Decades after contamination, waste authority considers reopening Superfund site

Anthony Maenza
York Dispatch

HOPEWELL TOWNSHIP — Liz Willwert can see the leaching ponds from the old York County Sanitary Landfill from her parents' property.

“That's where they collect the contaminated water that comes off and then they pump that out,” said Willwert, who lives next door to the Environmental Protection Agency-designated Superfund site.

The 300-acre landfill opened in 1974 but closed eight years later after the discovery that a host of contaminants were leaching into nearby drinking water from a roughly 135-acre unlined portion of the landfill. After an intensive cleanup, the EPA removed the site from its National Priorities List, and portions of it were transformed into a playground and public park.

Liz Willwert, of Hopewell Township, shown at Hopewell Area Recreation Complex in Hopewell Township, Thursday, July 28, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

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But the anticipated 2025 expiration of the York County Solid Waste Authority’s contract with another York-area landfill has officials considering reopening the Hopewell Township Superfund site to again receive incinerated trash and other refuse.

That has nearby residents worried for a return to the bad old days when they couldn’t trust the water flowing from their taps. Many still have filtration systems because of contamination that took place decades ago.

"I've already been through it once," said Glenn Willwert, Liz’s father. "The noise and the traffic — plus it's an eyesore having to look at it."

YCSWA Executive Director David Vollero said the thing driving the organization’s search for alternative landfills is uncertainty over whether Modern Landfill will be able to expand its facility in Lower Windsor Township. If the necessary zoning change doesn’t happen, the authority will have to look elsewhere.

For now, the old landfill in Hopewell Township may be the best alternative.

"We're not looking at any other sites in the county for sure," Vollero said. "The other real option is take material and ship it to an out-of-county facility."

Those out-of-county options could be decided on quickly at another time, he said, but the authority is looking at options inside the county first.

"We want to see if there is an option here to put into the mix to evaluate," Vollero said. "But to do that takes more lead time than trying to ship material to an already permanent operating site."

The issue will be discussed at a public meeting Aug. 10.

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Hopewell Township Manager Katie Berry said a proposal has not been brought to the township. The board of supervisors meeting on Aug. 10 is informational only.

"At this point, the township has no public comment," Berry said, "because there is no official proposal at this point. There's definitely public opinion out there, but at this point there is no comment from the township. This is the Solid Waste Authority's topic at this point. They are fielding all the questions, not the township, because there isn't an official proposal yet."

Bill Streett built his home in Hopewell Township 52 years ago and hopes that the landfill doesn’t return.

"If I went out my backdoor through a little bit of woods, I'm on the same level as that landfill is right now," he said. "I can see it just as plain as day. I can almost throw stones at it."

A barbed wire fence separates property seen from the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex in Hopewell Township, Thursday, July 28, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

If the landfill returned to the way it once appeared, he jokes, it would become the highest point in the township — and adversely affect hundreds of property owners, including many new homes built within eyeshot of the old landfill.

"I pity those people," he said.

One of the concerns surrounding reusing the landfill site is the dumping of incinerator ash. The EPA says that such ash could have toxic chemicals in its makeup.

Vollero said there is already a lined cell of ash on the site from the Resource Recovery Center that was dumped there from 1989 to 1997. 

"So there is a cell full of ash there now," Vollero said. "We monitor the groundwater around the lined areas as well as the unlined areas. All the past groundwater contamination came from the unlined areas."

A landfill can't be built in Pennsylvania, Vollero said, without groundwater monitoring going with it.

"We'd like to determine in relatively short order whether or not the township is interested in it at all to advance this project," he said. "If they are not, of course, we move on. If they are, we can put together a plan."

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Whatever happens, the authority says it will act collaboratively with the surrounding community.

"We're not going to do it without the community's concurrence," he said. "We need to have an agreement with Hopewell Township and we need the community as a whole to accept what we offer is worth it for renewed use of the site."

The former landfill site is currently home to a large recreational area created by the township and the solid waste authority. The 135-acre landfill site is part of a larger 200-acre complex that includes playgrounds, walking trails, athletic fields, a picnic pavilion, a parking lot and two wildlife viewing platforms.

The grassland provides a home to 122 species of birds, according to the EPA, and the site is the state’s second largest grassland habitat that is publicly accessible. 

Allegro Winery seen from the Hopewell Area Recreation Complex in Hopewell Township, Thursday, July 28, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Part of the solid waste authority’s plan — besides getting the additional landfill capacity — is to add recreational facilities elsewhere to replace those that would be taken out because of the landfill expansion and to preserve the existing wildlife habitat.

Streett said moving the recreation area would b upsetting.

"A nice thing and kids can play on it and now it's going to be gone," Streett said.

Even if they replace it, he said, it won't be as nice as what they have now.

A public meeting to discuss possible landfill reuse is being held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 10, at the Eureka Fire Hall, 82 N. Main St. in Stewartstown. 

Residents with questions about the possible reuse of the landfill can email YCSWA at sitereuse@ycswa.com. YCSWA will post updated information on its website at https://www.ycswa.com/york-county-sanitary-landfill-possible-reuse/

— Reach Anthony Maenza at amaenza@yorkdispatch.com or @atmaenza on Twitter.