Saugus incinerator settlement

Professor Robert Lee | 10 years ago

Saugus is a small town 13 miles north of Boston, Massachusetts. It was first settled in 1629 and from 1646 an iron works, the first integrated iron works in the USA operated from there. I know the iron works well, since my Uncle, Francis (but known to everyone as Mac) lived right by it before he died some years ago. On one occasion when I was staying with Mac, I was woken at around 5am by a curious scraping sound. I looked between my curtains to see a neighbour of his dragging his waste bin along to transfer his waste into my Uncle’s bin. When I told Mac over breakfast, he sighed wearily and told me that this was a weekly occurrence. It turns out it was an attempt to reduce waste charges, or at least shift these more equitably around the neighbourhood. Everyone knew about it but no-one could really be bothered to sit around at 5 am each week in an attempt to ward off the activity.
More modern industry has replaced the historic iron works but Saugus retains its industrial feel. Yet it is in a naturally beautiful spot where the Saugus River reaches Boston North shore. There are two ways into Saugus either along Route 1 or over the Salem Turnpike (Route 107). Travelling north from Boston along Salem Turnpike, just before crossing the River at Saugus, there is an area of marshland, Rumney Marshes, which is a 1,000 acre saltmarsh. This is an ‘Area of Critical Environmental Concern’ because according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service it is ‘one of the most biologically significant estuaries in Massachusetts’, providing a home for a huge variety of birdlife including at least five species state-listed as endangered, threatened, or of special concern.
Over the River lies Lynn, named after King’s Lynn in Norfolk, with its town of Swampscott; these names being indicative of the low lying wetland area. Between the Rumney Marshes and the River sits the municipal incinerator. Driving from Logan airport in Mac’s car the incinerator chimney provided a landmark indicating just where Saugus was.
So I thought of Mac and of municipal waste this week when I read that the operators of the Saugus incinerator, Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., had agreed to pay $7.5 million in settlement of an action based on breach of environmental laws including the Clean Water Act and the Wetlands Protection Act, in the running of three Massachusetts based incinerators including that at Saugus, after evidence was provided by two whistle-blowers. Interestingly, in view of my story about waste charges, above, the legal action included a claim that the company had defrauded residents in the Lynn area who had paid for the safe disposal of their waste.
While settling the action, the company denied responsibility for pollution saying:
“We have maintained the highest commitment to environmental compliance… We have settled this matter to avoid years of costly litigation … No harm to the environment or to the health and safety of the public or our employees occurred.’’
But the State of Massachusetts alleged that at the Saugus plant a broken filter had allowed 8,000 gallons of ash sludge to spill into the wetlands in September 2009. It was said that requirements to inform the regulators were ignored and that areas of the wetlands were excavated without permission. The lawsuit also alleged that a hole in the roof at the Saugus incinerator created air emissions of ash while tanks of waste water had been discharged into the car park of the incinerator affecting the wetlands.
The director of the Saugus River Watershed Council called the alleged violations ‘appalling’ and said that thankfully “violations that threaten public health and our precious environmental resources have been identified and called to a halt.”
The nature of the charges incorporating fraud, the size of the settlement, and the fact that the whistle-blowers get a share of the settlement which may make them millionaires, all make this a fascinating story. However, it is one that is very much based in the USA and of interest perhaps only to British readers who happen to know Saugus, or have an Uncle Mac – or so one might think. Except that I then discover that Wheelabrator Technologies are part of a consortium that is the preferred bidder on a new municipal incinerator at Lynn. Kings Lynn, that is, Norfolk, England…

About the author

Professor Robert Lee

ERIC Director and Head of Birmingham Law School, Professor Robert Lee was co-director of the publicly funded Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society at Cardiff University (BRASS). He is an expert on regulation, including environmental regulation and regulation of biotechnology and biomedicine. He previously worked for two top 10 UK law firms, and remains a professional-development consultant to one of the largest law firms in Europe, working on pan-European delivery of legal services.