NEW BEDFORD — Mike McHugh and his wife, Dorene, love to walk their North End neighborhood, Pine Hill Acres — except on Mondays, when the smell of garbage at the curb on trash collection day permeates the streets.
So when McHugh heard that the national waste management company Parallel Products plans to add a municipal trash transfer facility to its recycling operations in the nearby New Bedford Business Park, he decided to speak out against it.
McHugh says he knows there is a waste problem in Massachusetts. But he says he spoke against the proposed project in July in front of City Council not just for himself, but for his neighbors and other residents of New Bedford, who have suffered from a legacy of environmental health hazards dating back more than 50 years.
“What they’re going to be doing down there is not a good thing for a residential area,” McHugh said in a recent interview with The Light. “I’m biased because I live here. But all of the other sins that it brings with it just shouldn’t be here.”
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will decide whether to approve the trash transfer facility by Nov. 1. If it does, the city Board of Health will hold a hearing in November, and then permit or deny the project based on whether it poses a threat to public or environmental health.
The project would give New Bedford a new outlet for its trash, to help replace the Crapo Hill landfill in Dartmouth, which may reach its capacity and close in the next decade. It’s estimated to bring 75 jobs and $1 million-plus in annual revenue to New Bedford.
The proposed facility would extract recyclable materials from trash before shipping the rest to landfills and incinerators in other towns or states. City and business officials — who are officially neutral on the project — and Parallel Products management say it’s an innovative approach to a growing waste crisis.
“Projects like this benefit everybody,” said Derek Santos, executive director of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “The need for these facilities … doesn’t seem to be diminishing.”
Opponents say the project will perpetuate the state’s waste crisis and add to a history of public health hazards in the city’s North End. They’re concerned about diesel emissions from trucks, polluted water leaching from garbage, and fire risk from lithium batteries at the facility. The North End includes several mixed-income residential developments as well as Superfund sites and brownfields.
“Most of the businesses that are down in the [business] park are fantastic neighbors, but we’ve had some bad ones,” said McHugh, the Pine Hill Acres resident.
“Our concerns are, what are they going to leave down here?’ What is going to be the next big cleanup for New Bedford?”
A major problem in Massachusetts
Massachusetts is dealing with a waste crisis.
Four major landfills in the state are projected to reach their capacity in the next decade, including Crapo Hill landfill, where New Bedford and Dartmouth’s trash go today.
Crapo Hill currently has about five to six years of waste capacity left, according to Marissa Perez-Dormitzer, the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District’s waste reduction manager. The district is looking at ways to expand capacity, but getting a new section of landfill approved by the state is not guaranteed.
“We are looking at possible ways to expand the landfill, to get more life out of it,” she said. “But this is the reason why we are strongly encouraging residents to reduce their waste: so we can keep the landfill open as long as possible.”
By 2031, Massachusetts landfills may only be able to accept roughly 200,000 tons of trash per year, down from just over 760,000 tons today, according to estimates from MassDEP. No new landfills have opened in the state since Crapo Hill in 1995.
Holly Huntoon, a spokesperson for New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, says “there is currently no certainty as to where the City will dispose of its solid waste when the landfill closes.” So far, she said, the only options include shipping garbage out via train or truck and reducing waste.
“We don’t have a magic wand where we can make the waste disappear,” Perez-Dormitzer said. “It has to go somewhere and at this time, we can’t eliminate it.”
That’s why Parallel Products is proposing to build a trash transfer facility, next to its existing glass, plastic and metal recycling facility in the business park.
The facility would take in up to 1,500 tons of municipal garbage per day, as well as construction debris from private haulers. The waste would arrive on about 200 daily garbage truck and trailer hauls.
Workers would sort through loose trash and open garbage bags to look for recyclable materials that residents didn’t separate out. Parallel Products would sell the recyclables, then ship the remaining waste to out-of-state landfills and incinerators via train or truck. Additionally, baled waste from other facilities would be accepted to the facility to be shipped out by train or truck.
A trash-sorting and transfer operation helps support a lower-waste future, argues Tim Cusson, vice president of business development for Parallel Products.
“We’re exporting more, and more, and more waste as more landfills close,” said Cusson. “Any ton that I take out of the waste stream is a ton that doesn’t get buried or incinerated.”
Mayor Mitchell’s administration has agreed not to publicly oppose the trash transfer facility. That pledge is part of a host community agreement the city signed with Parallel Products in 2022.
In exchange, the company agreed to drop its plan to build a biosolids facility in the business park, which would have processed treated sludge from sewage treatment facilities into fertilizer.
The agreement also requires Parallel to ban and monitor for truck traffic on Phillips Road, which separates the business park from Pine Hill Acres. (The business park, an industrial park that opened in 1961, also includes the Titleist, Polyneer and Edson International manufacturing facilities.)
Huntoon, Mitchell’s spokesperson, said in a statement that the mayor believes there are “more suitable places than New Bedford to site a municipal waste and biosolids facility.”
Yet an attorney with expertise on waste sites warned the city that it probably wouldn’t be able to convince state siting authorities to reject the Parallel Products expansion, Huntoon said.
“Given the City’s limited influence over the ultimate outcome, the City sought to make the best of a difficult situation by entering into an agreement with the company to protect residents from the most objectionable elements of the proposal,” Huntoon said in a statement to The Light. The agreement also includes a pricing provision: if the city uses the facility for its own trash, the company will charge New Bedford the lowest price it charges any of its customers.
For the remaining municipal waste processing facility, the agreement stipulates the ban on Phillips Road truck traffic and requires the company to pay a $2 per ton tipping fee on all municipal waste entering the facility.
