How a landfill proposal divided a community and launched a statewide environmental debate

By: - May 21, 2021 6:15 am
Fred Anderson looks out at Forest Lake

Fred Anderson, a retired Presbyterian minister, became president of the Forest Lake Association in 2019. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

When Fred Anderson started coming to Forest Lake in 1977, there was no running water at the little cabin where he and his family stayed.

That wasn’t a problem because the family could drink the water from the lake. And until 2004, that’s what they did.

So in 2019, when Anderson learned that Casella Waste Management Company was planning to put a landfill near the lake, his first concern was for the water. The plot of land that Casella wants to buy is in Dalton, abutting the Forest Lake State Park. It’s one town over from Whitefield, where Anderson lives. Both towns straddle the lake.

Casella promises that toxic leachate from the landfill will be contained by secure barriers. Plus, a company engineer testified, the plot where the landfill would be sited is lower than the lake. But Anderson and other residents say the landfill should be farther back – at least two miles away from the state park and not the 190 feet that’s currently proposed.

“Landfills are the very last way you’re supposed to be dealing with solid waste management these days,” Anderson said, referring to the present emphasis on reducing waste and recycling. “And then we found out the size was going to be almost as large as the lake itself.”

“This was kind of hard to comprehend,” said Anderson, a retired Presbyterian minister who by 2019 had become the president of the Forest Lake Association, a voluntary group of homeowners. Anderson asked members if they wanted to formally oppose the landfill. They did. Anderson didn’t know at the time how that decision would lead to an uphill fight. 

The ensuing multi-year battle has divided the community, including families, and has become a politically charged issue in the North Country and beyond. Lawsuits have been filed, and accusations of harassment and bullying have been launched by people on both sides.  

“It’s gotten ugly,” Anderson said.

Statewide debate

The issue is larger than just Dalton and Whitefield. It’s a heated statewide debate about where landfills can and cannot be sited and how state parks should be protected. A blow to those protection efforts came on Thursday, when the Senate voted, 14-8, to kill a bill that Anderson has been working on for the past two years.

Sen. Kevin Avard, a Nashua Republican, said the law would prevent any new landfills from being sited in Dalton. This “would have a devastating ripple effect on municipalities and their solid waste costs,” Avard said.

A no landfill sign with the lake in the background
It was in 2019 that residents started learning about the landfill that Casella was planning. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

He said the law would have repercussions on landowner rights and that the state siting process – handled by the Department of Environmental Services – is sufficient to address these issues.

Sen. Tom Sherman, a Democrat from Rye, pushed back. 

“The ability of any agency to fully vet the expansion or the establishment of a new landfill very close to our parks and say for sure that there’s going to be no contamination, it’s just not possible,” he said.

The bill would’ve instated a two-mile buffer zone between state parks and landfills, instead of the current 100-foot buffer.

New Hampshire is facing a shortage of available landfill space in the coming years. In 2034, the southern part of the state will reach landfill capacity. The North Country will reach capacity in 2041. Sen. David Watters, a Dover Democrat, said solid waste management in the state is in crisis.

Debate in the Senate didn’t fall strictly along party lines. Sen. Erin Hennessey, a Littleton Republican, was one of the co-sponsors of the bill, and she has championed it through the legislative process. Of the 14 senators who voted to kill the bill, 11 were Republicans and three were Democrats. 

Hennessey argued that the bill would protect tourism in the state.

“Our visitors come to New Hampshire for its fresh air and unique beauty that our state parks help us preserve,” Hennessey said. “Siting a landfill next to a state park does not preserve this beauty.”

Eleven other states have similar laws on the books to put buffers in place, limiting the siting of landfills. But at least for this session, no such law will be adopted in New Hampshire – leaving residents of Dalton and Whitefield on their own in their efforts to oppose a landfill.

The local fight continues

It was in 2019 that residents started learning about the landfill that Casella was planning. And Anderson credits one man in particular for ringing the alarm.

Jon Swan, whom Anderson describes as a force of nature, has been active in fighting the landfill proposal since the beginning.

“For Jon, this is all-out warfare,” said Anderson, who has opted for a more moderate approach.

Swan learned about the proposed landfill at the 2019 town meeting. The introduction didn’t go well.

“I thought it was a joke because who would sign off on a landfill next to a beautiful state park?” Swan said.

