Former Portsmouth Mayor Eric Spear’s appointment as chairman of the Coakley Landfill Group offers hope a fresh start for the group responsible for remediating the Superfund cleanup site can build on efforts it was largely forced to take in recent years.
Portsmouth City Manager John Bohenko appointed Spear to replace City Attorney Robert Sullivan, the CLG’s only chairman since its creation in 1991. It was a challenging time for Sullivan in recent years as many, including this newspaper, criticized the city attorney serving as CLG chairman, citing a conflict of interest. While Spear is not an employee of the city, he is a representative of the city so concerns remain as the former longtime city councilor takes over as chairman.
Bohenko, in explaining his selection of Spear, said he “will make an excellent chairman due to his knowledge of the city’s environmental issues.” Spear, however, admitted he has no formal training in environmental issues.
Having such a background is not a requirement, but being focused on assuring toxins no longer migrate from the former 27-acre dump in Greenland and North Hampton is. Spear, in discussing his new, unpaid role, said, “We want to make sure the tax money we’re spending is serving the purpose of keeping the groundwater and surface water clean.”
The latter must be the priority as mounting evidence shows the landfill is compromising the environment and has affected the drinking water wells of both a Breakfast Hill Road home and the Breakfast Hill Country Club. The state Department of Environmental Services required the CLG to first provide bottled water to both and the CLG subsequently installed filtration systems at the home and golf course.
Spear, who said, “I try to always have an open mind and look at all the lines of evidence,” should keep the evidence of migration in mind.
The CLG, which is made up by Portsmouth, North Hampton and Newington, and private companies, consistently denied toxins were migrating from the landfill and denied those toxins were contaminating wells. That has been proven false, and trying to explain away the contamination by pointing to the state’s lower standard for 1,4-dioxane, one the chemicals detected around the landfill, is not comforting.
Portsmouth is 53.6 percent responsible for the cost of remediation at Coakley and was its operator and a major contributor to its waste.
Spear pledged he would strive as CLG chairman to “be responsible to the City Council and the Portsmouth taxpayers.” But, as the party deemed most responsible for the remediation, the city of Portsmouth has to fully accept its obligation to, as Spear said, keep “groundwater and surface water clean.”
That obligation in no way falls squarely on the shoulders of Spear, who earned much respect for his contributions as a long-time councilor. Where Spear can make a great difference is to ease off declarations such as “the water isn’t contaminated, the water isn’t contaminated,” as Bohenko said.
The cost of protecting people’s drinking water and the environment also doesn’t fall solely upon the city and its taxpayers. However, the obligation to do so ultimately does given the legal requirements established by the CLG's creation.
Spear has an opportunity to, as he said, “represent Portsmouth and do what’s best for Portsmouth and the region.” That’s all those concerned about the toxic threat posed by the landfill truly want— What’s best for the region. Specifically, this means the homeowners, business and environment now threatened by Coakley.
For too long, the CLG has downplayed that threat, refused to accept full responsibility and failed to come up with a real remediation, opting instead for the cheapest option. Natural attenuation without a pump and treat system is increasingly being proven to be a failure.
We wish Spear the best in his new role and hope he can be a leader who follows the increasing lines of evidence, rather than trying to avoid the cost of responding to them.