Business Park operations officials add that numerous rounds of project review from the state environmental agency, the city Planning Board, and the city Board of Health will ensure that Parallel Products’ environmental footprint is managed.
“Every community needs trash and recycling,” said Santos of the New Bedford Economic Development Council. “It’s something that we never want to think about. I think if they operate in a professional way, and they’re sensitive to neighbors’ concerns, then everyone can live and work together.”
A controversial neighbor
Five New Bedford city councilors and five local state representatives have submitted public comments opposing the trash facility, along with Massachusetts state Sen. Mark Montigny.
“Getting rid of our waste is important,” said Brad Markey, city councilor for Ward 1, which includes the business park and nearby neighborhoods. “But unfortunately, where it is now in the industrial park, you got all these houses built up, and developments. So now, it’s impacting a lot more people.”
Scott Lima, Ward 5 city councilor, who is running for a councilor at-large seat in November, also opposed the project. “The overwhelming majority of people who live in that neighborhood do not want trash brought into their neighborhood,” said Lima. “It has the potential for causing disruption.”
McHugh, the Pine Hill Acres resident, said he opposes the trash facility in part because of a lifetime of dealing with pollution in the North End. He grew up in his current home on Ridgewood Road in the 1960s, and he recalls the noxious odor that would blow into the neighborhood from Polaroid’s plastic-film manufacturing facility starting in the 1970s. (Polaroid closed and sold its facility in the early 2000s; Parallel Products sits on Polaroid’s old site.)
The state considers many parts of the North End to be environmental justice communities. Between 33% to 42% of residents in the neighborhoods abutting the proposed facility are people of color, and roughly 10% self-identify as not speaking English proficiently, according to state data. Median household income in the area is between 57% and 88% that of the state.
Parallel Products has not been a good neighbor, says McHugh. In 2020, the New Bedford Conservation Commission issued a cease-and-desist order to the company. The facility was stockpiling uncovered piles of glass in its parking lot, generating polluted runoff during storms that drained into catch basins and nearby wetlands, according to the enforcement order.
McHugh said the proposed facility currently lacks an evacuation plan for Pine Hill Acres in case of a fire. Solid waste plants across the country face fire risks as they handle more small lithium batteries in discarded items such as vapes and musical birthday cards. The only routes out of Pine Hill Acres open onto Phillips Road, the boundary between the neighborhood and the Business Park.
“If there’s a fire, everybody in Pine Hill Acres has to go towards the fire to get out of here,” he said.
Christine Kelley, a former North End resident, said she moved out of the neighborhood last year because she feared the trash project would lower its property values. She argued that increased truck traffic and diesel emissions would pose a safety threat to children going to the nearby Campbell and Pulaski elementary schools.
Betty Saulnier, a Pine Hill Acres resident, said she’s concerned that heavy metals or other contaminants — including PFAS, a family of cancer-causing “forever chemicals” — might leach from the garbage as employees spray it with water to clean it. This polluted water could end up in the Acushnet Cedar Swamp State Reservation, she argued.
Cusson, of Parallel Products, says the company will collect and ship out the leachate — or contaminated discharge from compressed waste — from the proposed facility’s indoor waste-processing section. He says the company will invest in a Fire Rover detection and extinguisher system to minimize the threat of fires. He said the company and the city would develop an emergency response plan, possibly including plans for evacuation, in the future.
Two environmental organizations also oppose the trash facility.
Wendy Morrill, president of local environmental organization South Coast Neighbors United, said that while Parallel Products estimates it will be able to extract 20% to 25% of the waste stream’s volume and divert it to recycling, she believes that cross-contamination from food and other waste will make it difficult to reach that benchmark.
“It’s a trash depot,” she said. “It’s not going to solve the waste crisis. It will perpetuate the waste crisis.”
Morrill noted that the rest of the trash will be shipped off to be burned or buried in a state with cheaper land or less stringent environmental regulations. The bulk of Massachusetts’ exported waste now goes to New York, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Alabama.
“There’s ways to reduce waste,” Morrill said. “But those conversations aren’t happening, because we’re too busy fighting.”
The Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation also opposes the trash facility.
“What we have here in New Bedford is the old strategy of just producing waste and moving it from one place to the other for burning or burying,” says Mara Shulman, a senior attorney with the foundation, “with no regard for how that will impact local communities, public health, or the environment.”
Shulman says Massachusetts has reached “a tipping point” for waste management. “We’re running out of space in our landfills,” she said. “More importantly, we have poisoned our environment and our health with the way that we’ve managed waste.” Regional health concerns are growing, she said, over exposure to airborne incinerator emissions and to PFAS in groundwater.
That said, Shulman notes that the best way to manage the state’s existing trash is to reduce the amount of waste we produce through state-level policies. She said the state could achieve that with more compost facilities, pay-as-you-throw systems (in which cities and towns charge residents for each bag of garbage they throw away), improved enforcement of existing waste bans on food and recyclables, and modernizing bottle-and-can deposit return systems.
In 2018, Massachusetts produced 5.7 million tons of trash. The state set a goal of reducing solid waste by 1.7 million pounds from 2020 to 2030, yet in 2020 and 2021, the state produced even more waste.
“I can understand that change can feel impossible at times,” Shulman said, “but if we care to protect our own health, it’s not negotiable.”
Shulman said she hopes that the Parallel Products debate provokes South Coast residents to support state waste reduction policies.
“I would really love members of the public to think about how we can solve this larger problem,” she said. “We could defeat this specific facility that’s being proposed in New Bedford, but that doesn’t resolve the larger issue of what we do as consumers and how we manage waste.”
Editor’s note: This report was updated on Oct. 13, 2023, to include additional details about the city’s agreement with Parallel Products.
Email reporter Adam Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.