Garbage Politics

Johnston, RI – At one time, you may have had a neighbor you wish would just go away. But what if your neighbor was the state's central landfill? Johnston residents have seen it grower bigger and bigger over the years and move closer to their homes.

Angela Corrochio has lived in Johnston all her life and is among the residents who complain the Central Landfill has made life there miserable. She complains of noise and odors. She notes respiratory problems and cancer among some neighbors and wonders whether she too will develop a serious health problem.

"I don't think you have to be a rocket scientist to know that these things in the long term and in the long run, over the course of many years maybe, or not so many years, are going to have an effect on you. And it's an inexact science, that's the terrible part. It's inexact! You don't know how long, or at what point, these things are going to crop out and say, oh well, you have tumors, you have cancer, you have this, you have that. We've been reduced to guinea pigs. We're an experiment. How long are you gonna last?" says Corrochio.

Since its creation in 1980, the landfill has continued to grow, and more expansion is planned. The landfill's base started out at 127 acres. Now it is151 acres and it will eventually grow to 171 acres
To protect residents from potential health dangers, state law requires there be at least one thousand feet of open land between the landfill and any homes. Residents say that buffer zone is too small.

" It's a land use, which isn't particularly pleasant. Wherever you site it, you're going to get a host community who's not happy with it. It's a social need that you have sewer plants. It's a social need that you have landfills. It's a social need that you develop roadways," says Claude Cotee, Director of Environmental Compliance for the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, which operates the landfill.

New legislation could offer some Johnston residents a way out.. It would require the Resource Recovery Corporation to purchase the most densely populated area nearby. The bill would also require Resource Recovery to pay Johnston annual property taxes on that land for three years. In the late eighties to mid-nineties, the agency spent up to $30 million to buy property within two thousand feet of the landfill. Some of those properties were then sold to new owners.

Instead of paying taxes, Resource Recovery pays Johnston $3 million per year for generating electricity on the site. Johnston is also exempted from trash fees, which usually cost a municipality $32 for each ton of garbage.

"We want more money. That's the bottom line. Last year, Resource Recovery gave $4 million to the state. So each year they're turning over 4 or 5, if it's a good year, 6, 7 million dollars to the state. Well, why the hell should the state get it? That's our land. They're not paying taxes on it. Why shouldn't that money come to us?" asks Johnston Mayor William Macera.

In addition to the money it pays to Johnston, Resource Recovery has spent millions of dollars trying to be a good neighbor. In the last three years, it spent more than two million dollars on new environmental controls.
The agency is planning new highway ramps and has just about finished work on a station to screen waste before it's dumped on the landfill.

"That's about all you can do with a large facility. It's a long-term relationship. It's never perfect, but a lot has been done. And I would suggest that arguably a lot more has been done at this facility because it is a quasi-public with that sense of social responsibility,: says Resource Recovery Environmental Compliance Director Claude Cotee.

It's estimated that there is enough space at the landfill for another ten years of use. Officials at Resource Recovery are trying to figure out what they'll do once they run out of space in Johnston. Trash can be incinerated, which is not environmentally sound. It can be taken out-of-state, or Rhode Island can build a new landfill. There may be other options a decade from now.

Suzannah Gonzales is an Environmental Reporting Fellow of the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island.