Thanks to a meander in the Merrimack River just north of Concord, N.H., I recently was able to fulfill a half-decade’s dream and testify before a committee of the state legislature recently. House Bill 1495, a measure that would increase the setback of proposed landfills from the 500-year flood plain of designated rivers, was introduced by New Hampshire State Rep. Frank Tupper as a way to protect the health of the state’s scenic rivers. Given my voluntary efforts to oppose a solid-waste landfill proposed for the banks of the Merrimack River in Canterbury, I felt compelled to speak in favor of the bill. Besides being impressed by the quality of the testimony and the legislators’ questions, I didn’t realize how involved citizens were in the legislative process.
Arriving at the Legislative Office Building in Concord, I was struck by how easily accessible legislative hearings are to the public: all one needs to do is ride the elevator, sign in and offer a card to the committee chairman if he or she wishes to testify. Room 305 was overflowing when I arrived for the 1:15 hearing on HB 1495, and it turns out that I was the 19th speaker of the day. Standing behind the legislators’ high-backed leather chairs (the audience’s seats were long filled), I heard Rep. Tupper’s reasons for filing the bill: the current setback of landfill requires only 100 feet of distance from the 500-year flood plain, and as testimony from an engineering firm later indicated, the designers of landfills build right to the edge of the setback. In a moment that any former debater would appreciate, Rep. Tupper replied to a legislator’s question about his calculation of the proposed new setback (1,500 feet) by saying that he threw a metaphorical dart at a dartboard to come up with the number. Lest it sound cavalier, Frank Tupper conceived and filed his bill less than 48 hours before the June deadline for this session’s bills; he knew that a legislative subcommittee would use scientific modeling and political precedent to hammer out a reasonable compromise that would pass legal muster. The debate, not the actual distance, is important: locating landfills away from scenic rivers is a prudent way to protect public health, drinking water and the environment.
From years of hearing about K Street (where the big Washington, D.C., lobbying firms are clustered), I was prepared to think that lobbyists are the slick lubricants in the political machine, but I must give them their due. Lobbyists play an important role in shaping legislators’ understanding of the bills before them. In the HB 1495 hearing of the House Recreation, Resources and Development Committee, the Concord Regional Solid Waste/Resource Recovery Cooperative—my adversary in the landfill proposed along the river—had its engineering firm, CMA, testify against the bill.
In his testimony, engineer Craig Musselman of CMA brought impressive graphics mounted on foam core to show the deleterious impact of the proposed bill on landfill construction planned in Lebanon and Canterbury. Lacking graphics, I pondered my role as David to the trash compact’s Goliath. Later in the hearing, however, Mike Speltz of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests circulated a map that showed not only the 8,845 acres conserved along the Pemigewasett and Merrimack rivers but also the aquifers threatened by landfill construction there. Given the legislators’ highly technical questions about fluvial geomorphology, site engineering, soil erosion, and groundwater penetration, it was more illuminating to have informed scientific testimony than what I could offer as a neophyte grassroots activist trying to protect the state’s scenic rivers, not to mention the one near his home. I was glad that I had done my homework so I could produce focused remarks.
Knowing that I would only have five minutes to speak (the legislators were clearly getting tired), I sat at the desk reserved for speakers. My name was called, and I explained my purposes. I appreciated offering a citizen’s voice in a process of landfill siting.
I tailored my testimony to illuminate potential risks that landfills pose to public health and the environment. I had done research on the EPA’s Web site, unearthing a 1993 document titled “Criteria for Solid Waste Disposal Facilities” that listed chemical contaminants from “solid waste constituents” in landfills, including “arsenic, benzene, lead, mercury, trichloromethane and vinyl chloride.” Many of these chemicals are carcinogens.
In addition to the health risks that these contaminants posed to humans, siting a landfill along a scenic river introduces the eventuality of leakage, in potential violation of the Clean Water Act. I thought that my remarks would be measured and logical, but the longer I gave testimony, the more emotionally involved I became in the bill’s import for future generations.
In the middle of my scripted conclusion—“For the sake of our state’s residents, sportsmen, anglers and visitors, I urge you to pass this prudent measure to help ensure the rural character of our state”—I found myself pleading, “Don’t do it for the rural character of the river or the protection of public health. Do it for my daughters, aged 9 and 6, who live less than two miles from this proposed landfill.” Every time that I want to reach out beyond Canterbury I find myself energized by the fact that this fight is my legacy. I was invigorated by the warm and gracious reception afforded my remarks by the august legislators before me.
Every business day, a group of citizen legislators gathers in one of the world’s largest representative bodies to deliberate the laws that will affect more than a million of us. I left the hearing after its adjournment and subsequent referral of the bill to subcommittee truly awed by the thoughtfulness of the legislators who heard the public’s voice amidst the political and technical input that they receive.
An organizer of the Oxbow Initiative, John Bouton has spent more than a year challenging plans for a solid-waste landfill proposed for the banks of the Merrimack River about two miles north of Concord in Canterbury, N.H. John has been an English teacher and administrator at independent schools for the last 13 years and has done some lively volunteer work in addition to raising a family with his wife Carrie. You may reach him at: email@example.com.