Hampshire’s Toxic Environment

Temperance Dewar

I mean, very specifically, the continued pollution of our native marsh and woods. Located back by the multisport center, a composting situation has gone amuck. There, an open-lidded dumpster sits stinking in the grass, and from it, a festering stream of water winds downhill to the natural marshes of the Hampshire woods. This bin contains food waste (and some non-compostable garbage) apparently from SAGA or another Hampshire facility—banana peels, grapefruit rinds, plastic, paper bags, pasta, and pineapple are just a few features of this terrible mélange.


The glistening ochre of the issuing liquid caught my eye about the same time as the odor hit me, and while I don’t know much about composting, this didn’t appear ecologically sound. In a surreal way, the pollution looks intentionally staged, with a fairly deep stream winding almost idyllically from the elevated, foul fountainhead. I initially doubted my gut reaction to the mess—I thought to myself, composting turns waste into dirt, so maybe this water is totally fine for the earth however much it smells. But on returning home and doing some research on composting methods and wastewater management, I’m convinced this is pure, simple pollution.Dumpster color

The positioning of a giant compost bin outside, exposed to the elements, and leaking into the grass are not inherently harmful to the environment, if properly managed. The wastewater MUST be filtered, but one way to filter water is a “vegetative filter strip”—a thick layer of particular grasses that catch and filter the water to prevent pollution and erosion (1). Could Hampshire be using the natural grasses of the area to filter the water? Nope. The water from this bin has eroded a path directly to the lower marshes and proceeds unfiltered. Another option for filtering water is a “swale” (2)—this is the ditch you see at the side of the road, but you’ll note the ditch runs alongside the road to slow water—it does not direct polluted water from the road to the ground. This demented waterslide is not a swale.

sludgeAnd the water does need to be filtered, as its smell and color indicate—my research confirmed the toxicity of compost waste water, called “leachate.” A manual by Oregon State has been helpful in providing the vocabulary for this little disaster: “Runoff is water that flows off-site. If runoff comes into contact with compost, it becomes leachate and must be managed.” This uncontrolled leachate “may contain nitrate, pathogens, metals, salts” which “can cause serious environmental impacts to water” (2). Even worse, it’s this very type of compost, that in “earlier processing stages,” which has the greatest potential to wreck the surrounding ecosystem (2). Leachate from new compost has what is called a high “biological oxygen demand”—bacteria breaking down the waste need a lot of oxygen to do so, depleting the oxygen in local water, which can kill flora and fauna. Our shallow marshes are part of a thriving ecosystem—the delicate blue marsh violet, the quacking wood frog, the spotted salamander (3), and the extravagant skunk cabbage are just a few of the members of this community at risk because of the bin’s toxic leachate.

I ask that Hampshire College not forget the basics, in the midst of its grand plans for promoting sustainability via the new Kern Center and collaboration with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. This toxic bin is more than an eyesore—it’s a vivid example of hypocrisy and negligence in the school’s purported “close connection to the land from which it rose” (4).

(1)  J. Colquhoun, R. Lins, and C. Cole. “Vegetative Filter Strips.” Oregon State University. August, 2008. Web. 16 April 2016. <http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/20370/em8876-e.pdf>
(2) L. Brewer, N. Andrews, D. Sullivan, and W. Gehr. “Agricultural Composting and Water Quality.” Oregon State University. June 2013. Web. 16 April 2016. <http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1957/39040/em9053.pdf>
(3) Hofherr, Justine. “There Are Teeny Tiny Underpasses for Salamanders in Massachussetts.” Boston.com. 25 March 2015. Web. 16 April 2016. <http://www.boston.com/cars/news-and-reviews/2015/03/25/there-are-teeny-tiny-underpasses-for-salamanders-massachusetts/x0fF5kKOz61x05yozmZXAN/story.html>
(4) “Sustainable Operations.” Hampshire.edu. Hampshire College. Web. 16 April 2016.



  1. It’s great that you saw something, googled it, and thought to write an article about it. There is a whole department at our school dedicated to researching stuff like this (not just googling it lol) although a leaky dumpster is a pretty tame case of point source pollution.

    Worth noting is that a couple years ago all the waste receptacles around the housing units were improved for some of the reasons you cite here. However, facilities and grounds is a notoriously untrained/ineffective department and clearly there are still issues.

    While this single dumpster may not be cause for concern, I think it highlights some of the disconnects within the institution. Some things are improving, especially the things that get us attention/funding (solar+divest), but at the same time we’ve destroyed some vernal pools, manage our waste poorly, and salt the ground every winter . We continue to struggle with the reality of implementing sustainability in the details of the institution.

    I would suggest getting in touch with a professor in NS if you are interested in following up about this article. There are some watershed experts who use things like this as case studies for their first year classes.


    1. Worth noting is that wetlands are typically anaerobic anyway – microbes are already in the soil depleting all the oxygen and reducing the environment. Anoxic water draining into a marsh may have marginal significance. What seems like smelly gross runoff to us may be harmless in a system meant to buffer carbon and nitrogen cycles.

      That said, if this drained into a clear “oligotrophic” stream the results could be perceivably negative. Either way there are strict composting codes which should be followed by the school to make sure things like this don’t happen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: