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Solid Waste District Accused Of Dumping Glass Prompts Worry About Public Trust In Recycling

glass mountain
State of Vermont, Courtesy
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This photo, taken by a state investigator and released under the access to public records law, shows a large pile of glass at the Chittenden Solid Waste District. The pile is estimated to be 40 feet high, about 80 feet wide and 100 feet long.

Attorney General TJ Donovan is close to wrapping up an investigation into charges that the state’s largest solid waste district illegally dumped glass for years instead of recycling it as claimed.

The allegations date back to 2018, when the state told the Chittenden Solid Waste District it had violated state environmental laws. The state's evidence includes testimony under oath from a former employee who says he helped prepare one of several dump sites, and witnessed the glass being put there.

Bob Magee was maintenance supervisor at the Chittenden Solid Waste District for six years. He told VPR that his involvement in the glass disposal started in 2015, when he was ordered to prepare a new dump site.

“So they called me and wanted a bunch of trees cut down, and make it accessible for a large dump truck to turn around and start dumping glass,” he said.

The district has said repeatedly it used some of the glass to stabilize a slumping bank at the site. But McGee said the bank was not unstable, and there was no need to put the waste glass there.

“There is no way that bank would ever slide,” he said. “So they lied at that; they totally lied in regards to that.”

"I knew it wasn't right; I knew it wasn't right. But knowing that if I said anything, I'd be down the road." — Bob Magee, former maintenance supervisor, Chittenden Solid Waste District

Officials at the Chittenden district say they take the allegations seriously, but have said they did not do anything illegal.

Magee made similar allegations in a sworn affidavit given last June to state environmental investigators.

“I knew it wasn’t right; I knew it wasn’t right," he said. "But knowing that if I said anything, I’d be down the road."

McGee was eventually fired, for an unrelated workplace safety violation. He asked that the documents related to that issue be made public, and they are posted on the district's website for its July 15, 2020 meeting. Magee, who served as a select board member in Duxbury, said he decided to talk to the state's investigators after he no longer was employed at the district.

Again, the district said it was legal to put the crushed glass where they did. And, at this point, you may be wondering: What’s the big deal? Glass is not toxic, so why can’t it just be put in a landfill?

But landfill space is very limited. So Vermont has a mandatory recycling law designed to keep all kinds of stuff – including glass – out of landfills.

Yet, the hard fact of the recyclable market is, no one wants to buy your leftover mayonnaise jars. Finding a profitable use for recycled glass has always presented challenges for solid waste districts. But in recent years, the market has gotten worse.

"We never get paid for glass. We pay people, pay to ensure that it goes to environmentally, economically sound markets." — Michele Morris, Chittenden Solid Waste District

“We never get paid for glass. We pay people, pay to ensure that it goes to environmentally, economically sound markets,” said Michele Morris, the communications manager for the Chittenden district.

Morris added that the district now pays a nearby quarry $5 a ton to take the glass, where it is mixed with other material for construction purposes. She would not comment on Magee's allegations. But she did say his credibility may be an issue since he was fired.

“I think any comments he has to make should be taken in that context,” Morris said.

Hands hold out small pieces of glass.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR File
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VPR File
Chittenden Solid Waste District communications manager Michele Morris holds out handfuls of processed glass aggregate, i.e., a lot of small pieces of glass.

She insisted the district did nothing wrong with glass over the years.

“Our position is that under the [Agency of Natural Resources'] rules, or what the allowed uses are, that these applications were allowed without permits and that we were operating in good faith and under guidance that was well-established,” she said.

Still, at the state’s urging, the district now is seeking two amendments to its solid waste permits that would retroactively approve two of the sites in Williston where it placed the glass. Morris said the amendments aren’t necessary.

“The bottom line is, we don’t feel we even need to get these permit amendments,” she said. “We’re pursuing them because ANR has requested that we get them. You know, this is completely separate from the notice of alleged violation, and we’ve been complying with ANR and the attorney general’s office.”

"Our position is that under the [Agency of Natural Resources'] rules... these applications were allowed without permits." — Michele Morris, Chittenden Solid Waste District

At a recent hearing on the permit amendments, some people spoke out against what they say is the state authorizing something that was not allowed in the first place.

Dennis Feckert, chief of the certification program for the state solid waste division, convened the recent video hearing. He also said that the permit amendments and the attorney general’s enforcement case are separate proceedings.

“I want to reiterate: this meeting is not about that case at the attorney general’s office,” he said. “We really can’t discuss that case… I don’t know where they are in their process and have knowledge how that’s going.”

More from Brave Little State: What Happens To Vermont's Recycling?

Pat Austin runs a waste business in the Northeast Kingdom and represents the town of Charleston in the Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District. At the hearing, Austin said Chittenden Solid Waste District should be made to pay for the violations.

“So maybe a huge fine to offset the cost savings this district realized in the revenue gained from Vermonters,” he said. “But if we permit it after the fact, it’s let ‘em off the hook.”

Austin and others involved in the solid waste business argue that besides the money people paid to have their recyclables picked up and supposedly recycled, there’s another big principle is at stake. The public assumes that when bottles and empty peanut butter jars go in that blue bin at the curb, the stuff is actually re-used or recycled, not dumped over the bank or in a landfill.

Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, underscored this point at the public hearing.

“Dumping this glass without a permit violates the public trust and threatens public confidence in recycling,” he said. “I believe it is an environmental violation and a violation of Vermont’s consumer fraud law.”

"So maybe [the state should levy] a huge fine to offset the cost savings this district realized in the revenue gained from Vermonters. But if we permit it after the fact, it's let 'em off the hook." — Pat Austin, Northeast Kingdom Waste Management District

There’s also the question whether the Chittenden district’s crushed glass was contaminated with plastic or food scraps, and therefore did not meet the state’s specifications of what could go in a landfill, even if they had a permit to do it.

Magee says the glass he handled was dirty and smelled rotten from organic material. John Brabant, a former state solid waste official who now works for the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said he observed the same thing when he collected samples at the site in 2019. Brabant has used the state public records law to dig up documents on the state’s investigation of the district.

“The truth is, painful as it might be for all of us, they have been caught dumping this glass," Brabant said at a recent hearing. The glass “is contaminated with plastic and sorts of contaminants, which render it unmarketable.”

Attorney General TJ Donovan said his office is close to wrapping up the investigation in the alleged illegal dumping. He anticipates some sort of settlement with the Chittenden district.

“Both sides are talking,” he said. “That’s always a positive sign. And I’m hopeful we can get this resolved sooner rather than later.”

More from VPR: Piles Of Glass: State Regulators Say Solid Waste District In Violation Of Act 250

"... there's a public trust issue here." — Fred Thumm, chair, Central Vermont Solid Waste District

But towns in central Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom, through their solid waste districts, are increasingly concerned that Chittenden district's alleged violation will be papered over with the permit amendments.

Both the central Vermont district and its counterpart in the NEK have asked the Agency of Natural Resources to not amend the permits until the attorney general’s investigation is resolved.

Fred Thumm, the chairman of the Central Vermont Solid Waste District, spoke at a district meeting last week when the board authorized the request to ANR.

“I think it's definitely, there’s a public trust issue here, and Chittenden was given trust to do something, and they didn’t do it,” he said. “We have to commit to that and make it right.”

How the permits and the enforcement case will be resolved is still unclear. The attorney general said he hopes to have a settlement agreement this week or next.

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