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Marblehead landfill project delayed by state

A multimillion-dollar project to cap Marblehead’s former landfill has been delayed as environmental regulators study toxic contamination that has spread to more state-protected wetlands and private property.

Town officials already have the required federal and local permits for capping the landfill, part of a project to rebuild the town’s nearly 60-year-old transfer station, but the state Department of Environmental Protection has put the brakes on the project pending a new review of soil and ground-water tests from the property.

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Andrew Perry, Marblehead’s public health director, said the additional work means the project, originally scheduled to begin in September, probably won’t get underway until early next year after the town is granted state permits.

“Delays are to be expected with a project of this size and scope,” Perry said.

Contamination from the landfill — which includes higher-than-normal levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and other toxins — has spread to a privately owned lot at 151 Green St., and town officials plan to buy the property and clean it up.

Joe Ferson, spokesman for the state agency, said the additional review is required under the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act because the property includes state-protected wetlands. The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs conducts the review.

“Until their review is completed, by law we can’t issue any permits,” Ferson said.

‘We made the mess and need to clean it up. It’s the right thing to do.’

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State regulators did, however, grant the town a waiver to proceed with portions of the project, including preliminary site work on the new transfer station.

Marblehead has wrangled for years over what to do with the now-closed landfill, which includes a recycling yard and transfer station known by locals as “the dump.” Fly ash from an incinerator dating back to the 1940s has contaminated a 60,000-square-foot swath of state-protected wetlands adjacent to the landfill. The town was ordered by the state in 2004 to clean up the site or face fines.

Perry said the contaminated soil and ground water doesn’t pose an immediate health threat to nearby neighborhoods because the contaminants are buried underground and there are no drinking water wells in the town.

“We’re not drawing water out of the ground, so that’s not a concern,” he said.

Funding for the project has been a hard sell with town residents, some of whom have argued that the town can’t afford the cost of closing the landfill.

In 2010, town voters rejected $22 million for the landfill cap and transfer station. The town came back a year later with a downsized project for about $7 million less, which was approved by referendum. Then in June, voters approved another temporary tax override for $1.165 million to buy and clean up the Green Street property. Both overrides will add an average of $106 a year to tax bills.

Perry said town officials chose to cap the landfill, which would seal the contaminated soil under a synthetic membrane, rather than remove all the contaminants and truck them to a hazardous waste landfill in New York, which would have cost about $1 million more.

“The cost of removing it would be astronomical,” he said. “We couldn’t afford it.”

To date, the town has cleaned up several privately owned homes on Stonybrook Road that were contaminated by the old landfill. Roughly 30,000 square feet of contaminated soil would eventually be removed from surrounding wetlands, including the Steer Swamp conservation area, and placed under the cap. Once capped, the site will still be subject to regular testing and monitoring.

Meanwhile, the town will build a state-of-the-art transfer station and reconfigure roads to provide easier access to the recycling and composting areas.

If the old landfill is not capped, state environmental officials have threatened to take the town to federal court and impose hefty fines beginning at $625,000 a year.

“We don’t have a choice,” Perry said. “We have to do this.”

Marblehead Selectman Harry Christensen Jr., who remembers playing around the landfill as a child, said town officials didn’t know the extent of the toxic contamination until recently. He said cleaning up the mess, while costly, is about paying for the sins of previous generations of town leaders.

“We made the mess and need to clean it up,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Christian M. Wade can be reached at
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