The Finger Lakes region can do better than incinerating NYC trash

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Michael Warren Thomas

I must admit it feels like insider sabotage to have a Rochester company propose one of the largest trash incinerators in the United States for tiny Romulus (population 4,345 in 2017) in the heart of the Finger Lakes. The region has spent most of the past decade trying to keep a billion-dollar Texas gas company from industrializing Watkins Glen. Circular enerG is attempting to inundate the Finger Lakes with an endless supply of garbage from outside the region, much of it probably from New York City. Our air, our soil, and our water will suffer the consequences of decades of trash burning if the region allows the construction of this facility.

According to this proposal, nearly 3,000 additional tons of New York City trash would be burned in Romulus every day. The plans to build this incinerator are not connected to the closing of any landfills in the Finger Lakes. If this incinerator is built, however, Circular enerG would be in a great position to add more burning units to accept the New York City’s trash that currently goes to Seneca Meadows (6,000 tons per day).

Proponents of the incinerator will argue that the technology is better than it used to be, that Circular enerG will follow all the environmental regulations, and that Romulus will prosper with dollars paid under a host agreement. Maybe, but are we willing to risk the future of the region based on the promises of a company that has no track record at all—much less in proposing, building, or operating any kind of trash-burning operation? The technology is better than it used to be, but there will still be pollutants released every day (within legal limits). As we watch environmental protections rolled back across the country, how can we depend on the current regulations to protect our region? In terms of economic benefit, Seneca Falls is an example of how host-agreement dollars guarantee a future of living with the stench of garbage trucks and trash mountains.

Romulus would get some money through a host agreement, which is a lot of money for a small town but a pittance from a company that plans to make billions of dollars burning trash. Perhaps Romulus is against the incinerator because its residents have seen how addicting and disfiguring this arrangement can be, as Seneca Falls fights lawsuits filed by the landfill, which no longer wants to keep the planned 2025 shutdown date. The landfill had previously renegotiated a 2009 closing date, so if a new agreement extends it to 2040, you can bet on even more extensions.

For the opposing viewpoint, see “Why waste-to-energy municipal solid waste management is good public policy” by David A. Elsperger.

Burning garbage is not the solution to the waste management challenges of the 21st century. It is relatively dirty, and an inefficient method of producing energy, but it keeps popping up every 20 to 30 years as a panacea for trash disposal. Cheap dumping options like the landfills in the Finger Lakes have allowed New York City to avoid making significant investments in composting and recycling. In 2016, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced zero waste as the city’s goal for 2030. While they may not make that deadline, what will the trash incinerator burn as communities such as New York City actively reach for zero waste goals? Like fracking, trash incineration is not a business with a bright future.

Circular enerG has proposed a $365 million industrial facility with a 260-foot smoke stack, scrubbers included, for the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus. The Rochester company is so confident in the quality of the air that will come out of the smokestack 24/7, it has no qualms about locating the trash-burning facility about 3,000 feet upwind of the Romulus K-12 school. The 26-story smokestack will cast a literal shadow on the school.

Led by Seneca Lake Guardian and key residents of Romulus, the Finger Lakes region responded immediately to this proposal. After winning an eight-year battle with a multibillion-dollar Texas gas company that wanted to turn the south end of Seneca Lake into the gas storage and transportation hub of the Northeast, the Finger Lakes region is far more organized, energized, and committed to protecting the area from other ill-conceived proposals such as building massive trash incinerators.

This newly formed Rochester company has spent the past 18 months trying to convince politicians, local governments, and residents that a trash-burning facility is one of the best environmental ideas for the region. But Circular enerG has not found a single environmental group, politician, or local government (including the one that will “benefit” the most, Romulus) to support it. Despite spending significant resources, this company has failed to find any allies, and has now resorted to lawsuits against the town of Romulus.

Among the negative consequences of this potential trash-burning facility are the trucks and trains that will be continuously moving through the region, creeping through Geneva and many other communities with their fermenting loads of trash. The train cars are “sealed” to keep trash from blowing out, but they can’t seal the stinking gases cooking inside them. The building of this garbage incinerator will not be connected to the closing of any landfills in the Finger Lakes, which already accept 52 percent of the trash in New York that goes to landfills in the state. (See New York DEC data from 2016.)

