Environmental Hazards Found on Island

By JAMES KINSELLA

Recycling is driven by a desire to better protect the environment.

But a tour of Vineyard transfer stations over the past week revealed instances where recycled materials might have been hurting rather than helping.

The tour by a Gazette reporter and photographer found broken fluorescent light bulbs and car batteries resting on the ground, oil leaking out into puddles and metals stored on bare ground. All are violations of state rules governing the handling of recyclables.

Of the seven transfer stations, the Edgartown station - the main transfer operation of the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District - appeared to have the most violations, followed by the Vineyard Haven station. The Chilmark station (a satellite in the Vineyard recovery district) appeared to be the most in compliance.

The Gazette team first visited the Edgartown station last Friday and returned to the station Tuesday to find that several apparent violations had been addressed. In particular, the metals had been moved off the ground and either onto a concrete pad or into a dumpster.

District manager Donald Hatch blamed the conditions at the Edgartown station last Friday on the busy summer season. Mr. Hatch said transfer station workers direct people where to place recyclables, but he said items sometimes are dropped in the wrong location, especially items that carry a disposal charge.

Fred LaPiana, the Tisbury director of public works, said people using the Vineyard Haven station have been known to surreptitiously leave behind materials not accepted by the station. A visit Tuesday to the station revealed a car battery and two propane tanks sitting on the ground, neither officially allowed at the station.

A visit that same day to the West Tisbury station, another satellite of the district, also revealed metals on the ground, including a hot water tank.

Ed Coletta, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said complaints periodically are made to the department about conditions at different transfer stations around the state.

Mr. Coletta said the department usually refers the complaints to local boards of health, which permit the transfer stations and have the same powers of enforcement as the department.

On those occasions, he said, the town health agent usually visits the station to verify the violations and ask the station to remedy the situation.

If violations persist, Mr. Coletta said, they can be the subject of an environmental notice of noncompliance, or civil or criminal court action. A transfer station also can be shut down, he said.

Edgartown health agent Matt Poole said the district transfer station in his town "does at least an okay job in handling recyclables. There's room for improvement. It's the difference between an excellent operation and a fair operation."

More significant, Mr. Poole said, is the lack of seagulls haunting the transfer station, which also handles trash. "They've successfully operated bird-free from day one," he said.

Mr. Poole said controlling the bird situation at the transfer station is especially important because the Martha's Vineyard Airport is nearby. Bird strikes are dangerous to aircraft.

Mr. Poole said the Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) commercial transfer operation in Oak Bluffs continues to draw seagulls, even though the recycling operation at the station appeared to be among the cleanest on the Vineyard.

David Nash, an Edgartown resident who formerly worked in the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection Waste Management Bureau, is critical of the Edgartown station operation.

Mr. Nash, who headed permitting and enforcement at waste-handling facilities in that state, visited the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and BFI transfer stations last Friday with the Gazette.

He pointed to a pile of fluorescent lights, which he said were improperly stored on the ground. He noted that at least one light was broken, which would have released mercury, a toxic carcinogen, into the air.

Sitting next to the pile on the ground were a couple of car batteries and propane tanks. The tanks are not supposed to be left at the district, while the batteries should be off the ground.

Mr. Nash also drew attention to a pile of metals, mostly on the ground, including the front end of a Volkswagen Beetle car. He pointed to stains on the ground underneath the metals, which he said could consist of toxic spills. The metals pile also included plastic chairs.

He also criticized the relative safety of the area where users recycle cardboard, glass and plastic. He said a small wooden step leading to the cardboard dumping area was wobbly, while catwalks along dumpsters where glass and plastic are dumped lacked safety railings.

Mr. Nash also faulted the signage at the dump. He said signs sometimes were missing or gave poor directions. Many are hand-lettered, which he said contributes to an amateurish appearance at the station.

In contrast, he said the small Oak Bluffs municipal recycling station was a much cleaner operation, although that station does not handle the range of recyclables that Edgartown handles. He also praised the clearly posted rules at the Oak Bluffs station.

Mr. Hatch said he has been aware of the need for better signs at the Edgartown station. But because he modified station operations, Mr. Hatch said the signs have needed to be modified. He said he plans to speak with a commercial sign painter to make signs for the station.

As for the pile of fluorescent bulbs, Mr. Hatch said the off-Island business that had been handling the bulbs has stopped accepting them. He said the district was ordering cardboard packaging for storing the bulbs before sending them to a new vendor.

When the Gazette returned, the wobbly wooden stair had been taken away and the catwalks lacking railings were blocked off.

Mr. Hatch said a long-term problem at the station is its layout, where people can dispose of recyclables before visiting the station shack, rather than having to pass by a gate house to gain entry to the facility. Users also can drop materials at certain sites out of sight of personnel.

But Mr. Nash said the facility operation also appeared to show the failure of station employees to walk around the site and clean up wrongfully disposed materials.

This week, Mr. Nash returned to the Edgartown station, where he noted the changes. "They made some quick, hasty, temporary changes . . . It's certainly a start. There's still the signage issue," he said.

A BFI spokesman was not available for comment about the Oak Bluffs commercial transfer operation.

Someone had slipped at least one car battery and two propane tanks inside the Vineyard Haven station. Oil was leaking into a puddle.

Mr. LaPiana, whose duties include supervising the station, said the oil would have flowed into a catch basin, where the materials are trapped and removed.

He said the town recently installed a camera to monitor the station.

"There's not much to say," about improper use of the station, Mr. LaPiana said, other than that station employees must clean up after improper use.

Mr. Hatch said he is aware of the need for the Vineyard to better handle and move its recyclables off the Island. He said he is working on a grant application to fund a consultant who could work with all the Island transfer stations. One avenue would be to pool Island recyclables, to realize more revenue from marketable recyclables and better meet other costs involved in recycling, he said.

Reporter Mark Alan Lovewell contributed to this story.