Amherst Residents for Environmental Accountability (AREA)

On the surface, landfills look like ideal places for placing solar installations to reuse these otherwise unused brownfield areas. However, installing a large scale solar generation plant on landfill cap is something that was never done before. As mentioned in the "Uncharted waters" section of an article about a first-ever Landfill Post Closure Use Permit for a solar facility in the Bay State planned for the Greenfield landfill, safeguarding "the integrity of the landfill cap [is done] without the benefit of standard practices."

The associated risk may be acceptable when a landfill is located far away from the populated areas of a town as it is in the case of Greenfield. The Amherst old landfill is very different and is one of a few landfills in the state that is surrounded by residential areas. This presents unique challenges which have to be addressed to assure a safe and financially sound operation of a solar facility of such scale on a landfill.

Click on the links below
for more information. Click here for scans of the DEP documents mentioned on this page.

Integrity of the Landfill Cap

Current Condition of the Landfill Cap

The landfill cap has been neglected, causing its deterioration well below the original DEP Permit specifications and is leaking 150 times more than the maximum amount allowed by the Closure Permit.

As a result, large amounts of water are infiltrating through the clay layer (cap) that was supposed to be impermeable. This generates a large amount of leachate - 940 gallons/acre/day - which leaks into the groundwater and pollutes the surrounding wetlands.

The wetlands of the Hop Brook Drive (located just 100 yards away from the Lawrence Swamp Water Protection Area for the Town's drinking water wells) and Gull Pond (located off the Old Farm Road) have concentrations of lead and cyanide that exceed WQC standards, arsenic that exceeds MassDEP GW-1 standards, as well as mercury, cadmium and arsenic that exceed SSC sediment samples guidelines. The GW-3 standards that addresses danger to aquatic life was also exceeded according to the 2007 DEP report.

The planned regrading does not address the condition of the clay cap: it simply adds more soil on top. The cap already has 24 inches of soil on top of it, and adding more will not restore impermeability of the clay layer. Placing thousand tons of equipment on top of the landfill not only accelerate deterioration of the cap, but will also make it impossible to address and fix the leakage problem.

Urgent measures are required to prevent further deterioration of the cap and irreversible damage to the environment.

Click here for more information and references to the DEP documents.

Problems with the DEP Risk Assessment: Is It Really Safe?

Amherst old landfill has a deteriorated cap that does not prevent precipitation from entering into the landfill and leaching out contaminants which pollute surrounding wetlands. Levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury in the surrounding wetlands reached a degree that triggered a mandatory risk assessment. The risk assessment done by DEP concluded that “there is no significant risk to human health”. However, DEP ignored most of the risks associated with increasing levels of contamination.

A Tighe & Bond Final Comprehensive Site Assessment report on Amherst’s old landfill and surrounding areas, states that there is a known risk of harm to the environment due the "Severe Effect Levels" that was never evaluated because evaluation "was not requested in the MADEP letter".

It also states that a known risk to public welfare listed in the report was never evaluated because the landfill is functioning according to specifications (which are, in reality, grossly violated as stated in the Current State of the Cap summary).

Furthermore, it states that a known risk to human health from the maximum detected concentrations of contaminants in the wetlands off the Hop Brook Drive was not evaluated due to the area not being readily accessible. In reality, there is a trail going through this wetland that connects the Hop Brook Dr. with the bike path. This trail is used for hiking by  area residents without any knowledge of the risks.

The report states that the groundwater in the most affected area that includes wetlands off the Hop Brook Dr. is classified as GW-3 standard, but "evaluation of groundwater exposures was not within the scope of this focused risk characterization." These exposures include health hazards from groundwater percolating into the basements of residential homes just 200 feet away.

According to the last Ground-Water Management Study on file in the DEP archives, wetlands affected by the contaminated plume are located in the primary aquifer recharge area and will affect the Lawrence Swamp area used for the Town's drinking water if the contamination is allowed to continue. As citizens of the Town, we should request to address the problem before it affects the Town's drinking water supply. The landfill cap integrity should be restored to stop leachate generation before any installation on the landfill is considered. It would be impossible to fix this on-going problem after 20,000 solar panels are installed on top of the landfill.