Rather than resulting in less trash ending up in Finger Lakes landfills, the trash-burning facility will be dumping tons and tons of ash in local landfills, because not everything will burn.

Hazardous materials scrubbed out of the smokestack (but not 100 percent of them) will be mixed with the rest of the ash and buried here in the Finger Lakes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ash represents 15 percent to 25 percent of the 2,640 tons of trash that would be burned daily in Romulus. On the low end, that would mean 400 tons of ash containing toxic materials dumped in local landfills per day (or nearly 150,000 tons per year).

With internationally renowned winemakers investing millions in the Finger Lakes right now (Louis Barruol, Paul Hobbs, and Johannes Selbach), and selling Finger Lakes Riesling in 24 countries (Forge Cellars), Gov. Andrew Cuomo was clear in his opposition to the proposed Romulus trash incinerator.

“The Circular enerG 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,” the governor said in his May 2018 statement. “Importing and burning municipal solid waste in one of the state’s most environmentally sensitive areas is simply not appropriate. … We will consider all options to protect against this proposal that is at odds with New York’s renewable energy plan and that threatens important natural resources, environmentally sensitive areas, and economic drivers in the Finger Lakes region.”

If Circular enerG is successful in starting the Article 10 siting process, the local community will be bypassed and the decision will be left to the appointed members of the state Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment. Once that Article 10 proceeding begins, it will take years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to defeat this proposal. To short-circuit this potential attempt, bills have been introduced into the state Senate (S2270) and Assembly (A5029) that would prohibit trash incinerators in the Finger Lakes.

As a region, we can aim higher than other people’s trash as a major economic driver. We don’t have to hope for better options because our local wine industry has already established itself as one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. Rather than becoming the garbage disposal capital of the Northeast, the Finger Lakes could be the first solar-powered wine region in the world. We are small enough to do this quickly, and large enough to make these investments. If this proposal is really about energy production rather than trash, perhaps Circular enerG could install solar panels on its 40 acres and produce truly renewable energy for the region. I think the region would embrace that option.

(Note: For more background information, Peter Mantius of WaterfrontOnline.blog has done an outstanding job of covering the proposed trash incinerator and other environmental challenges faced by the Finger Lakes. Also FingerLakes1.com has provided extensive video and online coverage of key town meetings in the region. SenecaLakeGuardian.org has played a crucial role in organizing the opposition to these trash and gas storage proposals.)

Michael Warren Thomas has covered the Finger Lakes for 25 years on his weekly radio shows about gardening, food, and wine. He was active in the successful efforts to stop the expansion of gas storage near Watkins Glen, and for several years has participated in the ongoing battle to close the state’s largest landfill (Seneca Meadows) in 2025 as planned.

9 thoughts on “The Finger Lakes region can do better than incinerating NYC trash

  1. Pingback: Is modern incineration an answer to our solid waste problem? - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  2. Pingback: Why waste-to-energy municipal solid waste management is good public policy - Rochester BeaconRochester Beacon

  3. {02/18/19 @ 15:26 EST}
    Here are some facts that can perhaps help to persuade Mr. Thomas on his important issues quoted below.

    “Proponents of the incinerator will argue that the technology is better than it used to be, that Circular enerG will follow all the environmental regulations, and that Romulus will prosper with dollars paid under a host agreement. Maybe, but are we willing to risk the future of the region based on the promises of a company that has no track record at all—much less in proposing, building, or operating any kind of trash-burning operation?”

    Most likely, Circular enerG LLC will have an emissions performance guarantee or specification from the incinerator’s manufacturer. Not to favor any particular manufacturer to be fair, Table 1 shows a sample emissions specification based on modern technology.

    What emissions were anticipated from the WtE facility?

