CLG spends $63K to fight a Right to Know lawsuit

By Jeff McMenemy 
jmcmenemy@seacoastonline.com 
Posted at 12:00 PM

PORTSMOUTH -- The Coakley Landfill Group has so far spent $63,629 on high-priced attorneys to fight a Right to Know lawsuit.

City Attorney Robert Sullivan, who also chairs the CLG’s executive committee, said all of that money was spent hiring lawyers from the firm of Rath, Young and Pignatelli to fight the lawsuit filed by a group of state lawmakers and former longtime Assistant Mayor Jim Splaine.

The lawsuit led to a recent decision by Superior Court Judge N. William Delker that the CLG was a public body and must follow the state’s Right to Know law.

The CLG used three lawyers from the firm, Sullivan said. Michael Schowalter was paid $245 an hour, Richard Head was paid $320 an hour and Sherilyn Young was paid $340 an hour, Sullivan said.

Asked about the hourly rates paid to the attorneys, Sullivan said, “I’m a civil servant working for the city. In general, quality legal representation is expensive.”

But because the CLG “has no employees or staff, the executive committee has to refer the work that needs to be done to outside entities like law firms,” Sullivan said.

The CLG is made up of three municipalities, Portsmouth, North Hampton and Newington, and 27 private companies that used the dump. Portsmouth is responsible for 53.6 percent of the remediation costs of the group - or in this case the legal fees - and together the municipalities are responsible for more than 60 percent.

The landfill accepted waste from 1972 to 1982 and then incinerator waste until 1985. The Superfund landfill site was capped in 1998, but the contamination at the landfill in Greenland and North Hampton has never been treated. People living near the landfill are concerned that dangerous chemicals leaching from the site will contaminate their drinking water wells.

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The Right to Know lawsuit was filed against the CLG by state Reps. Mindi Messmer, Renny Cushing, Phil Bean, Mike Edgar, Henry Marsh and Splaine. The town of Hampton intervened in the case.

Messmer on Friday said “that money could have been much better spent on testing wells near the landfill if the CLG had just decided to be transparent.”

“You can buy a lot of water samples for $65,000,” she said.

She noted the CLG also hired the law firm to lobby against her bills that sought to address pollution at the site. “That money should have gone to assessing the public health around the landfill,” she said.

The state Department of Environmental Services earlier this month ordered the Coakley Landfill Group to “immediately provide bottled water” to a homeowner on Breakfast Hill Road whose well tested above a new standard for the suspected carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. DES also ordered the CLG to provide it with “recommendations for corrective action” within 30 days, according to a copy of a letter sent to Peter Britz, the city of Portsmouth’s environmental planner, who also serves as a staffer to the CLG.

The Environmental Protection Agency describes 1,4-dioxane as “a likely human carcinogen.”

Andrew Gorrill