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Recycling bid raises specter of past woes

Pollution history underlies concern

In this community of rolling apple orchards, horse farms, and a growing number of suburban homes, the federal government during the 1980s declared three areas among the most environmentally contaminated sites in the country.

Drinking water supplies were shut down. Taxpayers chipped in upwards of $13 million toward cleanup costs. And town leaders and residents vowed to be better stewards of their environment by luring enviromentally sensitive businesses to town and assembling a team of volunteers to monitor the quality of the air, water, and noise.

So when the Charles George Trucking Co. of Londonderry started to talk this summer about hauling in commercial waste to a recycling center that it would like to build along Route 102, near a residential area, residents and town leaders reacted immediately with concern and suspicion.

Nearly 1,000 residents have signed petitions in opposition to the proposal. A core group of volunteers has launched a website. And town leaders and residents alike have been raising questions about the background of the family that runs the trucking company -- a family whose members once operated one of New England's most contaminated sites, the Charles George landfill in Tyngsborough, Mass.

"Given Londonderry's past issues with EPA Superfund sites, we are vigilant about caring for our environment and being sensitive to preserving the clean environment we are currently enjoying," said Tom Dolan, chairman of the Town Council, who requested that the attorney general's office conduct a background check on the family.

John Cronin, the Manchester attorney representing Charles George Trucking Co., said he anticipated the recycling center proposal would generate debate, but he said he believes residents and town officials are casting an unnecessarily negative cloud over the proposal by dragging in past history.

He said the brothers who run the company, Christopher and Michael Karras, have a solid environmental record, and it is unfair to associate their company, incorporated in New Hampshire in 1996, with the history of their two uncles and grandparents, who ran a company in Massachusetts that went by the same name.

That Charles George Trucking Co. dissolved in 1983, as state and federal probes into contamination at the Tyngsborough landfill intensified. The two uncles, James and Charles George Jr., settled a civil lawsuit with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Massachusetts in 1992 for $3.1 million.

The grandparents, Charles Sr. and Dorothy George, settled earlier this year with the EPA and the state for $3.8 million.

"The debate has become more politically and personally driven than substantive," Cronin said. "We want a fair opportunity to be heard, to get through the process and be evaluated on the merits."

Cronin also said there is a big difference between a landfill from a couple of decades ago and the "state of the art" recycling center that the Karras brothers are proposing.

The recycling center would be located next to the headquarters of Charles George Trucking on Route 102. It would run 24 hours a day, grinding and reprocessing the 1,000 tons of cement, wood, and other debris hauled in each day by 150 trucks.

Cronin emphasized that all work would be done inside the plant, which would be lined with special soundproofing insulation. An engineer for the project, Benjamin Siebecker of the Massachusetts firm Shaw EMCON/OWT, said that a nearby hill would act as a buffer to the surrounding neighborhoods.

But some residents, who attended a company-sponsored meeting on the project this past summer, are skeptical. They, along with other residents in town, worry about such things as noise and truck traffic.

"This would not be good in anyone's backyard," said Gary Ciccone, who lives about a quarter-mile away from the site in a neighborhood where many large houses are shielded from the road with maple, oak, and fir trees.

"It would be gross and smelly, and it will generate a lot of truck traffic. It's just a bad project for Londonderry."

Dolan, the council chairman, asked the state attorney general's office to conduct a background check into the company, the former company of the same name, and the extended George family, which also goes by last name of Georgoulakos. He and members of other town boards are reviewing documents provided by the attorney general's office. Local officials have accused the company of not being forthcoming in providing details of its background and the work experience of its top management.

Of particular concern is the owner of the newer Charles George Trucking Co., Karen George. She is the mother of the Karras brothers and the daughter of the owners of the old company. She worked for the former Charles George Trucking Co., performing a variety of office duties, during the time of contamination at the Tyngsborough site, according to court documents in a civil lawsuit brought by Massachusetts and the federal government.

"It's important for them to be honest and direct when questioned about the issues that concern us, and they ought to be sensitive to our nervousness, given the past record that is well documented in Massachusetts and New Hampshire," Dolan said.

The state of Massachusetts in 1983 ordered the closure of the 55-acre Tyngsborough landfill after volatile organic compounds and heavy metals were detected in samples from wells serving nearby houses and a condominium complex.

The landfill, which was operated by the George family, held a license for three years in the 1970s to accept hazardous waste.

In addition to members of the George family, more than four dozen other responsible parties, including municipalities and corporations in northern Massachusets, entered into two consent decrees in 1992, contributing $34.7 million toward the cleanup.

Cronin said residents and town officials who try to make a connection between the Tyngsborough landfill and business practices of other members of the family "should be very careful."

"From my view," Cronin said, "I think it's so unfair they have tried to make a personal attack on two young guys who are trying to do the right thing."

He said the Karras brothers resurrected the name of the former family company to honor their grandfather, Charles George Sr., who had emigrated to this country from Greece and started the business from nothing.

The Karras brothers are in the exploratory stages of developing their proposal, which is why they reached out to town leaders and neighbors for input, Cronin said.

The first step in the process will be to gain a conditional use permit from the town before going through the traditional approval process for the project.

A conditional use permit is necessary because the site is located in what is called a "performance overlay district," which places additional restrictions on how the land can be developed and could prevent the construction of a recycling center.

Residents and members of various town boards, who have concerns about the proposal, are remaining mobilized. This is the strongest amount of opposition that has arisen since an uproar in the 1990s over the construction of the AES Granite Ridge power plant.

Even though that plant was designed to be environmentally sensitive, many residents still did not want it in town or anchoring their "Eco-Park," which is suppose to attract environmentally friendly businesses.

The plant eventually was built and began commercial operation last April.

While concerns about the site location and the family's background have dominated the current debate, some residents and town leaders have also questioned whether the town needs to have a recycling center since the town already has a business performing a similar task at a different location.

"We don't think [the recycling center] is an appropriate use for the property," said Anne Jacoby, a member of the town committee that is assessing the quality of the air, water, and noise. "I think that is what [galvanized] the community to respond so quickly."

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