    Table 1 Sample Emissions Specification
    Pollutant Concentration
    (by weight)
    Sulfur <200 ppm
    Halogens <1 ppm
    Alkali Metals <1 ppm
    Volatile Metals <1 ppm
    Particulate Matter <20 ppm
    {end}

  4. {02/21/19 @ 20:32 EST}
    Incineration increases the density of the incinerated materials in addition to decreasing their mass. An increase in density adds to the reduction in weight so combined these two physical changes result in a significant reduction in volume. Volume is the physical characteristic that adds height to the level of landfills. Think about styrofoam’s volume versus weight.

    “Rather than resulting in less trash ending up in Finger Lakes landfills, the trash-burning facility will be dumping tons and tons of ash in local landfills, because not everything will burn.

    Hazardous materials scrubbed out of the smokestack (but not 100 percent of them) will be mixed with the rest of the ash and buried here in the Finger Lakes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, ash represents 15 percent to 25 percent of the 2,640 tons of trash that would be burned daily in Romulus. On the low end, that would mean 400 tons of ash containing toxic materials dumped in local landfills per day (or nearly 150,000 tons per year).”

    Mr. Thomas’s concern about ash as quoted above is based on out-of-date information. With modern technology, when particulates are recycled, the landfilled wastes amount to 2%, arguably much less, at least 7.5 times less, than the 15% to 25% cited by Mr. Thomas. This modern technology does seem to reduce the volume of MSW thus conserving land for future use. With this in mind, the 400 tons of ash quoted becomes 53 tons or just over 19,000 tons annually not 150,000 tons.

    • I appreciate having the expertise of Mr. Elsperger in this discussion, and apologize for any out-of-date information. While 19,000 tons is far less than 150,000 tons of ash produced every year, my point remains that we will be adding substantial waste to our existing landfills for many decades if this trash incinerator is built. I expect that this huge reduction in ash will make it more difficult for Circular enerG to dilute the hazardous fly ash that is removed from the smokestack with scrubbers.

      Circular enerG has manipulated their estimates of energy production to suit their purposes in the application process. Initially they said it would be 25 MW, then they said it would be 50 MW, and their latest claim is 85 MW – which brings them over the threshold for Article 10 siting consideration that would bypass the unanimous opposition from Finger Lake municipalities. It remains a mystery how the energy production can change so dramatically, while measures of pollution and trash volume remain the same.

      Let’s be clear, this is not a case of a company looking around NYS for the best location for one of the nation’s largest trash incinerators. This proposal is purely a commercial company that happens to own 40+ acres at the former Seneca Army Depot and they are looking for the way to make the most money from this property. If it gets built, they will make a lot of money and be in a great position to double or triple their capacity (not to mention doubling or tripling the pollution and ash generation.

      It may be a smart business move for Circular enerG, but it is an environmental and economic disaster for the Finger Lakes region. Please keep in mind that those contaminants noted in Mr. Elsperger’s reply will be coming out of that smokestack every day for decades, dispersed over our region. I don’t think Circular enerG has released estimates of pollution other than stating that it will be within legal limits. The hillsides that surround our lakes will funnel these contaminants into our fresh water lakes – every day for decades. I don’t believe there is a good location for a trash incinerator in NYS, but it seems obvious to me that the heart of the Finger Lakes wine region and next to a K-12 elementary school is one of the absolute worst locations.

      Note: Examples of volatile metals include cadmium and mercury. While modern scrubbers are much better at removing dioxins, furans, cadmium, and mercury from the smokestacks, those toxic materials end up diluted with bottom ash from the incinerator and accumulate in our landfills.

      • {02/25/19 @ 08:21 EST}

        Certain facts about the waste produced by a WtE plant that should be highlighted appear below. As previously stated, the particulates are recycled.

        Steve Orr in his article states that “The facility, which would loom 180 feet high over the landscape with a smokestack that reaches even higher, would generate electricity and create ash that the developers say could be reused.” [1]

        David Shaw in his article states that “Knauf [Alan Knauf, a partner with Rochester-based Knauf Shaw LLC, a firm specializing in environmental law] explained that the ash residue from incinerating trash contains metals that can be removed and recycled.” [2]

        Modern technology produces a byproduct that is inert and safe to use as aggregate or for use in other applications. It will not contaminate soil or drinking water because its components are below test detection limits and it is considered non-leaching.

