The Bennington Landfill, Vermont:
Public-Private Partnerships in Restoring a Superfund Site
Like many small towns throughout America, Bennington, Vermont, possesses a rich history, a diverse population, and a beautiful natural environment. Like other small towns, it also has a legacy of toxic waste disposal with the potential to affect human and ecosystem health in the area.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Bennington Landfill was a sand and gravel quarry, and indeed sand and gravel extraction is still a major industry throughout the region. By the late 1960s, the Bennington Landfill site had been exhausted and, in keeping with common practice at the time, was converted to a waste disposal site. Like others of its age and type, the Bennington Landfill was of primitive design, unlined and unequipped with controls for air or water emissions. Beginning in June, 1969, the site began receiving a mixture of residential, commercial, and industrial wastes. Solid wastes dumped at the site included scrapped capacitors containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and liquid wastes included a variety of toxic materials such as solvents. Liquid wastes were placed in an unlined pit from 1969 to 1975, at which time the pit was filled and covered.
By the mid 1970s, sampling of seepage from the landfill revealed high levels of PCBs in groundwater. Subsequent sampling by state and federal agencies found high levels of volatile organic compounds, metals, and other pollutants in groundwater and in the surface waters and sediments of wetlands adjacent to the site. These findings were of particular concern because of the migratory bird populations that frequented the local wetlands. There was evidence that biomagnification of PCBs in particular had adversely affected the health of some bird populations, and possibly reduced the biological diversity and productivity of the wetland ecosystem. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Bennington Landfill as a Superfund site.
Restoration of sites like Bennington’s wetland can be a lengthy process, often complicated by disagreements among public agencies and an unhappy public. In Bennington, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Vermont worked together and with the town of Bennington, who had been designated the responsible party under Superfund legislation. Part of the agreement was a commitment to restore the wetland. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the town accomplished this goal by restoring a nearby uncontaminated forested wetland area that had once been part of a water supply system. Aging water supply cisterns and pipes had to be removed before the wetland’s natural hydrology could return to its natural condition. The town also granted a conservation easement to ensure that the wetland would be protected permanently. In total, the restoration effort was estimated at around $160,000. But town officials realized that they had the human resources and equipment to do much of the work themselves. So during the slow winter season, the town put their staff to work in grading the land in and around the wetland to create a more natural wetland habitat.
The town’s efforts were applauded by the citizens, who in turn pitched in to create a valued local resource. A citizen committee helped to oversee the restoration work, and created a trail system and signs. The wetland restoration project is integrated into local schools’ curriculum, and classes use the wetland as an outdoor laboratory. And because much of the work was done by volunteers, the cost was a fraction of the original estimate. The town manager commented that by involving the town workers and local citizens, the project had been transformed from a significant financial burden to a valued community resource.
The restoration project was largely complete by the fall of 2001. Now, 3 years later, monitoring continues. The wetland habitat is expanding, with new plant and animal species being identified. Bennington, in partnership with federal and state agencies, has created a high quality wildlife habitat, and recreational and educational opportunities, from what might have been a costly, long-term environmental problem.
The Bennington Landfill story is one of good news and minimal conflict. It does, however, raise several generic issues about restoring seriously degraded sites.
1. Ecological restoration is a “good news” story that provides an incentive to clean up. As a result, they may encourage environmental stewardship in the long run.
2. Restoring degraded sites reduces risks to human and ecosystem health, and allows the use of lands that might otherwise be “off limits.”
3. The Bennington Landfill restoration project demonstrates that Superfund sites can be restored at reasonable costs and with significant benefits to the community, including increased educational and recreational resources.
1. The Bennington Landfill is a relatively small and simple site. The restoration efforts, however successful, may give the false impression—to regulatory agencies, industry, or the public—that restoring Superfund sites is easy or inexpensive.
2. It will be many years before ecological monitoring demonstrates that the risk posed from past waste management activities is significantly reduced. In the meantime, the main benefit of the Bennington Landfill restoration may be aesthetic, rather than ecological.
3. There is no guarantee that the restored wetland has the same or equivalent ecological function as that degraded in the original sand and gravel excavation and later landfill operation.
Citizen concern about leaking waste disposal sites led Congress to establish the Superfund Program through the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in December, 1980. The goal of Superfund is to create a public trust as a basis for locating, investigating, and cleaning up the most polluted sites nationwide. The EPA administers the Superfund program through the Office of Superfund Remediation Technology Innovation (OSRTI).
Superfund draws its funding from a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries. In the first 5 years of its operation, Superfund collected $1.6 billion for the purpose of cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. CERCLA also provides for liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste at these sites, and establishes a trust fund to pay for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified. Under CERCLA, two kinds of responses are possible: short-term removals (in cases where an immediate response is essential); and long-term remedial response actions that permanently and significantly reduce the dangers associated with hazardous waste sites.
The Superfund cleanup process begins with a preliminary site inspection, followed by a scoring process that assigns priorities among the many sites under consideration. As part of this process, the nature and extent of contamination is determined, cleanup alternatives are examined, and a remedial action plan is proposed. The Superfund program provides not only for cleanup activities, but also for long-term monitoring and follow-up, to ensure that remedial actions have had the intended effect.
The textbook provides a variety of background information that deals with issues of atmospheric fertilization of estuaries. This information includes Chapter 7 on the hydrologic cycle, Chapter 17 on water pollution, and Chapter 19 on hazardous waste management. Chapter 11 discusses restoration ecology and the restoration of damaged ecosystems.
This site is a media report on the Bennington Landfill restoration project.
USFWS publishes this fact sheet on the Bennington Landfill project.
This major report, provided in PDF format, gives a detailed review of the presence of toxic chemicals in towns throughout Vermont.
This is U.S. EPA’s official Website reporting on the Superfund process used for the Bennington Landfill restoration.
The GAO maintains detailed records of all Superfund cleanup operations. This is their summary of efforts at the Bennington Landfill.
A map illustrating the types and locations of environmental hazards in Vermont.
A report on how underfunding the Superfund program harms communities across America.
This report presents a variety of strategies for cleanup and restoration of older industrial and waste disposal sites.
U.S. EPA’s home page for the Superfund hazardous waste cleanup program.
A general guide to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
This is a U.S. EPA site providing overview information on the Superfund program.
This page provides links to a large number of documents and other resources relating to Superfund site investigation and closure.
Hird, John A. Superfund: the Political Economy of Environmental Risk. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
LaGrega, Michael D. Hazardous Waste Management. 2d ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Reisch, Mark E. Anthony. Superfund and the Brownfields Issue. New York: Novinka Books, 2003.
Rhyner, C. R., L. J. Schwartz, R. B. Wenger, and M. G. Kohrell. Waste Management and Resource Recovery. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Lewis Publishers, 1995.
Watts, R. J. Hazardous Wastes. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
Urbanska, K. M., N. R. Webb, and Peter J. Edwards, eds. Restoration Ecology and Sustainable Development. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Whisenant, S. G. Repairing Damaged Wildlands: A Process-Oriented, Landscape-Scale Approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.