Saturday July 10, 2010

WESTMINSTER -- The state is alleging that members of the Twelve Tribes violated Vermont air pollution control regulations when they burned the remnants of the former Oona’s restaurant on their farm in Westminster.

The religious group is also being cited for illegally operating a solid waste facility after its members transported at least 88 tons of debris from downtown Bellows Falls to the farm without the proper permits.

The allegations are spelled out in a report issued by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation Enforcement Division, which investigated the Feb. 1 incident when Commonwealth Construction, a Twelve Tribes company, tore down the former Oona’s restaurant and trucked the waste to The Basin Farm where it was burned.

The subsequent burn filled areas of downtown Bellows Falls with acrid smoke and state investigators were called in after members of the Westminster Fire Department reported to the site.

An attorney from the enforcement division refused to comment on the allegations because the two sides are negotiating a settlement.

Commonwealth Construction General Manager Nick Surla said the site was being used as a staging area for the Oona’s debris and he said a lack of supervision allowed "things to happen that weren’t right."

"Mistakes were made," Surla said. "We are working with the state of Vermont to try to make it right.


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According to the investigation report, which the Reformer received after making a public records request, members of The Basin Farm, a Twelve Tribes community, attempted to burn "painted and unpainted dimension lumber, particle board, plywood, plastic coated wire, lighting fixtures and insulation."

Surla said the piles were supposed to be separated, and after the state reported to the site he made sure the debris was properly disposed of.

Commonwealth Construction had obtained a burn permit from Westminster, but the permit was only for brush and a small amount of untreated wood.

"Commonwealth had knowledge about the limitations of what could be burned, according to the town," the report reads.

The Westminster Fire Department first reported to the site on Jan. 31, after Lt. Jeff Ruggiero had previously visited the area and confirmed that the pile only contained brush

That same night the Bellows Falls Fire Department received reports of heavy smoke, but firefighters were unable to determine the source of the smoke.

After BFFD members called the Westminster Fire Department, Surla was ordered to stop the burn.

The smoke returned the next day and when the Westminster Department revisited the site the pile had grown to almost 20 cubic yards.

The first report of smoke in the area came into the Agency of Natural Resources office just after 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 1.

When the Department of Environmental Conservation Enforcement officer arrived at the scene at around 2:30 p.m., he observed "thick white and gray smoke rising from a field near the Saxtons River."

The investigator discovered that members of the Westminster Fire Department had already ordered members of the Basin Farm to halt the burn, but that members had instead "put more debris on the fire."

When the investigator finally reached the burn pile at around 3:30 p.m., he saw the smoking and melting waste, which ended up being close to 200 cubic yards worth.

After meeting with Twelve Tribe members on the scene the fire was extinguished, and while the pile was being separated the investigator saw "melted plastic, electric motors, several unidentified devices containing large cooling coils -- likely refrigeration units, more plastic coated electric wire, more painted wood, plywood and particle board, painted metal and a plastic coated metal rack."

The 88 tons of debris were ultimately carted to the Keene, N.H., Recycling and Transfer station at a cost of almost $12,000.

Commonwealth Construction could potentially face stiff financial penalties, though an attorney for the Department of Environmental Conservation said it is impossible to estimate how much at this point.

He said each case is considered independently and fines are determined based on environmental and public health impacts, prior environmental infractions and knowledge of the environmental rules that were broken.

By statute, the fines are capped at $170,000, he said.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.