GENEVA, Feb. 6, 2019 — Three decades after a barge overflowing with smelly metro New York garbage ventured on a notoriously unsuccessful 6,000-mile odyssey to Belize and back, state officials are still puzzling about how to best dispose of mountains of municipal solid waste.
Rejected at port after port, the barge’s rotting waste was eventually incinerated in Brooklyn, and the leftover ash was buried on Long Island. That was 1987.
Today the city has a less embarrassing solution. It exports its garbage by truck or train hundreds of miles to privately-operated mega-landfills in the Finger Lakes region or to dumps in other states.
The state’s MSW programs have long touted recycling and other local efforts to reduce the volume of garbage generated. But as commitment to those more eco-friendly solutions has wavered, New York has increasingly turned to trucks and trains to make the city’s garbage someone else’s problem.
The Finger Lakes region bears the brunt of the public policy inertia.
The state’s three largest MSW landfills lie within 30 miles of Geneva, and more than 90 percent of the waste they accept comes from outside the region. The state’s largest MSW landfill, the towering and odoriferous Seneca Meadows, sits within 10 miles of both Seneca and Cayuga lakes.
The foul odors, toxic landfill leachate, truck and rail traffic to and from the facilities are stirring grass roots protests in Finger Lakes communities that prefer to identify as wine and tourism destinations than as sacrifice zones for New York City waste.
Over the next seven weeks, the state Department of Environmental Conservation will host 14 public meetings across the state — none in the Finger Lakes — to allow stakeholders to help craft a major update to its 2010 “Beyond Waste” management plan.
“There’s a stunning lack of urgency on this issue,” said Judith Enck, a former regional supervisor at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “One reason is that so much garbage is shipped off to landfills in the Finger Lakes.
“The DEC should add a meeting within the Finger Lakes. They should go where where they can smell it, as close to the landfills as possible.”
Residents near the giant landfills tend to be divided into pro and con camps because the facilities’ negatives are partially offset by “host agreement” payments the private operators make to towns. But opposition is often passionate.
“A whole bunch of people complain about the odor. But for some who aren’t in the direct path of the trucks or the odor, the landfill means nothing to them … except money,” said Mark Venuti, supervisor of the Town of Geneva.
Venuti said the state needs to be more proactive in regulating MSW. He favors banning organics from landfills and building resource recovery parks in every county. The state could even consider requiring waste to be disposed of within 50 miles of where it is generated “to force people to look hard at what they’re generating,” he added.
Geneva Councilor Ken Camera argues that Seneca Meadows and the Ontario County landfill must not be allowed to extend the closing dates now pending under contract or law in 2025 and 2028, respectively.
“We’ve got these two closure dates,” Camera said. “We’ve got to hold everybody to those two dates. We want the state to work on a distributed local solution rather than concentrating waste in a few poor people’s backyard.”
But state lawmakers and regulators have been far less motivated by environmental justice issues than by media-fed crisis.
The garbage barge fiasco of 1987 galvanized the state Legislature. Pressed by Gov. Mario Cuomo, it passed sweeping MSW legislation the following year.
Before that, the state had 358 active landfills, most of them unlined. Only 47 had valid permits. Experts said the state had only four years of landfill capacity left.
Today, the state has only 27 MSW landfills, all of them lined and all located west of the Hudson River. New York City’s Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island closed in 2001, and MSW landfills are now banned by law on Long Island (which does have special landfills for handling ash from its incinerators).
The 1988 solid waste management act included plans for regional solid waste planning units, and it required municipalities to adopt source separating laws for recyclables by 1992.
That initiative has been a limited success, according to the 2010 Beyond Waste document, which says:
“The state’s recycling rate has grown from approximately 3 percent to 36 percent of the entire materials stream and 20 percent when only MSW is evaluated. Many of the state’s communities have implemented exemplary integrated materials management systems that have yielded recycling rates well beyond the statewide average.
“However, the state as a whole appears to be stagnating at levels of MSW recycling near 20 percent — well below the national MSW recycling rate reported by EPA at 33 percent.”
Meanwhile, the 2010 report noted, waste exports to other states “have increased fivefold during the past 20 years — a trend that runs counter to the self-sufficiency envisioned in the 1987 plan (the basis for the 1988 law).”
As of 2014, the state was exporting 19 percent of its total solid waste, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli noted in a December 2018 report that focused on the often-understated costs of closing MSW landfills.
