Landfill Fight Illustrates New York’s Heaping Trash Problem

New York planned to slash its trash. Instead, we’re producing more garbage than ever.

Sam Mellins   ·   November 8, 2022
Where is the leadership, where is the governor, where is the legislature, in dealing with this solid waste crisis? | Illustration: Maia Hibbett for New York Focus

If you’re driving to the town of Seneca Falls, in New York’s Finger Lakes region, you might smell it before you see it.

That’s because the town, best known for hosting the first us women’s rights convention in 1848, is also home to the Seneca Meadows landfill, the largest in New York state. It’s taller than a 20-story building and covers an area three times the size of Central Park. It holds billions of pounds of garbage, with over 10 million more delivered every day. And it smells.

“It smells like putrid, rotting, dead material,” said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of local environmental group Seneca Lake Guardian. “Sometimes even with all of your windows closed, the odor still makes its way into your home.”

Landfills aren’t just smelly. They leach toxins into the ground, polluting millions of gallons of water per year. And their decomposing waste emits methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide. In New York, the waste sector is responsible for about 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The most recent draft of New York’s official climate plan says that the state needs “significant increased diversion from landfills” to meet its own legally mandated 2030 emissions reduction targets. By 2050, the draft says, landfills should be used only “sparingly for specific waste streams.” But the state is not on track.

Seneca Meadows is slated to stop accepting new trash in 2025, but the landfill’s operator is petitioning the state Department of Environmental Conservation to extend that date until as late as 2040 and expand the landfill by about 50 acres. Local environmental groups, including Seneca Lake Guardian, are fighting the extension in a pitched battle that has overtaken town politics. Landfill operator Waste Connections spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to influence local elections — an unprecedented sum for the 9,000 person town.

And yet, activists acknowledge, victory over the landfill won’t solve New York’s trash problems.

“We need this behemoth mountain of trash to close in 2025, as it was slated to do,” Taylor said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to put this waste on another community either.”

Kicking the Can

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In 2010, New York state issued a solid waste planthat envisioned a steady reduction of daily garbage per person from more than four pounds in 2010 to just over half a pound by 2030. This would have significantly reduced the need for landfills statewide.

New York completely failed to meet that benchmark. In December 2021, daily garbage produced stood at just over five pounds per person, an increase from 2010. The total amount of garbage per year went from under 15 million tons to over 18 million.

In recent years, other state governments have passed laws to significantly reduce waste that goes to landfills, like expanding mandatory composting and making corporations financially responsible for recycling.

New York’s measures have been less aggressive. “There’s no game plan,” said Anne Rabe, environmental policy director at the nonprofit New York Public Interest Research Group, noting that the 2010 plan didn’t have any legal enforcement mechanism. “Where is the leadership, where is the governor, where is the legislature, in dealing with this solid waste crisis?”

Seneca Falls isn’t the only New York town struggling with what happens when a landfill closes.

In Brookhaven, a town in Long Island’s Suffolk County, a 270-foot-tall landfill is slated to close in 2024. Last year, the town announced it was collaborating with scholars at Stony Brook University to produce a study of alternatives to landfilling in preparation for the closure. But the report was never written, a spokesperson for the town told New York Focus.

In the absence of non-landfill options, the Long Island communities that rely on the Brookhaven landfill will likely simply ship their waste to other landfills once it closes — some of it to Seneca Meadows. Winters Brothers, a local waste management company, has proposed a 228-acre rail hub near the current landfill site for future trash shipping, arguing that environmentally speaking, that would be a step up from trucking the garbage.

“Instead of just saying we’re gonna ship 10 pounds of garbage, we should have a real plan to say, ‘How can we make 10 pounds of garbage four pounds of garbage?’” said Kerim Odekon, a doctor and member of the local activist organization Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group.

If the town begins to implement the shipping model, he added, “At that point there’s gonna be absolutely no incentive to create a sustainable plan because the plan is just to ship it off.”