Click here for detailed information and DEP document references.

Static Load

Inverters and TransformersInstalling over 20,000 solar panels with heavy ballast and vibrating inverters on 35 acres of the landfill adds tremendous static and dynamic load to the already aging landfill cap. Panels have to be mounted on ballast beams which help it withstand wind load and prevent them from tipping over. The combined weight of 20,000 panels, ballast beams, several 1MW inverters and a multi-ton 5MW station transformer adds up to over a thousand tons of equipment placed on the already sagging landfill cap in need of repair.

The content of the landfill is decomposing under the landfill cap, creating hidden cavities. Heavy inverters and transformers mounted on  top of the landfill may simply sink in. Vibration generated by continuously running inverters with further degrade the clay of the landfill cap which develops cracks over time even in the absence of such heavy and vibrating load. The weight of snow (which was previously evenly distributed over the ground surface) will now be concentrated on the smaller area of the supporting ballast beams, which will accelerate local settlement. Unevenly sagging ground will cause the solar panels to tilt from their optimal position and eventually trip over into standing pools of water accumulating in the ground depressions, which in turn may cause a short circuit. A short circuit in 600V 250A cables may shut down the installation for an indefinite period of time.

In addition to the concentrated load, the combined weight of the installation will place a huge distributed load on the landfill.The landfill is a giant sponge soaked with toxic chemicals. Because it is unlined, these contaminants are slowly leaching out of the landfill into the ground water. The combined weight of thousand tons of industrial equipment will push the cap down, squeezing the sponge. This will accelerate the leaching process, threatening the Town's drinking water supply.
In the FEDERAL REGISTER Feb. 5, 1981, the EPA first stated its opinion that all landfills will eventually leak. Placing a heavy industrial installation on top of the landfill will accelerate the process. The EPA was referring to lined landfills. The Amherst old landfill is unlined which greatly increases the danger to the Town's drinking water supply.
The planned solar installation will be almost three times bigger than the Pittsfield solar facility, which is the biggest currently installed in New England. It will also be almost ten times bigger than the Brockton Brightfield 0.5MW solar installation, which is the only installation on a landfill close to a residential area. The Brockton installation used an 18 inch layer of concrete over the entire landfill to avoid penetrating the landfill cap, while the project planned in Amherst will not use any concrete layers.

Placing a large solar generation facility on top of the landfill is in stark contrast with the past, when the Town was required to get a special permit just to allow people access to the landfill for recreational use; there were worries that it would damage the cap.

The landfill was not considered safe by DEP for recreational use in 1988 (when the cap was new) and 2004, and conditions there continue to deteriorate. The 1988 report on the environmental effects of using the Old Amherst Landfill for recreational activities, done for DEP by Meta Systems Inc., states that "the present landfill cap is relatively thin and may be susceptible to serious damage from routine foot traffic or maintenance activities".

A 2004 letter from Amherst Superintendent of Public Works, Guilford Mooring, to the DEP regarding the Old Amherst Landfill states: "Any active recreation use on the site would eventually require a bathroom/concession/storage facility. This facility would more than likely penetrate the cap or require alteration."

Fast forward to 2011, and this site is now being presented by interested parties as sturdy enough to hold one of the largest solar farms in New England. Installing over 20,000 photovoltaic modules on top of the landfill will make it impossible to address the leakage and perform future maintenance.

Dynamic Wind Load

Inverters and TransformersWhile the cap has some limited capacity for sustaining static loads, the dynamically changing wind load represents a much bigger problem. Since each panel is positioned at an angle, it acts as a wing pressed down or lifted by the wind depending on the wind direction. A 30 sq. ft. panel will be subjected to up to 2100 lbs (approx 1 ton) of wind force at the maximum wind speed.

20,000 solar panels will act as a giant wing. As the wind speed and direction change, it will  repeatedly lift and release the clay cap which was not designed to sustain such life load. The clay of the cap is becoming brittle over time, and this repeated over many years lift-and-release stress cycle will crack the cap, exposing the Town to a huge environmental problem.

Periodic Regrading and Maintenance

All landfills sink or subside as the organic trash decays, requiring periodic regrading and filling fix developing problems and preserve integrity of the landfill cap. This periodic maintenance will be very difficult and expensive with thousands solar panels on top of the landfill.

A 2004 letter from Amherst Superintendent of Public Works, Guilford Mooring, to the DEP regarding the Old Amherst Landfill recommends that all maintenance work is done "after the ground has frozen slightly to provide extra protection to the existing cap".

It will be impossible to address the current leakage problem with 20,000+ panels installed on top of the landfill cap.

A regrading that is currently planned by DEP uses incorrect data for its engineering specifications. The regrading plan assumes the thickness of the clay layer (6"-12") which is several times bigger than the Tighe & Bond test data (4"-6"), and even bigger than the thickness used for the original capping or the 1985 DEP Closure Permit (8").

Existing Cap Problems on the Old Landfill

The old landfill already has severe settlement and water ponding problems, requiring immediate attention. Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection requires the Town to perform regrading to fix them.

Click here to see images of existing problems.

Legal Implications of the State Landfill Capping Grant

The Town used a State Grant to cover part of the 1988 landfill capping costs. The State Grant stipulated the following Project Eligibility Precondition and Deed Restriction:

The Town agreed to both of the above listed preconditions in the final 1989 Grant Agreement. The 2004 letter from the Town's Superintendent of DPW, Guilford Mooring, reported compliance with the capping requirements, but noted that the first requirement was still not resolved and the Town is "interested in resolving this issue".

Both of the above listed State Grant requirements are not fulfilled:

Prior to buying property next to the landfill, numerous residents were assured by Town officials that the site would be used only for recreational purposes as outlined in the State Grant.

Homes would not have been built on this location and children raised in such close proximity to a landfill without reassurances from the town that it was safe and would not be developed for anything other than recreation.

Recently, Mr. Mooring and local newspapers ridiculed the abutter's claims that any such assurances were given. At a meeting with the group in April 2011, Mr. Mooring said that there were no restrictions on the use of the site.

Financial Liabilities and Risks to the Town

It is standard practice to obtain a bond or liability insurance for such projects to protect the Town in case something goes wrong, to guarantee that the town is not liable for the costs of removing or decommissioning the solar installation (or restoring the site) in case of unforeseen circumstances.

The Decommissioning clause on page 26 of the BlueWave's proposal states that no such decommissioning bond or insurance will be required, due to the profit from selling the solar panels for reuse. Given that a solar panel's generation capacity decreases over time, and that the today's technology will be obsolete in 30 years, it is questionable if anybody may want to buy these 30-year-old panels. Would anybody buy a huge 30-year-old IBM mainframe for reuse today?

The following statement on page 26 of the proposal clearly places the financial burden of decommissioning the site on the Town:

"If the system has not been removed within 150 days following the date of discontinued operations, then the Town shall have authority to physically remove the facility and dispose of it at its own discretion."

The proposal also states (page 26) that if a bond or insurance is required, it "would be reflected in a higher electricity cost to the Town".

The proposal bases its recommendations on its experience with decommissioning past projects (page 26):

"Based on decommissioning of past projects, it is reasonable to assume that PV modules and inverters can be sold for re-­‐use"

However, there were no such projects decommissioned in the state after 30 years of operation.

The proposal also states that to keep the facility operating after the 30 year term, the Town would have to purchase it in addition to assuming all risks:

"However, should the Town of Amherst be interested in owning the project at the end of the term, our financial partner is open to selling the project to the Town at a substantially discounted market rate."

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources recommendations on the Zoning Bylaw for Large-Scale Solar Photovoltaic Installations state that a bond or liability insurance is required for such projects.