In 2017, local governments with active MSW landfills reported liabilities of $110 million for future closing costs. That total excluded the bills for closing the privately-owned landfills such as Seneca Meadows and the government-owned landfills that failed to report as required, including Ontario County, DiNapoli noted.
Meanwhile, progress in developing the local solid waste management planning programs conceived in the 1988 law has been spotty, at best.
“To foster more consistent program implementation, local solid waste management plans should be required,” the 2010 Beyond Waste report stated. But they still aren’t required, and many counties have simply blown off the idea, as detailed in a DEC summary.
As the state has backed away from holding local communities responsible for their own waste, the nation’s largest waste companies have moved into the market.
— Waste Connections Inc., a Houston-based corporation with market capital (stock price multiplied by total shares outstanding) of $22 billion, owns and operates Seneca Meadows. The company also operates the Town of Colonie Landfill in the capital district, the state’s tenth largest MSW landfill ranked by tons of waste disposed of in 2017.
— Waste Management Inc., also based in Houston with market capital of $41 billion, owns and operates the High Acres Landfill. The company has a $3.3 billion, 20-year contract to accept New York City waste at High Acres and a Virginia landfill, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported. The company also operates the Mill Seat Landfill, which is owned by Monroe County and ranks as the state’s sixth largest MSW landfill. And it owns and operates the Chafee Landfill in Erie County, state’s No. 7 MSW landfill. High Acres and Mill Seat each have more permitted capacity than any other landfill in the state.
— Republic Services Inc., a Phoenix-based corporation with market capital of $25 billion, owns and operates the Allied Waste Landfill in Niagara County, the state’s fifth largest landfill.
— Casella Waste Systems, based in Rutland, Vt., has market capital $1.4 billion. It owns and operates the Hyland Landfill in Allegany County, the state’s eighth largest MSW landfill. Casella also operates the Ontario County Landfill, No. 3, and the Chemung Landfill, No. 12.
The Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester reported that garbage buried in New York landfills grew by 22 percent between 2012 and 2017.
Meanwhile, a significant portion of metro New York garbage is burned in incinerators that are designed to produce modest amounts of energy, most of them on Long Island and Westchester County.
DiNapoli reported that as of 2014, the last year for which DEC provided the information, 8 percent of the state’s total solid waste was incinerated at 10 so-called “waste-to-energy” facilities.
Last year a Rochester startup company, Circular enerG, proposed building a $360 million waste incinerator in Romulus, a town 12 miles south of Seneca Meadows. New York City garbage would be its target waste stream, documents show.
Project developers have said they will seek permits under Article 10 of state public service law, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo discouraged that idea last May, saying:
“The trash incinerator project is not consistent with my administration’s goals for protecting our public health, our environment, and our thriving agriculture-based economy in the Finger Lakes.
“Importing and burning municipal solid waste in one of the state’s most environmentally sensitive areas is simply not appropriate. I’m confident that the Article 10 siting board will carefully consider these impacts and reject the project application if one is ever filed.”
The Rochester law firm Knauf Shaw LLP, which represents Circular enerG and has been a staunch public advocate of incineration, also represents a group of residents near High Acres Landfill in a lawsuit filed against Waste Management and New York City.
The landfill lawsuit claims that noxious odors are destroying property values around Perinton, a Rochester suburb. In the suit, Knauf Shaw argues that state policy favors incineration over landfilling of municipal solid waste.
Even so, the lawsuit, contends, “NYSDEC has failed to facilitate the development of (waste incinerators) due to concerns by environmental groups and local communities that such facilities cause harmful emissions, discounting the significance of landfill emissions, which include the greenhouse gas methane, volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants, and reduced sulfur compounds, as well as odors caused to communities surrounding landfills.”
Alan Knauf, the lead attorney at the firm, did not return a phone call this week.
But Venuti, the Geneva supervisor, dismissed the idea that incinerators provide a viable alternative to landfills.
“That’s not the answer at all,” Venuti said. “That’s still putting waste on a truck or a train to get it out of the way. It says, ‘Create all the trash you want, we’ll burn it.’
“It also creates ash that has to be landfilled.”
While trains deliver waste to High Acres, hundreds of 18-wheeler trucks a day deliver loads to the state’s other MSW landfills.
The Democrat and Chronicle calculated that the waste trucks travelled a cumulative 24 million miles last year. The newspaper estimated that waste hauling consumed 3.5 million gallons of diesel fuel and led to the release of 675,000 pounds of air pollutants.