emergency response plan in case Bethlehem's wastewater treatment plant cannot process leachate from the landfill. "They have a storage tank and basins that can be used in an emergency," he said, "and there is an agreement that leachate can be taken to the city of Allentown by truck."
Bodner said IESI is required to be able to store 30 days' worth of leachate on site.
Birdsall and the DEP's Tomayko said the landfill has handled storm water runoff well. Council member deLeon disputed this claim too. She displayed photos she took after Hurricane Ivan in 2004 to prove her point. That irritated her colleague Maxfield, who told deLeon, "I want to hear from experts!"
One resident asked the experts if there could be a mudslide at the landfill. Bodner said no, adding, "There's a huge difference between geology and earth on the East Coast and what exists in the West."
Another wanted to know if the landfill could withstand an earthquake. McNemar said she did an analysis and found that it could.
The township and landfill experts said residents had little to fear from methane in the landfill's 147 extraction wells. If a fire would start, air would be sucked in, not pushed out, and be quickly extinguished because of a lack of oxygen, they explained.
As for residents' claims that the landfill's odor often extends beyond its boundaries, Tomayko said the DEP will act only if the community is being disrupted. "That's a public nuisance, and we [DEP] need to verify that with an environmental assessment study. But just because someone can smell an odor doesn't mean there's a violation. ... Of course you can smell an odor [near a landfill], it's rotting garbage."