        Facts are powerful. They have reduced 150,000 tons annually of landfilled wastes to zero tons.

        Links:
        1 Steve Orr. Rochester firm seeks to build $365 million trash incinerator in Seneca County. Democrat & Chronicle. https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/2017/11/20/rochester-firm-seeks-build-huge-trash-incinerator-seneca-county/880889001/

        2 David Shaw. Attorney outlines benefits of a waste-to-energy plant at former Depot. Finger Lakes Times.
        https://www.fltimes.com/news/attorney-outlines-benefits-of-waste-to-energy-plant-at-former/article_1611e17f-c8df-5c3c-ba29-3734f33a8fef.html
        {end}

  5. I think Mr. Thomas makes the case against this project very well. Among the reasons I love living in the city of Rochester is its close proximity to the Finger Lakes region. I’ve been spending time there for almost sixty years now, and the recent intrusion of the Seneca Meadows landfill has been most unwelcome. The intrusion of thousands more trucks or rail cars full of trash is a nightmare to me, and a travesty to this most scenic of areas. What this project might do to the wine and tourism industries, finally off the ground after decades of dedicated entrepreneurship and land stewardship, is yet another likely tragedy to result from this project. The 21st century demands a transition to full circle consumption patterns, not more landfills OR incinerators. Those favoring this proposal do not own local businesses or send their children to the “targeted” school, so have little credibility in my view.

  6. {02/25/19 @ 09:59 EST}
    Seneca Army Depot, EPA ID: NY0213820830, Fayette Rd, Romulus, NY 14541, is on the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL). The U.S. EPA’s list of Site-Wide Milestones [1] shows that its Site Ready for Reuse and Redevelopment status is ‘Not Yet Achieved.’ Do many companies seek to locate their businesses in or near a Superfund site? [2] Maybe the Finger Lakes Region is lucky that any company is willing to make a large capital investment here in Western NY especially in a Superfund site. The $365 million incinerator is a large investment for the Finger Lakes Region. Design changes will likely increase the investment to over $400 million.

    Links:
    1 Site-Wide Milestones. EPA. Cleanup Progress. [accessed 2019 Feb 25].
    https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.schedule&id=0202425

    2 Superfund site. EPA. Cleanups In My Community Map. [accessed 2019 Feb 25].
    https://bit.ly/2EzwTiB
    {end}

    • “The Finger Lakes Region is lucky that any company is willing to make a large capital investment here in Western NY especially in a Superfund site.” Please see the title of my original article. This site could become an expansive solar farm which would not involve trucks and trains of trash from NYC every day. There isn’t much that can go wrong on a solar farm, and a school that is 3,000 feet downwind of a solar farm is probably going to be just fine.

      The links to the Democrat & Chronicle and Finger Lakes Times merely quote the developers and the lawyer representing the developers, who have already a lot of money to convince the community that this is a great environmental idea. Unfortunately the developers have not been able to find a single environmental group to support the idea.

      Your use of David Shaw and Steve Orr’s articles implies their endorsement of the reuse of ash and recycling of metals, when in fact it is just the developers who are claiming these things. Developers promise many things, but if they have never worked with trash incinerators before, I become even more skeptical. Yes, metals like steel and copper will be recycled, but does that include heavy metals like cadmium? How about mercury?

      Love your fact that trash incineration will result in zero tons going the landfill, but then why does Florida save only 90% on what goes to the landfill, rather than 100% on their brand new incinerator (which I believe is the first new trash incinerator in the US in about 25 years).

      I would be interested in your (David Elsperger) perspective about something – why aren’t Wheelabrator (subsidiary of Waste Management) and Covanta proposing to build this incinerator? These are the companies that actually operate many of the incinerators around the country. They have a track record that we can debate – Circular enerG hasn’t even built a storage shed. But the bottom line is that it is against the best interests of New York State to have trash trains and trash trucks carrying garbage from NYC constantly moving through a world class wine region. Are they taking San Francisco trash into Sonoma and Napa?

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