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Bridgewater commissioners wish Hebron well

Refuse District dispute, they say, arose from philosophical differences

February 01, 2011
BRIDGEWATER — The dispute that flared up last year between officials in Hebron and Bridgewater over the future of the joint refuse district operated by both communities produced its fair share of heated debate before culminating in the recent decision of voters in Hebron to withdraw from the district.

Despite the often contentious nature of the dispute, which saw them on the receiving end of accusations of mismanagement, Bridgewater's three selectmen (who also serve as the town's Refuse District commissioners) said last week that they harbor no ill will toward their fellow commissioners from Hebron, and wish the residents of Hebron good fortune and success in their new approach to waste disposal.

The Bridgewater commissioners did, however, express concern over several instances of what they felt was misinformation given to voters by the Hebron selectmen in an effort to drum up support for the withdrawal.

Of greatest concern to Commissioner and select board Chairman Terry Murphy was a statement made in the Record Enterprise's front page re-cap of Hebron's Special Town Meeting that he felt mischaracterized the incinerator at the refuse facility as an unnecessarily costly operation.

In reality, Murphy explained, only 27 percent of the waste stream entering the refuse facility is incinerated, representing 15 percent of the total operating budget.

The fixed cost of capital expenses, such as the startup costs of buildings, recycling equipment, and handling equipment, was historically high, he said, adding that Hebron will continue to pay 50 percent of those bonded costs as per the separation agreement signed by the commissioners from both towns.

Murphy and the other Bridgewater commissioners also pointed out that only organic material, which would pollute more if hauled to a landfill, is incinerated at the refuse facility, which they said produces no methane or carbon monoxide, less than seven percent carbon dioxide, and only trace amounts of other pollutants.

The Refuse District, they explained, is unique in that it is a processing facility where 47 to 50 percent of the local waste stream is recycled, reducing the amount incinerated landfilled off-site. Over the past 18 months, they added, there has a been a 50 percent reduction in propane costs and landfill costs at the facility. Labor costs have also declined, they said, while overall operational costs have declined by more than $77,000.

With revenue from recycling on the upswing and the number of incineration days cut down from 130 to 39, they explained, the facility generated a surplus for 2009 and 2010 which retired an earlier deficit associated with legacy costs.

It is those legacy costs, stemming from the DES-monitored closure of the on-site C&D and ash landfills in 1999, that the commissioners said have been the biggest economic weight around the district's neck over the past several years. Listing some of the state-mandated costs associated with the landfill closure, including new permits, engineering consultants, soil and groundwater analysis, well monitoring, and landfill capping (to name but a few), the commissioners said they hope to be able to deal with the known legacy items this year.

Hebron, they added, is responsible for 50 percent of all landfill legacy costs under the terms of the separation agreement, including any on-site pollution costs that the DES might find to have been caused by the landfills over the next 20 to 30 years.

Noting that the Refuse District has been level funded since 2008, the commissioners said that any future surpluses will go toward retiring the long-term bond and setting up reserve funds for capital expenses and maintenance, as recommended by the joint board of commissioners. When those items have been accomplished, the Bridgewater commissioners said their goal is to adjust the budget accordingly.

Ultimately, Commissioner Hank Woolner said, the dispute that resulted in Hebron's withdrawal from the district can be traced back to a philosophical difference between the two communities — namely, what he viewed as Hebron's fixation on immediate financial concerns while the Bridgewater commissioners tried to focus more on the long-term economic benefits offered by the refuse facility.

"They feel that short-term dollars are more important," he said. "We're trying to look to the future."

Murphy agreed, commenting that the Bridgewater commissioners have "tried to balance money and stewardship."

"There was a feeling there [among the Hebron commissioners] that cost is the only thing that matters," he said. "We think there are other factors."

Murphy did say, however, that he and his colleagues "will keep the door open and the light on" should Hebron ever decide to re-join the district in the future.

"To quote Robert Frost," the commissioners wrote in a document outlining their concerns about accuracy, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference…"

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