DEC Says Methane Spewing Project Complies with CLCPA, Advocates Demand Explanation
FOIL Analysis by Cornell shows 99.6% of Public Comments Opposed to SMI Expansion
SENECA FALLS, NY (05/16/2023) (readMedia)-- On Tuesday May 16th, advocates demanded the DEC explain why they directed Seneca Energy to state a proposal to expand their facility is compliant with the CLCPA. Seneca Energy is a landfill gas to energy project that monetarily incentivizes Seneca Meadows – the state's largest landfill – by converting the methane gas the landfill produces and selling it as "renewable natural gas."
Watch the presser here.
On their initial application to renew their permits and expand their operation, Seneca Energy first concluded correctly that their project does not comply with the greenhouse gas emissions standards set by New York's nation leading Climate Law. However, a comment from the DEC advised Seneca Energy to state that the project does comply with the CLCPA. As a result, Seneca Energy revised their application.
Furthermore, approving the application would go against nearly unanimous public support in favor of closing the landfill on schedule per a local ordinance in 2025. Owen Marshall, a visiting assistant professor at Cornell University, FOILed the roughly 475 public comments that DEC solicited on Seneca Meadows' draft scoping plan. His analysis shows that only 2 of the comments, or 0.4%, support the expansion: virtually all of the remaining 99.6% oppose it.
Recently, Seneca Lake Guardian – along with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Advocates NY (EANY), Sierra Club, and New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) – sent a letter to Governor Hochul demanding Seneca Meadows close on schedule. In response, the DEC sent a letter (attached) that reads: "DEC values the input of Seneca Lake Guardian, and that of other members of the public. Public participation is built into our process. DEC is currently reviewing the 500+ comments received on the Seneca Meadows draft scoping document." Marshall's analysis of the comments make it perfectly clear: public input says the landfill must close.
"Seneca Meadows is a for-profit entity with an interest in protecting their bottom line over the expressed wishes of the community, who unanimously want the landfill to shut down on schedule. But Seneca Energy is banking on the Landfill's expansion, even though they know what they're doing is harmful to the environment, our health, and the local economy. They correctly concluded that on their initial application when they checked that the operation goes against the CLCPA. So why did the DEC advise them to revise their application to state compliance? We need answers now," said Yvonne Taylor, Vice President of Seneca Lake Guardian.
"It is highly unusual for DEC staff to simply direct an applicant to change a statement in a permit application without explaining why the statement should be changed. And, in this case, by directing the applicant to state that the landfill gas project is consistent with the NYS Climate Act, when the applicant's engineer thought otherwise, the DEC staff bypassed an important opportunity to assess whether the greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated or whether the project shouldn't be permitted in light of its total greenhouse gas emissions," said Phil Gitlen, Senior Counsel Whiteman Osterman & Hanna LLP.
"It is incumbent on DEC to ensure that the Seneca Meadows landfill closes in 2025 to comply with the Climate Act and the Climate Action Council's Scoping Plan," said Anne Rabe, NYPIRG Environmental Policy Director. "To meet the Climate Act statutory 2030 and 2050 goals, the Plan recommends 'a dramatic shift in the way waste is managed, to the point that landfills and combustors are only used sparingly for specific waste streams, and reduction and recycling are robust and ubiquitous.' Good government practices necessitate that DEC reject any request for a permit renewal or expansion. Enough is enough."
Seneca Energy's proposal seeks to construct a new, second facility that would enable more methane gas from Seneca Meadows to be converted to "renewable natural gas." Seneca Energy has also applied to purchase fossil gas to power these two facilities. According to comments on the proposal submitted by Earthjustice, Seneca Energy's project would increase greenhouse gas emissions, incentivize the continued production of landfill gas, and contribute to the entrenchment of the natural gas system. These facts demonstrate the project fails to comply with the CLCPA.
On top of that, Earthjustice's comments state Seneca Energy's greenhouse gas analysis fails to comply with the CLCPA by:
Omitting information about selling renewable natural gas out of state;
Failing to provide emissions projection information for 2030, 2040 and 2050;
Improperly excluding downstream combustion emissions;
And improperly taking credit for avoided emissions.
The Seneca Meadows landfill, located in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of American Women's Rights, is the largest of 27 landfills in New York State. It is permitted to accept 6,000 tons of waste and produces up to 200,000 gallons of polluted leachate – formed when rainwater filters through waste – per day. A quarter of the landfill – which stands at nearly 30 stories tall – is trash from NYC, followed by four other states.
Seneca Meadows was previously required to stop receiving waste and halt operations by December 31, 2025. However, Waste Connections, the Texas based parent company of Seneca Meadows Inc., spent around $200,000 in 2021 promoting pro-landfill candidates who won seats in Town Board and County races and are now supporting the Valley Infill, SMI's planned seven-story high expansion. The expansion would keep the landfill operating through 2040 with allowable dumping on the Valley Infill (the former toxic Tantalo superfund site), rising another 70 feet into the viewscape. Even with the planned closure in 2025, the mountain of garbage promises years of problems and remediation that could take generations to mitigate.
Leachate and wastewater runoff from the landfill contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can cause widespread contamination of drinking water and harmful health impacts. Landfills are one of four major sources of PFAS, and landfills account for 17 percent of total methane emissions.
SMI is located two miles from Cayuga-Seneca Canal and three miles from every school in Seneca Falls and Waterloo, potentially exposing students to airborne particulates and unseen gasses known to contribute to respiratory illness, asthma, and migraine headaches. The landfill cannot process all of the methane that is generated and is forced to burn almost a billion cubic feet per year in 5 flares, contributing to climate change.
SMI is harming the Finger Lakes' natural resources that have led to the region being under consideration for a National Heritage Area Designation, and which the $3 billion, 60,000-employee wine and agritourism economy relies on. The odor from the landfill can be smelled from miles away, including at Thruway exit 41, the northern gateway to the Finger Lakes. Large, sustainable employers in the area are finding it difficult to recruit and retain employees, because nobody wants to raise a family near a dangerous landfill.
SMI's expansion is also at odds with the overwhelmingly popular amendment to the New York state constitution passed last year, which guarantees every New Yorker the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.
The "PFAS Surface Water Discharge Disclosure Act" – introduced by Assemblymember Kelles and Senator May last year – would require annual testing for all facilities permitted to discharge water. There are no federal or state regulations currently requiring PFAS disclosures from all facilities that might be discharging it.
A recent Rockefeller Institute policy brief showed that New York is one of nine states that falls well short of the EPA guidance on enforceable drinking water standards for PFAS.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos recently tweeted about his agency's intentions to "better serve disadvantaged communities all across New York," which should include SMI. According to the draft criteria of the Climate Justice Working Group – established by the Climate Act – there are five disadvantaged communities in Seneca County.
About Seneca Lake Guardian
Seneca Lake Guardian is a New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation with 501(c)(3) and is dedicated to preserving and protecting the health of the Finger Lakes, its residents and visitors, its rural community character, and its agricultural and tourist related businesses through public education, citizen participation, engagement with decision makers, and networking with like-minded organizations.