The Story of Coakley Landfill

Mindi Messmer
Jun 6 · 7 min read

June 5, 2019

Testimony of Mindi Messmer, PG, CG

Coakley EPA OIG listening session

The dump began as a quarry in the late 1960s. Rock was blasted out causing fissures and cracks in the bedrock.

The overburden soil was stripped away and what was left was a big hole on the highest spot on the seacoast. Even elementary school children know that water flows in all directions — as it does from this toxic soup on the hill into 5 towns. But, every time I would say this the former EPA Project Manager would interrupt me rudely and say it wasn’t true.

The toxic dump was permitted by NHDES to City of Portsmouth municipal waste landfill in 1971. It was called the “Portsmouth Dump.”

The license was amended in 1972 when they found it was being used to dump hazardous waste.

During the time between 1971 and 1987, for 16 years, about 100 chemical companies, the Air Force, the Navy, the City of Portsmouth other towns, hazardous waste haulers and other companies dumped in the landfill.

The landfill office was located on Breakfast Hill Road (the white house that is closest to the road). There was also a gatehouse that operated during daytime hours was accessed from Breakfast Hill Road in about the same location of this Bethany Church access road we all drove up on. There was unlimited access to the dump at night.

In the 1970s and 1980s residents reported dumping during nighttime hours — reports of helicopters and trucks with solvents pulled up and emptied their liquid toxins right into cracks in the bedrock — so much so drainage ditches were dug so that the ponded liquid toxins that did not seep into the rock, could move away from the site on the surface into a swale that surrounded the site and emptied into Berry’s Brook and Little River.

Historical information indicates that drums of liquid waste were also brought to the landfill from hazardous waste facilities, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and Pease Air Force Base.

In 1979 were the first complaints about the landfill — the smell, the cancer, in the residents who lived in Lafayette Terrace in North Hampton. Entire families were wiped out. Their complaints would go unheard until in 1982 residents in Lafayette Terrace were told the water coming out of their wells was unsafe to drink. Toxins from Coakley into their tap water at unsafe levels. By the end of 1983, those residents were connected to public water.

In 1983, the site was listed on the National Priority List (Superfund) but records indicate that dumping continued into 1987. Over 15,000 of hazardous chlorinated solvents were dumped here in 1986 by one defense contractor alone.

The hazardous and chemical dumping continued for 4 years after the site was confirmed as a Superfund Site!

Also, in that 4-year time period, 50 feet of incinerator ash was dumped on top over the 27 acres. Even after the dump was supposedly closed by the state in 1985.

In the 1990s, according to reports some of the waste was pulled up above the water table, gathered together and a 27-acre cap was put on top of the mess. The rest of the contamination left to “attenuate.”

What will happen as sea level rises and the water table continues to rise? More chemicals in the dump will be in contact with groundwater and pollute our tap water even more.

Institutional controls were supposed to be employed around the landfill. Over time, the controls were forgotten and hundreds of homes were built.

The seacoast is left with a stewing cauldron of toxins with a cap on top that reminds me of those volcano experiments I did with vinegar and baking soda in elementary school science class.

There are now hundreds of people — likely over 450, drinking water from their taps in Greenland and North Hampton that may not be safe. Their water has not been tested for PFAS. We have no idea what the levels are in their wells.

PFAS contamination has reached several wells that supply North Hampton, between Coakley and the carwash and in Hampton. Water does not flow uphill and it is impossible for those wells to be impacted by the carwash.

One of the most productive wells with PFAS chemicals has been shut down but is “blended” or metered into the system in periods of high use and drought. Think about that — when there is a shortage of potable water, PFAs chemicals are being mixed into our water. This will only happen more frequently with climate change and sea level rise.

In late 2018, two private water sources were shut down and the PRPs were made to install treatment systems in the private home and golf club because the toxic carcinogen, 1,4-dioxane, from Coakley ended up in their tap.

