The Youghiogheny River. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Watershed Association.

A Pittsburgh-area landfill operator is asking the state Environmental Quality Board to reclassify some waste it processes as non-hazardous, a move that has triggered an outcry from residents and environmental groups, and a firm defense from the company, which maintains the change would not impact the environment.

MAX Environmental Technologies has headquarters in Green Tree and operates its Bulger facility in rural Washington County and a Yukon facility in Westmoreland County. The company submitted a petition for the “delisting” in May 2019, and the process, which usually takes at least two years to complete, recently led to several public meetings. 

Public comment closed for the petition on Feb. 22, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently reviewing all comments received on the proposal. Next, the DEP will solicit feedback from the Solid Waste Advisory Committee on any changes to the proposed regulation before submitting the final regulation to the Environmental Quality Board to vote on whether to adopt it.

“If you spend an hour in Yukon talking to people about air quality, you’d learn there’s a ‘fugitive dust’ that comes from this facility and covers their cars, their homes. The environmental risk extends to water to our right for clean air,” says Stacey Magda, a community organizer with the Mountain Watershed Association, an environmental group that watches over the Youghiogheny River.

In a Jan. 25 letter to the Environmental Quality Board, a 20-member independent board that adopts all of the DEP’s regulations, the Mountain Watershed Association opposed the delisting due to MAX Environmental’s noncompliance with state DEP regulations, and its failure to properly sample or monitor wastes, among other reasons.

“MAX cannot be trusted to engage in the monitoring and reporting activities necessary to ensure this sludge waste continues to be safely treated and stored,” the statement reads. “MAX has stated in its Regulatory Analysis Form that, should the delisting petition be approved, it would save them an estimated $950,000 annually in transport and disposal costs. To reward MAX by delisting hazardous waste, knowing the facility’s history of noncompliance, seems counter-productive to the interest of environmental protection.”

From 2009 to the present, DEP cited MAX Environmental Technologies for 270 violations across all programs statewide and collected civil penalties totaling $1,094,145.

Leachate collection at MAX Environmental’s Yukon facility in Westmoreland County. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Watershed Association.
Leachate collection at MAX Environmental’s Yukon facility in Westmoreland County. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Watershed Association.

MAX Environmental, however, is quick to defend itself and its petition to delist.

Carl Spadaro, environmental general manager for MAX Environmental Services, says the move would simply return the waste — which the company and its predecessor, Mill Services, managed for decades — back to how it was classified before an EPA inspection at the Yukon facility in 2011.

Spadaro also stresses some of the waste in question by residents — drill cuttings from Marcellus Shale operations – “never exhibited any hazardous characteristics.”

“I know that there’s concern about drilling waste [but] regulatory agencies don’t consider drill cuttings to be hazardous waste,” Spadaro tells NEXTpittsburgh. “For any drill cuttings we’ve accepted, we go through a strict protocol … I think there was one case where drill cuttings tested hazardous by DEP and EPA standards.”

Spadaro also weighs in against claims that MAX Environmental was creating “fugitive dust” on homes and buildings near its Washington and Westmoreland County locations.

“There may be [dust at the sites] but, as far as we can tell, it’s not coming from our operation,” he says. “But we’ll take people’s concerns seriously.”

The state DEP also played down some of the environmental impacts residents and environmental groups cited.

“A [fugitive dust] complaint received in May 2021 resulted in five site visits over a two-month period with some occurring at different times on the same day and most during off-hours to match when the complainant reported their observation,” says Lauren Fraley, community relations coordinator for the DEP’s southwest regional office. “DEP did not observe any violations of fugitive emissions or odors from the MAX Yukon facility.”

Fraley also rejects Mountain Watershed’s claim that MAX Environmental’s Yukon facility’s outfall into a tributary of the Youghiogheny River would cause water quality issues if the waste was treated as non-hazardous. She says MAX, like all waste processing permit holders, must abide by federal guidelines.

“The treated leachate from MAX Environmental Technologies’ Yukon landfill must adhere to effluent limits in its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit,” Fraley says. “Regardless of the outcome of the delisting process, MAX’s compliance with its NPDES limits for discharging of treated leachate will not result in the degradation of the Youghiogheny River.

Mill Services, MAX Environmental’s predecessor only in name, started its Bulger facility in Smith and Robinson townships in Washington County in 1957. The Yukon facility in Westmoreland County opened in 1964, Spadaro says. In the early days of the operation, Mill Services largely took waste products from local steel mills, such as mill tailings and pickling liquors.

After a period of inactivity in the 1980s due to the sites being filled to capacity, the DEP approved a Mill Services proposal to reset the grade of its old disposal areas and process non-hazardous industrial waste, Spadaro says. When oil and gas companies started fracking in Pennsylvania a decade ago, many of them started taking their drill cuttings to what was now MAX Environmental Services.

Spadaro has been working for MAX Environmental since 2011, after spending 22 years with the DEP, including time spent regulating his current employer. He rejects the suggestion that the current delisting is colored by his former role at the DEP.

“I know a lot of people think the DEP has given MAX a break because I worked for the DEP — that is not the case,” he tells NEXTpittsburgh. “We go through the same processes as everyone does.”

Spadaro stresses that many environmental regulators, at some time, take a job in private industry and notes that he complied with all DEP rules about the transition, including having no interaction with state regulatory officials for at least one year after the job change.

The DEP declined to comment on Spadaro, citing personnel matters.

MAX Environmental’s Yukon facility in Westmoreland County. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Watershed Association.
MAX Environmental’s Yukon facility in Westmoreland County. Photo courtesy of the Mountain Watershed Association.

“Cat” Lodge has lived on a country road near MAX Environmental’s Washington County operation for 22 years. She moved into the area during Mill Services’ dormant period and, once MAX Environmental reopened the site, she was close enough to it to hear the facility’s alarms when they went off.

“A landfill for Marcellus waste is completely different than one for mill tailings and pickling liquor,” Lodge says. “It’s entirely different but it’s not any less dangerous.”

Lodge, an environmental advocate, says she sits at the center of a circle of residents who have grown weary of having the MAX Environmental facility in their backyards.

“They really are concerned [but] they tried their hardest to get protections and to get public water. And they have been completely ignored … More info needs to be told to the families who have to live by this, breathe this air. They have questions about what they’re dumping up there,” Lodge tells NEXTpittsburgh.

Neal Matchett bought 50 acres of land from his grandfather’s Bulger farm during the Mill Services’ dormancy and built a home. He’s used to — but not pleased with — the truck traffic that drives in front of that rural home since MAX Environmental reopened its facility. And he knows that when a wind comes in from the south, he has to watch for dust coming from the facility.

Matchett wants to know more about how MAX Environmental tests for hazardous material.

“I would be really concerned about the issues of radioactivity at the site,” Matchett tells NEXTpittsburgh. “And groundwater contamination is still an issue.”

Matchett also worries about long-term things, like what his proximity to the landfill will do to his ability to sell his home someday. The county has assessed the house and land at nearly $500,000, which Matchett claims is a high asking price for a property that is adjacent to waste.

“Saying MAX is your neighbor and they can dispose of just about anything they want? I’d have trouble selling that.”

Justin Vellucci

A former news reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, Justin Vellucci currently freelances for a number of Pittsburgh publications and works as a staff writer for the music...