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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, December 11, 2008

At DEC hearing
Citizens protest Rapp Road landfill expansion

By Philippa Stasiuk

ALBANY —In strictly enforced five-minute intervals, concerned citizens got their chance last Wednesday to tell the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation what they thought of Albany’s proposal to expand the Rapp Road landfill. The overwhelming sentiment was that it stinks.

Over 130 people packed one of the Polish Community Center’s public rooms on Wednesday, Dec, 3, with front seats reserved for introductory speakers and residents of the Avila Retirement Community, which is located adjacent to the landfill. DEC staff sat at a table off to the side, except for lawyer Kevin Casuto who presided over the meeting from up front. 

Casuto said that the city’s landfill expansion proposal had been accepted by the DEC but it has not yet decided whether to approve Albany’s fourth attempt to expand the dump, and would take into consideration public comments before deciding. The landfill will be filled in 13 months and the proposed expansion is expected to provide enough space for six to seven more years worth of waste.

A consortium of a dozen local municipalities — including Guilderland, New Scotland, and the Hilltowns, uses the landfill. The city of Albany also contracts with out-of-county users.

The proposal to expand the landfill, called the eastern expansion, includes conditions meant to appease the strongest voice of opposition to the landfill, from Save the Pine Bush. This organization has been fighting since the late 1970s to preserve the last of the inland pine barrens, the rare ecosystem surrounding the landfill. 

Included in the expansion proposal is a Pine Bush habitat restoration plan that would exchange 15 additional acres needed for dumping trash for 250 acres of land that would be transformed to its original habitat at city expense. The restoration would include returning land that is currently a trailer park to its original habitat, which was wetlands, according to Steve Affelbomb, the ecological consultant to the city. The trailer park parcel of land would connect two disjointed parts of the Pine Bush.

Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings was the first to speak.

“Since my days on the city council,” Jennings said, “I’ve been a long-time friend of the Pine Bush.”  He outlined his reasons for supporting the expansion, which included the extra time for planning the next landfill location, the additional six years of predictable and reasonably priced disposal, and the funding the landfill will provide for recycling programs. 

This was the first time Jennings had attended a public hearing about the landfill. After giving his speech, he left.  When asked by phone why he did not stay to hear public comments, an assistant in Jennings’s office replied, “I’m sure he’ll get a full report on what transpired from his assistants. He was just asked to come up and welcome.”

Like Fresh Kill?

Those arguing both for and against the Rapp Road landfill’s eastern expansion referred to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island — New York City’s principal landfill and the world’s largest at over 2,000 acres when it closed in 2001. Affelbomb showed before and after pictures of Fresh Kills to demonstrate how a landfill can be restored to a green space by piling on sand and dirt and planting trees and shrubs indigenous to the area.  The Fresh Kills Park, which will be three times the size of Central Park in New York City, is expected to be completed by 2033 according to the New York City parks and recreation website. 

Barbara Warren, the executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, was one of the activists involved in getting the Fresh Kills landfill closed and ended her anti-expansion speech by urging the public to stay involved. “The DEC didn’t close Fresh Kills landfill; the public did,” she said. 

When the time came for the actual public comment portion of the meeting, the excitement by those waiting to speak and listen was palpable. People waited over two hours for their names to be called and not one person took less than the allotted five minutes. Some had pages of typed notes that had to be skipped once the meeting mediator gave the one-minute warning.

Wide range of issues

Although several of the people who spoke were members of Save the Pine Bush, the topics people brought up covered a wide range of issues.

One issue raised was that both the current landfill and the proposed expansion area are on top of a primary aquifer — a water source not currently used for drinking water by a town or city, but considered a back-up water source. Although it is illegal to have a landfill on top of an aquifer because of the potential for toxins leaking into the water, the city of Albany has been granted variances, or exceptions, by the DEC in order to operate the landfill in the past.