When the City of Portsmouth visited the homeowner, who has two young children, they presented her with information about what other states think with higher drinking water standards to lessen her concerns about her water. This is not right. This message should be delivered by those who do not have a financial interest in minimizing the problem.

The DOD bought out their 20% responsibility for this mess in the 1990s. The City of Portsmouth maintains 53% responsibility of the remaining 80% along with two other municipalities and private haulers and generators who brought chemicals and put them in the ground at the dump. The PRP group has operated under a veil of secrecy until 2018 when our lawsuit in NH Superior Court was successful in determining that the polluter group is subject to Right to Know Laws since the majority is held by public entities.

In the polluter’s files, we found that they lobbied to have the original ROD overturned which dictated a groundwater pump and treat system. They lobbied with US Senators and Congressmen to pressure the EPA to overturn their decision. They did it. It is the only case in NH where the EPA went back on their decision in the ROD.

When we got access to the polluter’s files, we also found that the DOD money that was supposed to be used to install a groundwater treatment system was used to settle a lawsuit even when your office the OIG, told them the money could not be used to settle a lawsuit. We have asked the OIG to investigate the financial dealings of the CLG and we have not received a response.

The dump is geographically central to a double pediatric cancer cluster where our children are contracting and dying at higher rates than expected of two rare forms of cancers and up to 3 times the expected rates of brain and CNS cancers.

We are told to wait for the EPA to decide what to do. To wait for endless testing of the bedrock which should have happened decades ago. PFAS compounds are moving into private drinking water wells at levels that other states say you should not drink. They are in the brooks that originate from the base of the landfill.

In July of 2017, the state of NHDES said the situation with unmitigated toxins dumping into Berry’s Brook was unacceptable. That’s two years ago. Nothing has happened.

For 3 years, our efforts in the legislature have been fought back by the lobby efforts of the polluter groups.

Last week we received encouraging information that our Attorney General filed two lawsuits against the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. This validates our concerns that these toxins are harmful and deadly. They have been flowing off the dump for decades into our groundwater, surface water, and tap water.

This is what we want:

1. Err on the side of caution to protect our property values, human life, and public health. Not the polluters.

2. We need the EPA and the state to step in and step up and do the right thing now. Not decades from now. The proper process for the plan was carried out in the 1990s. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here. Brush that ROD off and implement it and treat for PFAS and 1,4-dioxane. Stop the toxins from overflowing the site and contaminating our groundwater, surface water, and drinking water. Right now.

3. Let the sunshine in and give us a seat at the table when technical information and critical decisions are being made between the polluters and EPA and DES. We have a right to know what is being done that impacts our children, public health and our livelihood.

4. A comprehensive evaluation of PFAS and 1,4 dioxane all around the landfill in Rye, Greenland, North Hampton and Hampton.

5. A full evaluation of public health impacts in the 5-town area. To date, none has been done. We have a double pediatric cancer cluster and the highest in the nation rates of pediatric, bladder, breast and esophageal cancer.

6. We must address this problem now — it will only get worse. With sea level rise, climate change and more frequent and severe storms the toxins will spread at accelerating rates.

7. More effort to notify the public of new data and plans.

8. We would like to see more frequent listening sessions followed by real definitive action to protect us.

Less Cancer Journal

A collaborative cancer prevention platform reporting on lifestyle, health, education, policy and community based efforts in cancer prevention cancer. The Less Cancer Journal is brought to you by Next Generation Choices Foundation, 501c3 more widely known as "Less Cancer".

Mindi Messmer

Written by

An environmental and public health scientist, elected to the NH House in November 2016 . Former Congressional Candidate #NH01.

Less Cancer Journal

A collaborative cancer prevention platform reporting on lifestyle, health, education, policy and community based efforts in cancer prevention cancer. The Less Cancer Journal is brought to you by Next Generation Choices Foundation, 501c3 more widely known as "Less Cancer".