Of Landfills and Cerebral Palsy
An investigative report by Michael Reynolds
for Ability Maine.

        This winter I’ve spent a great deal of time wandering the halls of the Statehouse and adjacent Cross Office building going to a number of hearings and work sessions, some directly dealing with disability related legislation as well as a number of non disability related issues. While attending a hearing on landfill expansion and being stumped on trying to tie this directly relation to disability, a good friend simply asked “Do you know about the house in Old Town that is run by United Cerebral Palsy.”

It turns out that the United Cerebral Palsy house borders the landfill, and children with significant emotional disabilities are being exposed to toxic chemicals and poor air quality that are endangering their health and lives. Unfortunately, the people who are paid to oversee the public safety may have other priorities, and children with disabilities are left exposed to chemicals that are as toxic as cyanide, often at levels five to six times accepted state and federal guidelines.

        In 2003, the State of Maine bought a landfill in Old Town, now called Juniper Ridge(JR). In 2004 the State chose a subsidiary of Casella Waste Systems (CWS) to run the landfill.  The state’s theory was that the landfill would be a solid and inexpensive source of energy for the paper mill in Old Town, run, at the time, by Fort James Paper Company.

        Sometime before 2008, the Fort James Paper company gave the local United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) affiliate a house, called the Fort James House, that abuts the landfill directly. The local UCP affiliate turned that house into a inpatient facility for children with severe emotional problems that is equipped to house up to 6 children. The facility is also licensed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and receives direct funding from the state as a provider of medical services.

        In 2009 the mill changed ownership and the mill has now been converted into a pulp and biofuel production facility, using technology developed by the University of Maine. In early 2012, Casella Waste Systems, the operator of the landfill, proposed an expansion of  the State owned landfill.  

        Don Meagher, manager of planning and development for CWS, stated in an November, 2011, interview that was published in the Bangor Daily News on January 13, 2012 that the landfill would be filled to capacity within five years and that the need for the expansion was part of the original agreement to run the landfill. A previous draft to expand the landfill was withdrawn in 2010 due to concerns raised by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). On January 31,2012, Pat Aho, Commissioner of the DEP, signed the Public Benefit Determination in favor of major expansion of the Juniper Ridge landfill in Old Town.  Aho is a former lobbyist for Casella.

    The Department of Environmental Protection regulates certain chemicals around landfills, for the safety of the public as well as to monitor the operations of the landfill. Using extremely expensive sensors placed around the landfill, it monitors a number of different chemicals, including Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S). The state monitors for H2S because the type of waste Juniper Ridge accepts, construction and demolition debris, can produce high levels of it.     In 2006 the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set guidelines of 1ppb (part per billion) for chronic exposure as acceptable and up to 30ppb for short duration (up to 30 minutes). This essentially mirrors federal labor guidelines and does not address what levels are acceptable for children whose bodies are still developing or could have disabilities that have respiratory involvement, such as Cerebral Palsy.

The levels of H2S present on the property of the Fort James House were chronically five to six times ( 5-6 ppb) higher than the state’s own guidelines in the months of October and November 2011. This is not an isolated experience; there were spikes in 2009 and 2010 that were as high, if not higher.  In 2010, when a landfill in Rockland had spikes of 2 ppb, the Maine DEP and the Maine Department of Labor were actively trying to shut down the landfill.  Eventually,  the spike was traced to a local company disposing of sea weed which caused the elevated H2S levels. The landfill in Rockland is still in operation.

According to CHEMINFO, a database of comprehensive, practical occupational health and safety information on chemicals produced by the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, chronic exposure at this level can cause nausea or headaches. The studied long term health effects include miscarriages and birth defects in pregnant woman, asthma, eye and nasal symptoms (including a higher risk for cancer),diarrhea, depression, poor attention span, poor memory, poor motor function, dizziness, fatigue, and sleep disorders. These effects become more acute when the person exposed is a child, due to their size and proximity to the ground.  There are no real published guidelines for exposure for developing children, except to limit exposure for individuals with respiratory issues, such as an individual with Cerebral Palsy.

Additionally, Hydrogen sulfide is similar to cyanide in toxicity. It interferes with the enzyme cytochrome oxidase, which is necessary for cells to make use of oxygen. Since it is heavier then air, H2S it will hang (like a fog) in low altitudes (such as the river valleys of the Penobscot river,) and be inhaled by those in that area.

Many of the disabled children who could be served at Fort James House could have significant issues with such basic tasks as communication. An emotionally disabled child who might be non-verbal or unable to express themselves is going to be much more distressed if they have a headache or stomach issues, on top of their ongoing disabilities. Children diagnosed as schizophrenic or children with autism who are self-injurious are the types of disabled children who would be placed in this facility.

UCP of Northern New England has not discussed any of these issues in any of their annual reports, and in fact, the biggest surprise is who sits on their board of directors: One of them is Don Meagher.  Mr. Meagher has been listed on their Board of Directors on their annual reports as far back as 2008, the earliest report available on UCP’s website. Additionally, the president of the board is Jim Heald, who is also Vice President of Sappi Paper, which uses biofuel from a CWS subsidiary, KTI Biofuels, based in Lewiston. The biofuels are used in paper mills in Skowhegan and Westbrook.

KTI plays a critical role in the operations of Juniper Ridge. KTI Biofuels sorts construction and demolition debris. It has been estimated that 90% of this debris originates out of Maine.  About 7 to 9 percent of the debris is recycled into woodchips which is then resold as biofuel. Another 43 percent has been “recycled” by using non-biofuel grade woodchips as the “top” of the Juniper Ridge to cover the landfill. CWS uses reasoning that virgin soil did not need to be used; therefore it is recycling.

Much has been made about the use of alternative fuels in the state of Maine, but far from the economic boost that has been promised to Mainers, it seems as if far more “headaches”  have been caused by those charged with overseeing their best interest. The saddest part of this environmental injustice is that those who are most vulnerable, children with severe emotional disabilities, are paying the highest cost; their health.

Michael  Reynolds is a writer who lives in Lewiston and has been diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy at birth.

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