AG quiet on Saugus trash plant interviews

Investigation stirs public health fear

The Wheelabrator Saugus plant on Route 107 in Saugus is reportedly the subject of an investigation by the attorney general. The Wheelabrator Saugus plant on Route 107 in Saugus is reportedly the subject of an investigation by the attorney general. (Bill Greene/ Globe Staff)
By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / January 17, 2011

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Local health and environmental officials are pressing Attorney General Martha Coakley to release details of a secret investigation of Wheelabrator Saugus, the municipal waste incinerator that burns trash from 15 area cities and towns.

Members of the Saugus Board of Health sent a letter to Coakley last week asking her to release information about alleged environmental violations at the plant. In a separate request, the Saugus River Watershed Council, a nonprofit group that works to protect the Saugus River and Rumney Marsh, also wrote to Coakley requesting information and swift action.

“If the allegations recently reported . . . are factual, then the situation at the Saugus waste incinerator is a public health and environmental emergency that needs to be resolved immediately,’’ wrote Joan LeBlanc, the watershed council’s executive director.

Both the town and the watershed council said their requests were rebuffed last week by members of the attorney general’s staff, who told the local officials no information on the investigation would be released.

According to people who have been questioned, the state began looking at Wheelabrator Saugus in 2009 after two employee whistle-blowers filed a civil lawsuit against the company, alleging that operators of the 35-year-old waste-to-energy plant ignored environmental laws and knowingly released toxic chemicals into the air and water. A copy of the lawsuit, which was sealed by the court as is customary in whistle-blower cases, was obtained by the Globe. Coakley’s office has not confirmed or denied an investigation, but several current and former employees of the plant told the Globe they were interviewed by state investigators.

A spokeswoman for Coakley said her office received the letters from Saugus officials, and that staff had been in touch with them about their concerns.

“While we can’t comment on a potential investigation, our office would certainly notify individuals in any community if we were aware of potential public health threats to such community,’’ the spokeswoman, Melissa Karpinsky, wrote in an e-mail.

Saugus Board of Health chairman Joe Vinard said the secrecy prevents his board from fulfilling its duty to protect the public health.

“It’s very, very frustrating, because I have constituents who want answers,’’ he said.

The board held a special meeting Jan. 8 to address the news of the investigation. Members voted to send a letter to the state requesting information; to stop Saugus students from using open space on the incinerator property for recreation or study until more information is available; and to hire an independent expert to review reports on plant operations. Legislators and officials from neighboring Revere also attended the meeting.

The trash incinerator and adjacent landfill, located on Route 107, burn up to 1,500 tons of solid waste a day, and receive truckloads of garbage from Chelsea, Everett, Beverly, Gloucester, Lynn, Malden, Medford, Marblehead, Revere, Rockport, and Woburn, among other communities.

Wheelabrator Technologies, based in Hampton, N.H., is a wholly owned subsidiary of the international company Waste Management Inc. It operates two other energy-producing incinerators in Massachusetts, in Millbury and North Andover.

The whistle-blowers’ lawsuit, filed in Essex Superior Court on behalf of the cities and towns that contract with the Saugus plant, alleges that the company routinely mishandled the toxic ash and waste water produced by the incineration process, failing to use enough lime to counteract its toxicity, failing to use equipment designed to control air pollution, and disposing of excess waste water by dumping it or diverting it off the property.

Wheelabrator officials in Saugus and New Hampshire did not respond to requests for comment last week. Vinard said two Wheelabrator representatives attended the Jan. 8 Board of Health meeting and apologized for not telling the board what was going on, but said they knew little about the allegations and believed them to be false.

Saugus Town Meeting member Peter Manoogian, who represents the precinct where the incinerator is located, lamented the lack of information and called on the attorney general to be forthcoming.

“This process, with its unusual delays and extensions, is not in the best interest of the community, and the state should either take action or release the information,’’ he said. “The citizens of Saugus have a right to know what’s going on here.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at