By Glen Silver, President of Concerned Citizens of Seneca County, Inc. (CCSC)
9,000 tons of trash—greater than 90% of it from downstate counties and other states, including asbestos, incinerator ash, contaminated soil, sewage treatment plant sludge, industrial waste, and construction and demolition debris—are trucked here every day by over 400 18-wheelers for burial in some of the world’s most productive farmland, courtesy of the Seneca Meadows and Ontario County mega-landfills.
As two of the largest structures ever created by mankind, the Ontario County and Seneca Meadows landfills now rank at about four and eight times the volume of the Great Pyramid of Giza, respectively, while the EPA says that upwards of 85% of what goes into them could be recycled or composted.
A major byproduct of these mega-landfills is landfill leachate, which is the contaminant-laden liquid that results from rain and snowmelt percolating through the waste mass. Tens of millions of gallons of leachate have been “disposed of” yearly by being trucked to waste-water treatment plants that discharge their treated effluent into the Finger Lakes watershed.
Leachate contains thousands of chemical contaminants, only some of which are removed in the treatment process. So if you’re one of more than 100,000 people who get their drinking water from Seneca Lake, you’ve undoubtedly ingested trace amounts of them.
Another major byproduct of these mega-landfills is air pollution. According to EPA statistics, the Ontario County and Seneca Meadows landfills are the most significant point sources of greenhouse gas emissions in their respective counties (alongside Seneca Energy II, LLC, the company which burns their landfill gas, which is its own major stationary source of air pollutants).
Much of the tens of thousands of metric tons of greenhouse gas emitted by these mega-landfills each year is in the form of methane, which is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide in promoting global warming over a 20-year timeframe (IPCC, 2014). According to researchers, about one ton of methane is generated for every 10 tons of waste buried in the ground.
In addition to methane, which is odorless, mega-landfills generate other noxious compounds, as people who live in the immediate vicinity downwind of them can attest, including nearly 30 hazardous air pollutants, including but not limited to benzene and vinyl chloride, known to cause cancer.
Seneca Meadows landfill is on record for emitting over 84 tons of a separate class of contaminants known as VOCs into the surrounding air/community in 2010 alone.
Moreover, there appears to be no end in sight to all of this, as some of our local government officials have taken it upon themselves (some even without benefit of public hearings) to commit to long-term agreements with the corporations that profit from this arrangement.
Procession of tractor trailers carrying trash up Seneca Meadows Landfill – 2010 – assumed load of 20 tons of garbage each. Photo credit: Katherine Bourbeau.
From a materials management point of view, no greater environmental and existential threat faces the Finger Lakes then the one just described.
Waste (specifically, municipal solid waste (MSW)) should be viewed as a materials management issue because this type of waste is predominantly composed of materials that can provide resources, revenue and jobs required to support this (and every) region’s sustainability which, if acted upon in this way, would also remove the toxic threat that land-filling currently creates.
In fact, scores of other communities across the U.S. are no longer permitting these materials to be disposed of in a landfill but are, instead, separating them for processing and returning them to the economic mainstream for industrial and agricultural uses, thus contributing to local revenue, business expansion, and their economic base—i.e., acknowledging that recycling a ton of waste has twice the economic impact of burying it in the ground.
The goal should therefore be to transform the existing philosophy of “managing solid waste” (i.e., land-filling) into a “resource management” or “materials management” paradigm.
The first place to start with managing these “materials” is to ban all organics going to landfills, as this material amounts to approximately one-third to one-half of most every county’s discarded resources that, when buried in a landfill, decomposes without oxygen and generates methane, whose threat has already been stated.
Already Germany, Denmark and other EU nations have partial bans on organic material processed in landfills. Scotland is trying to ban 60% of organics from their landfills by 2020. And now the states of Vermont and Massachusetts have banned pre-consumer food waste from landfills.
Organics, when diverted from the landfill and composted, mulched, and then directly land applied, can greatly improve soil for farming, facilitating the production of more locally grown food while mitigating erosion, conserving water, and minimizing the need to use petro-chemical agricultural fertilizers that contribute to runoff (i.e., phosphorous) pollution of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes.
What’s more, if we were to recycle all of what is currently landfilled back into nature or the marketplace, we would additionally protect human health and the environment from leachate, which will remain a potential threat to groundwater for thousands of years and add to the burden of having to maintain the landfill during this time, which could cost hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars—all to be paid for by taxpayers, as the original owner is only made responsible for the first 30 years post-closure.
Burying recyclables not only destroys the materials themselves, but the embodied energy in those materials, forcing us to pay all over again the upstream cost to re-manufacture them, which amounts to producing, on average, another 71 tons of waste during the drilling, logging, mining, transporting, and manufacturing needed to re-make 1 ton of these products.
In addition, a typical recycling-sorting facility in the U.S. has been proven to sustain approximately 10 times more jobs than it currently takes to bury the same material (composting jobs are 4:1). [Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Washington, D.C., 1997, and Tellus Institute, “More Jobs, Less Pollution Report,” November 2011, page 34.]
