Superfund site serves as reminder for careful waste management

Winchester Mayor and current administrator of RRDD1 transfer station Todd Arcelaschi (left) and Jim Hart, former administrator of RRDD1 transfer station and past first selectman of Barkhamsted (right) standing in front of the capped landfill of the vast 98 acre Superfund site in Barkhamsted.

Jennifer Almquist

Superfund site serves as reminder for careful waste management

The Barkhamsted-New Hartford Landfill, Regional Refuse Disposal District No. 1 (RRDD1), a 98-acre Superfund site straddling the towns of Barkhamsted and New Hartford has left a toxic trail that continues to require active management

Between 1974 and 1993, the unlined landfill accepted a noxious cocktail of municipal and industrial wastes, including oily metal grindings, sludge, and bulky items. Groundwater contamination was first detected in 1981, setting off alarms about the potential health risks posed by the site.

As of June 2023, Connecticut had 13 Superfund sites on the National Priorities List (NPL) which identifies “the most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites needing long-term remedial action.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), when hazardous commercial and industrial wastes are mismanaged, they pose unacceptable risks to human health and the environment.

In 1980, Congress established the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) which is informally called Superfund. The Superfund program is administered by the EPA in cooperation with state and tribal governments. It allows EPA to clean up hazardous waste sites and forces those responsible to perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA cleanups. Nationally, in 2023 there were 1,336 Superfund sites on the NPL.

Jim Hart, former First Selectman of Barkhamsted, was the whistleblower that finally brought attention and action to the developing toxic crisis at the Barkhamsted-New Hartford landfill. Hart said, “When this facility opened in April of 1974, society did not understand the issues associated with getting rid of certain chemical waste. The primary pollutants here were metal grinding waste. At that time in the district there was a significant number of machine shops. When we first opened in the mid 1970s there was a metal grinding waste pool up here. You just dumped into the pool. You know, back then, Harry Homeowner who changed the oil in their car just threw that out in the garbage.”

As a young first selectman, Hart received a complaint of toxic runoff by a neighboring resident in 1981. After 18 months of stonewalling by the RRDD1, Hart decided to go up the food chain.

“I walked the area with the director of Farmington Valley Health. When we crossed the brook, the smell was potent to your nose, and we developed headaches. It was kind of scary.”

In the spring of 1983 Hart wrote a letter to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) commissioner asking for significant investigation. He laughed, “Superfund designation is like having an old musket and you pull the trigger, and it takes so long before the bullet comes out the other end. The EPA moved at a snail’s pace, and it wasn’t until the late 1980s that they did investigation work that required us to install a series of groundwater monitoring wells. When the first results from these monitoring wells became known the crap really hit the fan.”

Jennifer Almquist

The Barkhamsted landfill’s poisonous legacy includes a litany of hazardous substances that have seeped into the surrounding area. Cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, manganese, nickel, zinc, trichloroethylene (TCE), and cis-1,2-dichloroethylene have all been found in the soil, groundwater, and surface water near the site.

The potential threat to local residents continues. TCE and cis-1,2-dichloroethylene contaminated the Barkhamsted town garage’s drinking water well, while antimony, arsenic, and selenium were detected at low levels in three private wells nearby. Site-related metals were found in the soil on two residential properties near the landfill, raising concerns about potential exposure. In this rural and residential area, where all properties rely on on-site drinking water wells, the threat of contamination looms large.

The EPA determined the potentially responsible parties (PRPs). In Barkhamsted-New Hartford there were a dozen machine shops and businesses in the district designated as PRPs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified 78 other PRPs, including corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Cooper Industries, and Eaton Corporation, as well as the towns of Barkhamsted, Colebrook, New Hartford, and Winchester.

The costs of remediation have been high. At least $4.5 million in state Superfund money was spent to cap the landfill in 1999. Responsible parties began groundwater monitoring programs and continue to monitor the drinking water wells close to the site.

According to Winchester Mayor and current administrator of RRDD1, Todd Arcelaschi, “The containment has been successful, except for one time in the middle 2000’s where the cap failed and there was a washout that required several hundred thousand in repairs. The landfill is visually inspected semi-annually now, groundwater and well testing is conducted quarterly.”

After the closure of the Materials Innovation and Recycling Authority (MIRA) waste to energy (WTE) incinerator in Hartford, Arcelaschi feels the future of waste management in the Northwest corner of Connecticut will depend on what happens with the Northwest Hills Council of Governments’ efforts to form a Regional Waste Authority.

“If they successfully create one, we will still use the former MIRA Torrington Transfer Station, and our trash will likely continue to be shipped out of state, unless the Waste Authority can find available capacity for the region’s municipal solid waste (MSW) at another WTE plant in CT.”

The Superfund landfill is now in use again as the regional transfer station for RRDD1 for the towns of Winchester, New Hartford, and Barkhamsted. Of its 98 acres, approximately 13 acres contains the capped landfill, the second part of the site is currently used as the transfer station and recycling center, and the remaining space is an active solar farm generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity which helps offset recycling transfer operating costs.

"EPA completed a comprehensive review of the site last September, as documented in the Five-Year Review report, and concluded that the completed remedy is still protective of human health and the environment," said Daniel Keefe, U.S. EPA Region 1 Superfund Section Chief. "Several potential issues were identified in the report that require additional monitoring, notably the detection of emerging contaminants such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). EPA is working with those responsible for maintaining the site to ensure that continued monitoring is performed."

While there is no evidence that anyone has gotten sick because of the contamination, and the EPA has approved the clean-up efforts, the specter of toxic exposure remains. The legacy of the Barkhamsted-New Hartford landfill Superfund site serves as a reminder of the price communities pay for improper waste disposal.

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