According to Peter Henner, a lawyer for Save the Pine Bush, the DEC granted the exception because it considered it unlikely that Albany would use the aquifer as a principal water source. Rick Georgeson, a DEC spokesman, said via phone that the city was granted variances in the past because it provided data showing that the aquifer could be sufficiently protected with liner systems that prevent toxins from leaking into the water. 

Health issues were also raised. Elaine Sacco still lives in the house she bought with her husband in 1988 in the village of Colonie. It is within a half mile of the landfill. The surgeon that operated on her husband four times starting in 1998, was convinced that his brain tumor was a result of environmental toxins, she said. He died in 2000.

Sacco sent a letter to Mayor Jennings’s office telling him what her husband’s doctor had deemed to be the cause of death, but she never received a reply, she said. “They’re so worried about appeasing the Pine Bush people but they haven’t canvassed our neighborhood to see how the landfill affects us,” said Sacco. “They haven’t found out how many have cancer, asthma, cerebral palsy-anything that can be affected by toxins going to the brain.”

In responding to the question of health effects for people who live near the dump, Georgeson said that the state’s Department of Health was responsible for those issues.  He said he was “not aware of whether or not the health department had done those types of studies in that area.”

The problems of the landfill’s smell came up frequently during last week’s hearing. Officials from the town and village of Colonie, as well as numerous citizens, spoke about what it was like living next to the dump. Supervisor Paula Mahan of the town of Colonie said that, for years, residents nearby and miles away have reported strong odors. She said she wants the DEC to help “minimize the impact the landfill has on our quality of life,” she said. “Our residents are looking for assurances from your agency,” she said. 

There were also practical requests. Dominick Calsolaro, Albany Common Council member of the First Ward asked the DEC to ensure that it had the legal documentation to transfer the land Albany is promising to the Pine Bush Preserve Commission. Calsolaro said that he specifically asked this of the DEC because Albany had pledged land to the Pine Bush during the last dump expansion in 2000 but did not follow through. 

Calsolaro said that the way the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission got the land from the city last time was when he “introduced legislation to complete the transfer and got Save the Pine Bush to file papers in court and sue the city.” He added, “I don’t want that scenario to play out again.”

5,000 pages not enough

Citizens also requested that the deadline for public comment be extended to Jan. 31. Henner, the Save the Pine Bush lawyer, reminded the DEC that the documents pertaining to the expansion are over 5,000 pages long and, due to size, are difficult to download off of the city’s website. Albany representatives initially told Lynne Jackson, a leader for Save the Pine Bush, in October that the cost of making a copy of those documents would be $1,184, she said. Paper copies of the documents are available at local public libraries.

Georgeson said of the extension for the public comment period, “We’ve already extended it once.  We haven’t made a decision on whether to extend it again.”

Finally, some of those who had read the document said important things had been left out. Chris Hawver, the executive director of the Albany Pine Bush Commission, didn’t support the expansion but said it was “the best of what we’ve seen so far.” 

However, he wanted bonding included in the deal to make sure the proposed restoration actually took place, and evidence that restoring a dump back to a natural habitat would actually work. 

Grace Nichols, a former middle school science teacher, raised the issue of missing rodenticide data. Rodenticide is poison used to kill rodents. Nichols said authorities at the landfill have not released any records on what kind of poison they use to control rodent populations, or how much or how often it is applied.

According to Nichols, numerous raptor species live in or near the dump, feeding off of the mice and rats. The DEC’s environmental impact statement does not list the rat in the dump’s animal profile. 

“It’s the business of the DEC,” Nichols said, “to look into that and make sure all those hawks that circle the dump aren’t being affected by the toxins.” 

The manager of the Rapp Road landfill, Joseph Giebelhaus, who attended the meeting but did not speak, said by phone that no rodenticide is used around the landfill. He said the landfill has a contract with the city to periodically lay down bait for mice inside the buildings, but that it is the same kind of rodent poison used in homes. 

One of the last speakers of the night was a Colonie school bus driver who said he felt helpless because the public’s voice was not being heard by the DEC or Albany. To both laughter and applause, he concluded, “Democracy shouldn’t be two wolves and a sheep deciding on what to have for dinner.”

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