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.