REVERE — On the Salem Turnpike in Saugus, right on the fragile Rumney Marsh Reservation, sits a monument to failure.
The Wheelabrator trash incinerator and landfill — the oldest incinerator in the country — should not exist. Plants like it have been shut down all over the country. Massachusetts has forbidden any like it to be built again.
And yet here sits Wheelabrator, still limping along after 46 years, burning up to 1,500 tons of trash a day, making neighbors in Saugus, Lynn, and Revere miserable with odors and noise and worries about what it’s releasing into the water, and into the air they breathe each day.
Burning trash there generates poisons associated with asthma, cancer, and acid rain. When the plant is running perfectly, those poisons are mostly concentrated in noxious ash which is then dumped in a 50-foot high landfill on the edge of the water, right in the middle of the reservation. The company says the poisons are safely contained there. Environmentalists say that’s ludicrous — that because of its age, the landfill isn’t properly lined, allowing toxics to leach into the waterway.
“Ash is blowing around, it’s definitely getting wet and going into the marsh and it’s definitely getting into people’s lungs,” said Kirstie Pecci, Zero Waste Project director at the Conservation Law Foundation, which has been working with residents to stop the landfill expanding.
She and others say the dump is one big flood away from something more disastrous. Yet the state has repeatedly allowed the dump to expand, and may agree to do so yet again.
The good neighbors of Wheelabrator have suffered more than enough over the decades. There have been malfunctions at the incinerator that caused it to belch ash and toxics into the air: In 2009, equipment failures sent thousands of gallons of ash into the air, the parking lot, and the wetlands; in 2011, the company paid $7.5 million to settle state allegations that it broke environmental laws; for weeks in the summer of 2019, the plant pumped steam into the air night and day, creating so much noise it sounded like a jet was hovering over residents’ houses. Some were woken up by that same noise as recently as December.
So why is the incinerator plant, and especially its dump, still operating, in 2021?
The answer is a story of multiple failures.
In 1989, Massachusetts’ Department of Environmental Protection and RESCO, Wheelabrator’s predecessor, entered into a consent order that required the landfill to close in 1996. But the plant kept moving the finish line, and instead of enforcing the order, the DEP kept obliging them, agreeing to amend the consent order 11 times to allow the landfill to expand and continue operating. It allowed the company to expand it again as recently as 2017.
A few of the plant’s neighbors gathered in Revere on a recent cold morning, across the Pines River from the incinerator. Pale gray smoke wafted from its chimneys.
“See that green hill there?” said former Representative RoseLee Vincent, gesturing across the water at the dump she has been railing against for years. “That will be ripped open and filled with hundreds of tons more ash. ... I feel so helpless.”
In 2019, the state introduced stricter limits on nitrogen oxides, which cause smog and irritate the respiratory system, but Wheelabrator argued the Saugus plant is too old to meet such safety standards. So the state allowed it to buy credits from compliant facilities to compensate. None of which helps the unfortunate souls who live in Wheelabrator’s shadow.
“It blows my mind,” said Loretta LaCentra, whose Revere house sits across the river from the plant. “The DEP is not protecting us in any way, shape, or form.”
A DEP spokesman said the plant operates in accordance with state environmental regulations, that it’s inspected regularly, and that, so far, courts have backed up the state’s decisions on the Saugus facility.
Activists and environmentalists say the state’s standards are too low, its testing is inadequate, and that officials have been loath to come down hard on the company.
The state has clearly decided we need this plant. And it isn’t hard to see why: We keep generating huge amounts of trash — 5.5 million tons a year in this state — because we’ve failed to use better systems to reduce, reuse, recycle, and compost our waste, and too much of it — about 3.2 tons — ends up being incinerated and dumped in landfills, often in communities too poor to fight back. That failure is on all of us.
Some officials in its neighborhoods have fought their hearts out trying to hold Wheelabrator accountable, but it’s hard to go up against the company because it contributes millions to the town of Saugus each year, via taxes and community contributions — millions the city can ill afford to lose. The plant also generates electricity that powers 40,000 homes. That has been a useful fig leaf in its negotiations with various officials, though as Pecci notes “it’s an expensive, inefficient way to create energy, and a polluting way to create energy.”
So, Wheelabrator is only doing what it’s allowed to.
In a statement, a spokesperson touted the plant’s compliance with state and federal environmental regulations, its contributions to the community, and its stewardship of the local habitat, adding that the company is investing millions each year “to enhance our operations over the long term ... including $750,000 on new silencing equipment that will significantly reduce noise levels generated by the facility.”
Pecci and others note that some of those investments have come because state and local officials have demanded them. Now, predictably, Wheelabrator is considering expanding the dump yet again, which would mean taking that pile of poisonous refuse even higher than its current 50 feet.
That can’t be allowed to happen. This is a toxic ash dump in the middle of protected wetlands. It should have been closed as ordered three decades ago.
It is a dumping ground for failure upon failure; we can’t afford more.
Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.