SAUGUS, Mass. -- Jackie Mercurio is on a mission to protect her family's home of more than a century.
“My great grandfather settled here with my great grandmother,” said Mercurio.
She grew up behind the Wheelabrator Saugus landfill and incinerator. The giant smoke stack looms over the entire neighborhood just north of Route 107.
The landfill was supposed to be shut down 20 years ago because it sits in the middle of an environmentally protected wetland. Now the state is looking to potentially extend its operation further.
Mercurio and other opponents of the site are trying to bring awareness of a public meeting in Saugus to persuade state officials to close it down for good.
The incinerator collects municipal waste from ten surrounding towns and cities and turns it into ash. The ash is buried in the adjacent landfill.
Mercurio is joined by State Rep. Roslie Vincent, handing out flyer that are calling for neighbors to join them in protest at a public meeting about a proposal before state environmental officials to allow the landfill to increase capacity.
For Mercurio, she's simply following her mother's footsteps.
“A protector of health, is probably the best way to describe her,” said Mercurio.
Pam Harris, a nurse and Saugus Board of Health member, spent nearly 40 years of her life fighting Wheelabrator and urging state leaders to shut it down, concerned about the smoke and toxic ash buried inside.
“She would go around and knock on neighbors' doors and say 'do you have any cancer in these homes, do you have any health effects?'” said Mercurio.
A state health evaluation found no unusual pattern of cancer in Saugus, but did find significant incidences of brain and testicular cancer. The area does have a history of industrial pollution and state officials say there's no way to link any illness to Wheelabrator.
“This whole street, there's a lot of cancer on this street,” said Gus Diaz, who lives across the street from Mercurio.
She said that two of their neighbors died of a rare form of brain cancer in the last two years. Last summer, doctors found a glioblastoma in Pam Harris’ brain. She died in September.
“The person who fought the hardest lost the most,” said Mercurio.
But Jackie made her dying mother a promise that her fight will live on. Through her hands, as she knocks on door after door, knowing Pam is right by her side.
”It’s not just about what she did, it's about fighting for our family, our neighborhood and the citizens of Saugus,” said Mercurio.
The public hearing will be at the Saugus High School auditorium on Thursday, Nov. 30. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection has extended their public comment period until Jan. 12.
Wheelabrator refused multiple requests over a several week period for an on-camera interview with Boston 25 News, but issued the following statement:
“Wheelabrator Saugus has been an integral part of the state's environmental infrastructure for over 40 years, as well as an important economic partner to Saugus.
As one of the town's largest taxpayers, we generate $30 million in annual economic activity, including 130 jobs, and make hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to town programs and causes each year.
The energy-from-waste industry is among the most stringently regulated in the U.S., and Wheelabrator Saugus has operated in full compliance with all local, state and federal regulations for the past 40 years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) endorses energy-from-waste as the preferred method for waste disposal. Wheelabrator Saugus diverts waste from landfills, reducing the region's solid waste by 90 percent and producing as much as 37 megawatts of clean energy -- enough to power 38,000 homes.
Wheelabrator is also the steward of the Bear Creek Wildlife Sanctuary, a 370-acre wildlife refuge that is home to 17,000 trees, 200 bird species, 10 beehives and 9 ecosystems.
The change we seek to the ash monofill would simply add capacity within two of five internal valleys in a configuration that is consistent with the other three. The change would not increase the height, footprint or lateral measurement of the Saugus ash monofill.”
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