Coakley Landfill Neighbors Vent Frustrations With EPA, State Officials

Apr 6, 2018

Seacoast resident and Vietnam veteran Dave Shilman, standing, listens at the EPA meeting on Coakley Landfill. He taped a sign to the wall that read, "EPA, don't let PFCs become the next Agent Orange. Act now."
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Some Seacoast residents were unhappy Thursday night to hear state and federal officials reiterate they don’t believe the Coakley Landfill is contaminating area drinking water.

Authorities say some groundwater wells around the Superfund site in North Hampton do show high levels of suspected carcinogens called PFCs – but they say the chemicals haven’t spread to private wells.

Residents and local officials like Hampton town attorney Mark Gearreald are skeptical. They feel studies of the site aren't being done properly, and say environmental regulators are minimizing their fears for their health.

“We’re looking for protection here and it sounds like what we’re getting is maybes,” Gearreald said during Thursday’s public meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency.

This summer, the group of towns and businesses the EPA holds responsible for the contamination – known together as the Coakley Landfill Group – will start a roughly two-year study of bedrock under the landfill, to see if or how it’s spreading pollution.

Still, state Rep. Renny Cushing, a Democrat from Hampton, wanted to know why the Department of Environmental Services wasn't asking EPA to tell the landfill group to start treating contaminated water now.

Cushing is co-sponsoring a bill in the legislature that he says spells out why DES has that authority. It passed the House last month.

"I think people would like to see a little bit more sense of urgency to take care of the situation on the part of DES," Cushing told Mike Wimsatt, who manages the state's Waste Management Division, at Thursday's meeting.

"We hear that loud and clear," Wimsatt replied.

But he says the state and federal government can't initiate more serious cleanup without further study of potential health risks.

“If we did that right now, just in response to pressure, say – ‘well, let’s just get something done,’ we probably would design the wrong system, it wouldn’t work as well as it should, and it might not even protect anybody’s wells any more than they’re at risk right now,” Wimsatt said.

This spring, officials also plan to scout for toxins in residential wells, as well as in brown trout in nearby Berry’s Brook.

Residents are also skeptical the fish sampling will be useful, as the state plans to stock the brook with trout as usual soon before sampling. But the Department of Fish & Game says almost all their fish swim out to sea soon after stocking, so there would not be fish to sample otherwise. 

Berry’s Brook is currently limited to catch and release fishing until sampling is complete.