Bristol resident reflects on closing of the town dump
Editor’s note: This reflection on the closing of the Bristol town landfill was written by Fred Baser, a Bristol citizen, former selectboard member and current state representative for the Addison-4 Vermont House district.
August 1 was a sad day in Bristol. Our dump closed for the last time.
After about ninety years of operation, changing attitudes concerning landfills, new state regulations, and pressure from the State Agency of Natural Resources, the Bristol selectboard, with a heavy heart, voted to close the landfill. It is important to note there are no scientific or environmental evidence or reasons for the dump closure. The site has a life of at least an addition fifteen years. Closure is due solely to external pressure from the state, some Act 148 provisions, and economic factors.
So why am I sad, it’s only a dump? Well I’ve used the landfill for about half of its lifetime including the operational transformation that was made in 1987, when the State enacted the current landfill regulations. I was on the Select Board at the time and worked hard with the other board members to comply with the new rules. The rules stipulated that old unlined landfills could remain in operation if they accepted less than 1000 tons of solid waste a year and met other environmental standards. Our engineer estimated that we were near the 1000 ton mark. So we went for it with the conviction that the town’s residence supported us in our actions and by gosh we did it, met our dumping target. More on that later.
The Bristol dump has always been a colorful place with an interesting history. The current general area of operation has been going since the mid-1920s. Prior to 1968, garbage was disposed of by backing your vehicle up to the edge of a small cliff and giving a push. The trash tumbled down the hill into a depression that once existed immediately south of the current landfill site. As I understand it, there was a colorful sentinel, who’s name will not be mentioned, that stood by the cliff as the town’s unofficial overseer of the proceedings. This gentleman once served five days in the local lockup for pushing someone down the cliff and into the depression. Evidently the sentinel deemed that person to be out of order. The court saw it differently. Quite a few marksmen were created down at the old dump, as they honed their skills controlling the local varmint population. There were also a colorful bunch of folks known as “pickers” that roamed the dump until the new regs took place in 1987. Pickers would hang out at the dump looking for treasure among others trash. It was reported that good pickers could make quite a few dollars with astute selections. Remember now, a lot of stuff went into our old landfills. One memorable event at the landfill was when the Select Board declared a free dump day. As the story goes, cars and trucks were backed up an eighth of a mile or more all day at the dump entrance. At the end of the free dump day a mound of garbage, that resembled Mount Mansfield, was left for the operators to contend with. There have been no free dump days since. Kind of makes you wonder what’s out there today.
The current landfill site was a gravel pit belonging to Claude LaRocque. In 1966 the old Bristol Airport was closed and the town voted to sell the land to Union School District #28. With the proceeds from the sale of the property, the town purchased the gravel pit in 1967 for a landfill site and built a new Town Barn for its highway Department. The old airfield property became the site for what is now Mount Abraham Union High School and its surrounding track and ball fields. The pre-1968 Bristol landfill is now Mount Abe’s baseball field. Now that’s recycling for you.
One priceless feature of the dump is that it was a focal point for information about what was going on in town or the state, and a font of information as to what was going on in people’s lives. Whether it was at the recycling bins, the brush pile, or compost area, you’d inevitably bump into someone you hadn’t seen it a while and as a result you caught up on the news. At the scale, which was used to weigh vehicles and their larger loads of trash, there is a small 8×4 shed that was the home of the scale operator. It was not unusual on a cold winter Saturday to find four or more people crammed into the shed to learn the news of the day from the scale’s celebrity operator (he can be seen in the famous Heritage Ford commercials).
As I mentioned earlier, the Select Board opted to keep the landfill open in 1987 and comply with the new state regulations. In addition to dumping less than 1000 tons of trash a year, the state put forward a recycling program that was to be implemented through regional districts. Bristol chose to be its own district and establish its own recycling effort. We hired a young Middlebury College grad to act as the town’s recycling coordinator. Through her good works, Bristol established what I believe was the first comprehensive and effective recycling program in the state. All metals, paper, cardboard, tires, glass and plastics that met recycling criteria were recycled through the town’s program. In 1988, after the first year of recycling, the town reported disposing of about 900 tons of solid waste. In 2014 the town accepted 330 tons of solid waste. This represents a 60 percent reduction on the amount of waste disposed of by the town. Some of this reduction is due to contract haulers moving waste out of town, but mainly it can be attributed to local control and operation of a landfill site that was prepared and had the incentive to remove as much as possible from the waste stream. This is exactly what today’s new law, Act 148, is designed to achieve. Bristol set a standard twenty seven years ago that the state is shooting for today.
Wells were drilled many years ago to test for possible pollution around the site. Since testing began, the results have been very satisfactory. So have the other measures that judge a site’s environmental responsibility. Nearby residents and the state have complained from time to time about operational snafus, but missteps in operations were always addressed very quickly and none endangered people’s health. In recent years, the Agency of Natural Resources has been critical of the lack of dollars available for the dump’s ultimate closure. As the amount of waste accepted kept going down, revenues declined. The price of disposing of a garbage bag was $3.50. In recent years the landfill operated at a loss. Some maintain this trend could have been reversed with a conviction and plan to make things work. One might suggest the state could have rewarded the town for its significant reduction in solid waste disposal. In addition to financial pressure, and the Town having no source of additional revenue, the state agency’s nervousness about an unlined landfill operation had the Select Board draw the curtain on what I always thought was a good thing. Bristol residents had a convenient, low cost way to dispose of their trash, recyclables, mulch materials, appliances, tires, metals and brush. Hazardous waste collections were held periodically. For ninety years, the town of Bristol managed their trash well. For 27 of those years, Bristol acted in anticipation of a bill enacted by the legislature just a few years ago. We were ahead of the times. One footnote, unlined landfills operate very successfully around the country. Smaller unlined landfills, if sited and monitored well, can operate to the benefit of local citizens. Plus, with these more compact operations, recycling and mulching programs gain a greater buy in, education of citizens is easier, the economic impact hits closer to home, and people see results on a regular basis.
The folks in Bristol have just lost a valuable asset. It is a sad day.
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