SENECA FALLS, NY (06/05/2023) (readMedia)-- On Wednesday, May 31, ABC News reported that Seneca Meadows – the state's largest landfill – receives plastic bags that are meant to be recycled. According to the story:
"More than 200 miles away from the Kingston, New York, Target store's plastic bag recycling bin lies Seneca Meadows, a landfill that does not recycle plastic bags. Yet the facility in Seneca County, which is New York's largest garbage dump, was the last place where a plastic bag tracker placed by ABC News inside the recycling bin at the Kingston Target ended up pinging."
The story also reported that less than 1% of the waste that ends up in Seneca Meadows originates in Seneca County. According to Seneca Meadows' 2022 annual report, 30% of the waste in the landfill is trash from New York City, and 16% comes from out of state.
In response, on Monday, June 5th, Seneca Lake Guardian, Environmental Advocates of NY, and Assemblymember Anna Kelles gathered on Zoom to demand Governor Hochul close the landfill in 2025 per a local ordinance and enact a comprehensive zero-waste strategy.
"The state's largest landfill is now gaining national recognition for what we know all too well here in the Finger Lakes: the way we deal with waste in New York State is broken. Garbage is shipped across the state to communities who did not create it, but are left to suffer its environmental and health impacts. On top of that, everyday people do their part by recycling plastics just to have them end up in this giant, stinking, leaking, toxic trash heap. We must close Seneca Meadows in 2025 as planned and enact a comprehensive zero-waste strategy," said Yvonne Taylor, Vice President of Seneca Lake Guardian.
There is 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 the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environmental Advocates NY (EANY), Sierra Club, and New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) – sent a letter (attached) to Governor Hochul demanding Seneca Meadows close on schedule. The letter also called for the state to implement a comprehensive zero-waste strategy. In response, the DEC sent a letter 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.
Landfills are one of four major sources of PFAS contamination, but there are currently no federal or state regulations requiring PFAS disclosures from all facilities that might be discharging it. This leaves localities in the dark as to where harmful PFAS pollution is coming from, and unable to take meaningful action to protect their drinking water from contamination. Assemblymember Kelles carries the PFAS Surface Water Discharge Disclosure Act (S227/A3296) in the Assembly, which would require all facilities permitted to discharge water – like Seneca Meadows – to test for PFAS.
"The position of the US Environmental Protection Agency is crystal clear: there is no safe level of exposure to PFOA or PFOS. Any discharge of toxic PFAS into our lakes, rivers, and drinking water sources is an unacceptable risk to human health. We need to know if leachate from landfills like Seneca Meadows contains dangerous carcinogens that are being released back into our most valuable resource. We stand with Seneca Lake Guardians and others urging the closure of the Seneca Meadows landfill on time. We also strongly support the passage of Assemblymember Kelles's PFAS Surface Water Discharge Disclosure Act, so we can finally understand the scale of PFAS pollution statewide," said Rob Hayes, Director of Clean Water with Environmental Advocates NY.
"The national ABC news story shines a light on the unsustainable rate of waste production and puts into focus landfills like Seneca Meadows. We cannot keep delaying long-term waste management solutions and simply allow landfills to grow interminably, continuing to dispense greenhouse gasses such as methane into the environment and leachate containing toxic chemicals into our water. We need to promote sustainable material recovery and recycling, restructure our waste streams, and implement legislation in New York that brings us closer to a zero-waste future," said Assemblymember Anna Kelles.
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. 30% 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 three 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.