Winters Brothers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

‘The word I keep using is “obscene”’

In Seneca Falls, the town supervisor and Town Board currently support expanding the landfill. But that wasn’t always the case. The Town Board voted 4–1 to pass a 2016 law requiring the Seneca Meadows landfill to close at the end of 2025.

So Waste Connections, the Texas-based company that runs the Seneca Meadows landfill, decided to replace them.

In 2019, Mike Ferrara, a Republican who supports expanding the landfill, was elected Seneca Falls town supervisor. Waste Connections spent nearly $100,000backing his campaign.

Then in 2021, Waste Connections contributed another $200,000 to oust two anti-landfill Democrats on the Seneca Falls Town Board, replacing them with pro-landfill Republicans. Only one anti-landfill member of the board remained.

The spending far surpassed the typical sums directed toward local Seneca Falls races. Douglas Avery, one of the Democrats pushed out by the Waste Connections cash tsunami, spent $8,500 on his successful 2017 campaign.

“The word I keep using is ‘obscene,’” Avery told New York Focus. “To put that kind of money into a town election, you’ve taken the local voice out of it.”

Waste Connections, which did not respond to multiple requests for comment, is now suing to overturn the 2016 law that requires Seneca Meadows to close in 2025. (The state Department of Environmental Conservation could still deny the request to extend its permit, even if the suit succeeds.)

Ferrara, the current supervisor, said that it makes most sense for Seneca Meadows to continue operating for the time being.

“I don’t believe in kicking the can down the road. You close Seneca Meadows and where’s your solid waste going? Some other community doesn’t want it,” he said. “My focus is to try to reduce solid waste as much as possible so that what goes into the landfill necessarily has to go in there.”

Avery said that after hosting a landfill for four decades, Seneca Falls has “done our part.”

“It’s time for the state’s garbage to go somewhere else,” he said. “Sadly, that means that for now, it’s going to go to another landfill.”

‘Who are we really fighting?’

If New York wants to get serious about reducing trash, according to Stony Brook University engineering professor and landfill expert David Tonjes, it should put two sources of waste at the top of its priority list: food and packaging.

Those two categories make up half of all municipal waste nationwide. And legislation already implemented in other states could go a long way toward tackling each.

This year, New York has taken initial steps to reduce food waste, which makes up nearly a fifth of the state’s garbage. In January, a state law went into effect requiring most organizations that throw out more than two tons of food a week to recycle it through donations or composting.

Over one million pounds of food have already been donated under the law rather than sent to landfills — a substantial amount, but only a tiny fraction of the millions of tons of food waste that the state landfills each year.

Measures to reduce waste in packaging have not fared as well. In the 2022 legislative session, a proposed bill to charge manufacturers for packaging and require them to recycle it didn’t make it out of committee in the state Senate or Assembly.

Hochul didn’t support that bill, or another one that would have provided additional funding for bottle recycling. Instead, she proposed a program that would have expanded corporate recycling. Critics said it would have allowed companies to police their own compliance.

“That was a red flag,” Rabe said.

Hochul’s office referred a request for comment to the Department of Environmental Conservation, which noted in a statement that since Hochul became governor, it has moved to cut down on styrofoam, increase recycling of electronics, and implement the food scraps law, which passed before she became governor.

In Seneca Falls, locals on both sides of the landfill fight agree on the need for more ambitious statewide action. Ferrara, the Republican town supervisor who supports the Seneca Meadows extension, said the state should mandate universal composting. He pointed to a composting program he started in the town, for which he has applied for additional state funding.

“Statewide, there has to be some type of a schedule that by 2030 there are no organics allowed in any solid waste,” Ferrara said.

“We need Governor Hochul to lead us and turn this into a more statewide initiative,” Taylor, the environmental activist, said of local waste reduction efforts.

Steve Churchill, the lone remaining anti-landfill Town Board member, said that the state has let Seneca Falls down.

“At the end of the day, who are we really fighting? The Department of Environmental Conservation, because this was their solution,” Churchill said. “I just want them to do their job.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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