We urge the Town to research these issues and request an appropriate decommissioning bond or liability insurance to avoid being exposed to huge financial liabilities.

Questions about the $30M Financial Benefit to the Town

The total yearly output of the solar farm given in the BlueWave's presentation is 6,000,000 KWH.

This will yield the $420,000 profit per year using the current retail generation price of 7 cents per KWH (the price for selling to the grid will be even lower):

6,000,000 KWH * $0.07 = $420,000 per year.

This does not add up to $30M over 30 years. However, using the historical 6% annual increase in utility electricity prices, the total selling price of all electricity generated by the installation over 30 years will be $33M.

According to BOSCH's manual, solar panels lose 20% of efficiency over 25 years.  If we factor in this annual 0.45% decrease in efficiency, the value of all generated electricity over the life of the project will further drop to $30.4M.

According to the BlueWave's presentation, the town will receive over $30M in revenues from the deal. This means that all revenue from selling generated electricity will be used just to pay the Town, which does not cover the cost of the installation, maintenance, decommissioning and insurance bond.

Questions Raised

Since the total revenue of the solar installation over 30 years barely covers the projected financial compensation to the Town, it raises questions about the investment scheme used for the project's financing:

Inflation-Adjusted Town Revenue Over 30 year = $17M

The $33M figure is not in today's money, as it does not take into account that all other prices will increase as well due to inflation.

For the 4% average yearly inflation rate, the inflation-adjusted value of all Town benefits over 30 years will be $17M.

This means that the Town will be getting an equivalent of $420K in today's money each year over 30 years if everything goes as planned (not $1M implied by the BlueWave's presentation).

If BlueWave is required to obtain a customary insurance bond for the post-closure period, the benefit may be greatly reduced.

Fire Hazard Mitigation

There are reports of fire hazards created by solar panels. Individual solar panels are connected together creating a high voltage line that can exceed 400 direct current (DC) volts. These wires get worn over time and animals damage the exterior of the wires, which can cause the wires to short-circuit creating a fire hazard. Since solar panels always produce electrical output even when they are disconnected from the grid, it makes it more challenging to deal with potential fire.

The methane gas generated by the landfill increases the potential danger. The first page of the BOSCH's Installation and Operation Manual for the proposed c-Si M 60 panels states:

"Solar modules must therefore never be installed near easily flammable materials, gases or vapours."

The whole area of the landfill will be surrounded by a 6' fence, and it is not clear from the BlueWave proposal how firefighters will access the edge of the facility close to the residential homes in case of a fire emergency in that area (there are no fire hydrants on the landfill).

Grass Control

Tall grass near surrounding the panels has to be controlled to avoid fire hazards and prevent shadows that would reduce the panels' output. It is not possible to mow the grass under the panels with the mower. The Pittsfield  installation is using gravel to control the grass. The grass control issue is not addressed by the BlueWave's proposal.

Environmental Impact on Threatened Species

The Grasshopper Sparrow is listed as threatened by the State of Massachusetts. The Town's regrading proposals contain significant language about preserving its habitat, which is not present in the BlueWave's written proposal for the solar installation.

Click here for more information.

Impact on the Robert Frost Trail

The pond at the edge of the landfill regularly overflows in the spring, making the Robert Frost trail impassable. Currently, walkers and hikers can detour onto the path along the edge of the landfill. If the solar  is built as planned and surrounded by a 6' fence, will access to the RF trail be impeded after rains swell the pond?

Human Hazards

Glint and glare from the solar panels potentially present hazards to the eyes. Glint, a quick flash of light, and glare, a continuous exposure to bright, render human eyes susceptible to injury. Retinal burn and flash blindness may occur. While these hazards are not a problem in most installations, they present a real danger depending on the position of the solar panels relatively to the sun.

With the solar panels facing south and positioned to the east of the residential area, they will reflect the sunlight directly into the windows of the residential homes in the morning hours. Considering the number of the solar panels that will be installed (20,000+), the effect of the glare could will overwhelming, with panels acting as a giant mirror. A study on mitigating the glare must be performed.