Jon Swan stands in front of the lake
Jon Swan helped the town to establish temporary emergency zoning through a special warrant article. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

The would-be seller of the land in Dalton, Douglas Ingerson, was trying to adjust the lot line on his property at that town meeting so abutting property owners would not have to be notified. Swan called the maneuver sneaky. Anderson said they were trying to fly under the radar. Ingerson declined a request to be interviewed for this story. 

Swan left the town meeting determined to stop the project. He has since started a website called Save Forest Lake, and the town of Dalton is dotted with signs Swan made protesting the project.

Swan helped the town to establish temporary emergency zoning through a special warrant article that first passed in a 154-129 vote in July 2019. It’s up for a vote again in June.

Then, Swan’s group, along with the homeowners association and North Country Alliance for Balanced Change, joined forces – and out of those efforts came the first attempt to pass a state law like the one the New Hampshire Senate just voted down.

Tom Tower, a board member of the North Country Alliance for Balanced Change, said placing a landfill next to the park would be a mistake. 

“This is untouched green space,” Tower said. “This is an area that shouldn’t be used for something as egregious as a landfill.”

“There’s got to be a better spot,” he said. 

When asked why not choose another site, Joe Fusco, a spokesperson for Casella, said, “Let’s have that conversation.”

“The process of permitting as it exists allows for that discussion. Is this the proper site? Is this a site that works?” Fusco said. “We’re never against having those conversations with communities or state regulators.”

But Swan and other opponents say the company has bypassed local permissions by requesting permits only from the state.

Passing a state law would be another way to control where landfills can be sited.

At first the groups thought the law should be focused on protecting bodies of water, but they were told that a law like that would be too broad and too restrictive. So they settled on the language in the current bill aimed at protecting state parks.

Swan considers himself a common-sense conservative, but he was on the same side as the Sierra Club in the statewide effort to push the bill forward.

“I’ve always loved the land,” he said, although he never considered himself an environmentalist before he got involved in this issue.

A public hearing on the bill before the Senate last week lasted nearly 3 1/2 hours. During that hearing, Robin Pilotte of Whitefield accused Swan of bullying. Those who support the landfill have homed in on Swan, questioning his background, and the fact that he changed his last name. Swan changed his last name from Alvarez to Swan when he married his wife, Tamela Swan. Before Swan moved to Dalton, he lived in New York and was involved in starting what he called a militia, although local officials asked him to change the name of the group based on New York law. 

Some support the landfill because they say it would help the town economically, bolstering industry in the region.

“We get called names,” Pilotte told the Senate panel. “We get called all kinds of names.”

Swan said he has received death threats over the issue, which he’s reported to the local police. The Littleton Police confirmed that they had received Swan’s complaint about a death threat in February.

Tensions in the town are high. But Swan says he hasn’t crossed the line.

And Anderson, the retired minister, vouched for him, too.

“He’s strong-minded. He’s smart. He’s eloquent. I have never heard Jon be anything but respectful in any of his communications with people,” Anderson said.

“He speaks the truth. Is he bullying? No, I don’t think so,” he said.

But some, including Casella, have taken issue with things Swan has said – and in April 2020 Casella sued both Swan and the Forest Lake Association for defamation. On June 5, Casella and the association agreed to a “nonsuit,” essentially ending the lawsuit, but Anderson said by then they had already spent around $25,000 in legal fees.

Swan said that for the part of the suit affecting him, three-quarters of it has been thrown out so far. The rest is pending before a judge.

According to a spokesperson for Casella, the company settled on siting the landfill in Dalton after an extensive search across New Hampshire. Fusco, the Casella spokesperson, said the fact that Dalton didn’t have zoning wasn’t a factor in the decision.

Fusco said that the existing permitting and regulation regimens were sophisticated and that the existing public policy process was sufficient to address residents’ concerns about water contamination or potentially hurting the tourism industry.

“In the next 10 to 20 years, the state of New Hampshire as a whole is going to face a capacity shortfall,” Fusco said. “Once you start having a shortfall, you have to start shipping your waste out of state and that makes it more expensive for all these small New Hampshire towns.”

The town of Dalton would receive $71 million over 25 years according to a draft host-community agreement, if the landfill does move forward.

Casella is currently seeking a wetlands permit and a solid waste management permit from the Department of Environmental Services. The company has not sought any local permissions to build the landfill. 

The town of Dalton will vote on extending the emergency temporary zoning on June 8. And Swan is running for town clerk and tax collector in next month’s election.

A view of forest lake
The towns of Dalton and Whitefield share Forest Lake. (Amanda Gokee | New Hampshire Bulletin)

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.