Pennsylvania’s first proposed hazardous waste site would be near homes and schools

PITTSBURGH — A Pittsburgh-based landfill company has applied for a permit to open the first hazardous waste landfill in the state of Pennsylvania, which some fear could threaten waterways and increase air pollution.

Hazardous waste includes anything that is potentially hazardous or harmful to human health or the environment. This includes items such as cleaning chemicals, paints and solvents, corrosive or toxic industrial waste, air pollution control sludge and waste from the oil and gas industry, including potentially radioactive materials. Federal regulations require that these waste products be handled and disposed of with special care.

The company that would build the new hazardous waste landfill, MAX Environmental Technologies, Inc., is headquartered in Pittsburgh and operates two landfills in the nearby communities of Yukon and Bulger. The Yukon facility, located about 29 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, stores and treats this type of waste, but is not allowed to dispose of it on-site, so any waste that remains hazardous after treatment must be shipped out of the state for disposal.

If approved by MAX, the Company will construct a new hazardous waste landfill on its Yukon property, located within a mile radius of 485 homes and approximately two and a half miles from the Young School District. Residents in the area have spent decades closing the existing landfill, fearing it is too close to homes and schools and fearing that the dangerous pollution it generates is causing health problems.

“We moved into our first home there as newlyweds in the 1980s, and shortly after we moved there my husband and I started having all sorts of health issues,” Diana Steck told EHN, noting that the landfill was then owned by was another company, Mill Services. “My husband got this horrible rash on his face, back and arms and I started having problems with asthma and starting to have problems with unexplained joint pains.”

After the births of Steck’s children, they also developed unusual health problems. She saw orange feathers rising from the spot and said the acrid smells caused her family’s nose and mouth to blister. After reading a message about the landfill releasing toxic pollutants such as heavy metals, arsenic and chromium compounds into the air and water, she joined a group of local residents who were also concerned about the health effects and spent the next few days Decades unsuccessfully fighting to see the landfill closed. Steck has now moved about 10 miles away but remains concerned.

“The community was seen as a victim zone,” she said. “This new landfill would be even closer to homes and closer to Sewickley Creek, a tributary of the Youghiogheny River that provides a source of drinking water for many people downstream. Everyone living in the area, including those further away from the landfill, should be concerned.”

More recently, a public outcry erupted when MAX Environmental applied to have some of the waste it handles classified as non-hazardous. Environmentalists say the company wasn’t a good neighbor.

“The existing facility is chronically non-compliant,” Melissa Marshall, an attorney and community advocate at the Mountain Watershed Association, told EHN, adding that the facility ranks among the top facilities in the state when it comes to violations of the approval for water discharge. “A company that cannot follow the rules to ensure the safety of our waterways should not be trusted to become the first hazardous waste site in the state.”

In the meantime, the operator of the plant announced EHN that they operate the site safely and take all necessary precautions to protect the environment and surrounding communities.

“We are of course aware that our discharge limits have been exceeded in the past,” said Carl Spadaro, who previously worked as an engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and is now the environmental manager for MAX Environmental Technologies. “In recent years we have increased maintenance on our wastewater treatment system to keep it as clean as possible.”

What’s next and how can local residents get involved?

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is holding a public meeting and hearing on the first phase of the permit application on the evening of Thursday, December 1st. The agency will also collect public comments on the proposed landfill through January 20, 2023.

DEP spokeswoman Lauren Camarda noted that this hearing marks the start of a lengthy and comprehensive permitting process, and said that this first hearing would only discuss issues related to site determinations.

“The verification process for a hazardous waste disposal facility is a mandatory and multi-phase process, and we are in Phase I,” Camarda told EHN. “It is important to emphasize that if the Phase I application is approved, a Phase II application will still need to be submitted, which will have its own comprehensive review process, including a public participation process.”

If the application passes the first two phases without a rejection by the DEP, the Agency will publish a draft or denial notice and there will be additional public hearing and comment periods.

“Typically, they try to put sites like this as far away from people as possible,” Marshall said. “It’s very unusual to have a hazardous waste site so close to people’s homes…so it’s really important that the community participate in these hearings.”

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