Company Agrees to $7.5 Million Settlement; Doesn’t Admit Wrongdoing, but Avoids Legal Fight

By Seth Daniel

[email protected]

After several months of discussion on a state whistleblower lawsuit precipitated by current and former employees of the Resco (Wheelabrator) incinerator on the Rumney Marsh, state officials reported late Monday that the company agreed to a $7.5 million settlement to resolve the case.

Wheelabrator, in a statement to the Journal, denied all allegations of wrongdoing and stated they just didn’t want a court battle.

A joint press release from Attorney General Martha Coakley and the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Monday disclosed the settlement and the particulars.

Wheelabrator was accused of emitting ash through holes in its roofs at the Rumney Marsh facility and another facility in Andover. It was also accused of failing to properly treat and dispose of its ash, repeatedly dumping wastewater into the Rumney Marsh, and failing to report a sudden release of hazardous material to the DEP.

Wheelabrator plants in Rumney Marsh, Millbury and Andover burn trash from several surrounding municipalities and generate electricity from that process.

“Corporate responsibility is paramount if we want to preserve our communities and maintain the beauty and safety of our Commonwealth,” said Coakley. “We are grateful to those who initially raised concerns with us about Wheelabrator, and are pleased that Wheelabrator has taken the steps needed to set its three facilities on a safe path for the future.  Working together with MassDEP, we have reached a settlement that will ensure continuing environmental oversight of these facilities as well as a return of dollars to both state and local budgets and help for the affected communities.”

Wheelabrator released a statement Monday night indicating that they do not admit to any of the violations, but simply wanted to avoid a long and costly legal fight.

“Wheelabrator has worked cooperatively with the state Attorney General’s office and MassDEP during their assessment of our operations in Massachusetts,” read a statement from the company’s corporate communications office. “We have maintained the highest commitment to environmental compliance in Massachusetts over three decades, and we do not concur with the Commonwealth’s assessment. We have settled this matter to avoid years of costly litigation.

“Wheelabrator’s facilities in Saugus, North Andover, and Millbury are operating in compliance with all permits and regulations,” continued the statement. “No harm to the environment, or to the health and safety of the public or our employees, occurred.”

In Revere, residents of Riverside and the Point of Pines have complained about fugitive ash from the facility for many years. Some residents have said that, at times, they will wake up and find their homes and cars covered with a veil of white ash.

Such long-time allegations were somewhat confirmed in Coakley’s complaint this week.

In her complaint, she alleged the Rumney Marsh Wheelabrator facility failed to properly treat ash prior to its disposal. The AG’s lawsuit also alleges that there was a hole in the roof of the Ash House, allowing ash to be released into the air. The complaint further alleges that the company used municipal water to clean the plant and its equipment, held the resulting wastewater in portable storage tanks, and then emptied the tanks into the facility’s parking lot and surrounding wetlands. The wetlands are part of the Rumney Marsh, which is a designated area of Critical Environmental Concern.

In addition, the AG’s complaint alleges that, in September of 2009, a Geotube (a large filter used for removing ash from water) broke open at the facility, allowing 8,000 gallons of ash sludge to spill into the parking lot and adjoining vegetated wetland. Wheelabrator failed to notify DEP as required for timely response under state hazardous materials laws. The company then allegedly excavated surrounding wetlands without obtaining approval from the DEP or the Saugus Conservation Commission.

The complaint also alleged specific violations at the Andover and Millbury facilities as well, but most of the problems seemed to stem from the burner on Rumney Marsh.

The current fight with Wheelabrator started in 2009 when two individuals – one former employee and one current employee – approached the Attorney General’s Office about environmental violations at the Rumney Marsh burner.

Not much was said of those proceedings until last January, when the whistleblower suit was exposed in the media. That triggered a very contentious public meeting in Saugus, which was attended by Mayor Tom Ambrosino and City Councillors John Powers and Arthur Guinasso.

Wheelabrator agreed to share more information with city officials in Revere and Saugus after that meeting.

Now, it appears that they will be sharing  a lot of information with the state as well.

The DEP conducted inspections of all three incinerators over the past month, and Wheelabrator indicated that they have made some organizational changes and process improvements. From those inspections, DEP has said that they feel that Wheelabrator no longer poses a risk to the environment.

Wheelabrator contends that it never did.

“The company has always been committed to leadership and continuous improvement in environmental compliance, employee health and safety, and customer and community service,” read their statement.

Nevertheless, as part of the settlement, Wheelabrator is being required to hire an independent environmental auditor to monitor compliance with environmental regulations. That auditor will conduct unannounced inspections for the next three years.

The $7.5 million fine will be spent as follows:

•$4.5 million to create a Municipal Fund that the AG’s Office will distribute to municipalities that paid Wheelabrator Rumney Marsh and North Andover for trash incineration services. The City of Revere will benefit from this payment.

• Two payments totaling $2 million for civil penalties arising from multiple environmental violations.

•$500,000 donation to the Massachusetts Natural Resource Damages Trust.

•$500,000 for a supplemental environmental project or projects, to be approved by MassDEP and the AG, designed to improve the environment in the vicinity of Wheelabrator facilities.

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