But since corporations that own landfills make their money on a per pound basis from burying waste materials in the ground, and have paid lobbyists in Washington, DC, paid lobbyists in Albany, and paid townships such as Waterloo and Seneca Falls (through so-called host community fees), you are not likely to see any major changes in how waste is dealt with any time soon.
As a representative from the investment industry said: “recycling has long been the enemy of the solid waste industry, stealing volumes otherwise headed for landfills … their most promising assets.””
So, yes, Seneca Meadows may help fund local recycling efforts, but they have gotten elected officials in Seneca Falls and Waterloo to sign host agreements in exchange for $$ that help ensure and condone that much larger scale practices of non-recycling (regarding the upwards of 6,000 tons of trash they import daily to Seneca County) stay in place for decades to come.
Non-recycling of the majority of the MSW waste stream is in fact a key component of the business model of all international landfill companies, which explains why Seneca Meadows has built an industrial rail yard at the busiest intersection in Seneca County for the purpose of receiving and staging $3.3B worth of trash by rail from New York City (some of the nation’s worst recyclers) for the next 20 to 30 years.
Bringing waste from far away distances, whether by truck or rail, also increases emissions of CO2, sulfur dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other pollutants that contribute to public health problems, acid rain, smog and global warming, and encourages an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude” toward garbage.
As a result, people who live in NYC and other places East of us whose garbage we receive will likely find themselves recycling less, reusing less, and reducing less—precisely because we are relieving them of the burden of having to do so because we are burying it in our farmland.
Landfill Gas-to-Energy plants (LFGTE) – More Materials Mismanagement
Besides the recently voted expansion of the Ontario county landfill and the imminent prospect of trash by rail in Seneca County, there is another landfill bugaboo that has mostly gone unmentioned in the local press—the so-called landfill gas to energy plants (LFGTE) that have been constructed at both landfills, which burn collected landfill gas and, in doing so, contribute their own extreme amounts of air toxics. For example, Seneca Energy II, LLC in Seneca County, in 2012, released 53,607 lbs of sulfur dioxide, 71,000 lbs of nitrogen oxide, and 885,000 lbs of carbon monoxide.
These and other LFGTE facilities of similar kind have been officially listed as a renewable power source in NYS, and therefore also now receive annual federal and state government subsidies that reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars (the feds now give landfill gas facilities a credit of 1.5 cents/kilowatt hour)—that is, in addition to tax subsidies already given to them from our county lDAs (Industrial development agencies), which of course are funded by our local tax dollars.
Giving renewable energy credits to companies that burn landfill gas allows them to undermine truly renewable, clean sources of energy like wind and solar; stalls any serious move towards reuse, recycling, and composting, and continues to create massive amounts of GHG emissions—some 3.8 -7.8 times more net GHG emissions than compared to flaring landfill gas—which contributes to catastrophic climate events.
Tax credits given to landfills for collecting and burning their gas emissions also encourages them to re-circulate the leachate that they create back into their landfills, since moisture from this leachate greatly increases methane emissions (2.3 time more according to the EPA), leading to more profitable “energy recovery.”
However, in doing so, they correspondingly increase threats to groundwater from leachate contamination and threats to air from increased fugitive emissions (the uncollected ones containing the toxins that you breathe) that will always escape from landfills no matter what gas collection equipment is installed. How much more? According to the EPA, up to 4.7 times as much!
What’s more, burning toxic landfill gas, which creates other toxic gases as by-products, does not a sustainable or renewable resource make. The operations at both landfill plants use IC (internal combustion) engines, which the EPA says are amongst the dirtiest methods for processing landfill gas in that they emit the most carbon monoxide, NOx and possibly dioxins (one of the most toxic chemicals known to science); and nothing that emits dioxins should be considered “green” or “renewable.” energy.
In closing, the proper amount of escaping methane and the toxins it contains that should be allowed for the Finger Lakes is zero, which can only be achieved through the banning of all organics from entering landfills in the first place. This is at least a starting point.
In so many ways, it isn’t a matter of choice; but is something we must do. The very soils beneath our feet that have given us the bounty of the Finger Lakes are what we should be striving to replenish and nurture in return for what these soils have given us.
Our local IDAs should therefore be offering financial incentives for solar, wind, and geothermal energy production, and to composting facilities that will build and restore our soil, not companies whose business model utilizes failed technology and requires destruction of our biosphere.
Written about 500 years ago during the time of the Roman Empire is something known as the Public Trust Doctrine, which says that you and I bear responsibility of stewardship of the earth’s resources for the public good (i.e., the greater good), but we have yet to take that responsibility seriously.
Bottom line as regards the material known as municipal solid waste here in the Finger Lakes: When you bury it, you lose jobs, waste natural resources, create unmanageable costs, and you trash the land, air, and climate for generations yet to be born.
 VOCs are volatile organic compounds, long-term exposure to which can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Short-term exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, fatigue, loss of coordination, allergic skin reactions, nausea, and memory impairment.