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Old landfill is toxic in more ways than one

October 20, 2012

Special to the Standard

EXETER – The old 4.35-acre municipal landfill, located off Rt. 102, west of the Exeter Town Hall and once in danger of becoming a federal Superfund site, is the subject of a no-holds-barred pre-election controversy.
Dan Patterson, a Republican, has sent out a mass e-mail to key party members, contending that a request from DPW Director Steve Mattscheck to purchase a specialized piece of equipment for mandated twice-yearly mowing of the landfill’s grassy cap would be onerous on taxpayers.
While acknowledging that the closure came in $200,000 under budget, Patterson charges that “some individuals in our town government want to spend your money as they see fit.” He maintains that the town has a “boom mower”
to which a $5,000 brush cutter can be attached at savings of $80,000.
He further contends the grass is “not even growing yet!”
(During an extensive on-site investigation last Friday, a reporter observed that grass was, in fact, sprouting.)
At an Oct. 1 council meeting, the vote deadlocked 2-2 along party lines with Arlene Hicks and Bill Monahan supporting advertising for bids on the machinery and Patterson, joined by Ray Morrissey, a declared Independent who attends GOP town committee meetings and tends to vote with Patterson, opposing.
Calvin Ellis, who was absent, has asked that the matter be revisited at a meeting on Nov. 5. Patterson’s e-mail concludes, “Mr. Ellis does not understand demacratic [sic] process in this town and wants to spend your money on equipment we do not need.”
Ellis says that he recently questioned Mattscheck about “his request for a special mower. He had told me in an earlier conversation that this machine can have additional uses within his department.  I have also discussed with him in past months how frequently Dan Patterson has called his judgment into question.”
A longtime councilman, Ellis says, “I have come to conclude that a personal bias exists, caused at least in part by the issuance of a cease-and-desist order against Dan  nine years ago.” The action involved an investigation – conducted by Mattscheck, then DPW foreman – into who was removing soil from the excavation of the new library site.
He concluded that Patterson, a private contractor, was helping himself and the council took action. “This was not about politics,” Ellis maintains, “as the council majority at that time was Republican, as is Dan.”
The Standard-Times has obtained a copy of a Notice of Violation Order to Cease and Desist, dated Nov. 18, 2003, written on official Town of Exeter stationery and addressed to Patterson. The council ordered him to stop hauling materials from the library excavation site and warned that each day of continued activity would constitute a separate violation.
In a brief history of the landfill’s closure in 1982, Mattscheck explains, “It had been dormant for years and there was not enough material for a cap. Exeter was cited and it ended with the state and feds threatening to have a private company do it. It was going to cost a lot of money [because] when the feds handle it privately, it costs $1 million an acre.
“They do the work and give you the bill; they did South Kingstown and charged them $23 million for 22 acres. My plan was to do it in-house [at a cost of] $600,000 over five years so as not to be a big burden.”
Ellis is impressed with what the DPW director pulled off. “He has accomplished what we had to do to comply with a federal mandate, while saving taxpayers well in excess of a million dollars, probably more than two million.”
The five-year-program is nearly completed, ushering in the maintenance phase. Mattscheck wants the new machine and mower – which he says can probably be acquired for $65,000-$70,000 at a municipal bid price – because of its stability, efficiency and multi-use potential.
He’s also deeply concerned with the safety of his men when they’re cutting two-foot-high hay on a steeply-graded slope.
“Because it’s on a hillside, we don’t have a piece of equipment to maintain and mow it twice a year” as required by state Department of Environmental Management and federal Environmental Protection Agency regulation.
“Erosion is a huge issue on the landfill until vegetative growth is established. Water is coming off the adjacent hillside as well as our own. What’s needed is equipment with rubber tracks that can climb the hills.”
The mower attachment he’s selected will go on other tractors and he plans to trade in a bulldozer with steel treads on a new road-grader. “This project has a lot of return on investment.”
Among town-wide maintenance for which the new piece of equipment could be used are clearing retention and detention basins in the newer developments where “we haven’t been able to gain access” to deal with storm water runoff and storage; snow removal; and mowing at the town farm and library.
“There are a number of attachments available to borrow or rent in the future that can do multiple jobs. We can multi-task projects from funds already available.” He notes that the money needed to buy the rig, which can accommodate the front-mounted mower as well as numerous other attachments, is being purchased with what was saved by using town labor and machinery.
Mattscheck further points out that the funds appropriated by voters for the landfill closure is earmarked and cannot be spent anywhere else. And he finds Patterson’s suggestion to use equipment the town already owns lacking in common sense and expertise.
“The tractor he’s talking about is a farm tractor with a mower on the side. It’s not safe to be used on the landfill; that’s a hazardous site.” Because erosion will likely cause depressions hidden by the high grass, he says it would be dangerous to use an old-fashioned mower.
“There’s a high center of gravity, the front end pivots and it could easily drop into the washout, damaging the machine and injuring the employee.” Mattscheck wants a machine with dual drive that can turn safely on an unstable surface while the mower is pushed in front, cutting the grass uniformly across its entire width, mulching as it goes.
He feels Patterson’s position “is about votes not about the health and safety of the town’s employees. When [Mattscheck’s request] was tabled on a 2-2 vote, I didn’t take offense. I’m purchasing a safe piece of equipment. [Patterson} is wrong: that’s on him.”
To date, the landfill has undergone 14 tests of the soil that’s been collected for years, trucked in and spread on a pattern of grids separating the contaminated material from the clean.
It has passed with flying colors.

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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