Understanding Cortland County’s ash for trash deal—and why it’s stalled

CORTLAND, N.Y. – About 75 people attended a forum Tuesday night on the economic and health impacts of Cortland County importing incinerator ash from Onondaga County.

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The central issue of Tuesday’s forum, which took place at the Cortland County Office Building, was the controversial “ash for trash” proposal between the two counties.

The forum provided an opportunity for residents to learn more about the proposal before the county legislature decides whether or not to move forward with the project.

What that in mind, we’ve created an explainer piece based on information presented in Tuesday night’s meeting as well as material gathered through research and interviews with county legislators.

What is the “ash for trash” proposal?

At 540 acres, Cortland County's landfill stretches into the towns of Cortlandville, Homer and Solon (Photo courtesy of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District)

At 540 acres, Cortland County’s landfill stretches into the towns of Cortlandville, Homer and Solon (Photo courtesy of the Cortland County Soil and Water Conservation District)

The ash for trash proposal would have Cortland County importing 90,000 tons of ash each year from Onondaga County. In exchange, about 35,000 tons of trash from Cortland County would be transported to an incinerator at the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA), which manages Onondaga County’s waste and incinerator.

In August 2013, the proposal was presented to the public. It was billed as a solution to budget shortfalls, as the county’s landfill continued to operate under an annual deficit of roughly $400,000.

After many months of discussions, Cortland County unveiled a draft contract with OCRRA in April, and county legislators appeared poised to move forward with the deal.

What are the purported economic benefits?

When the proposal was first presented to the public, the deal was estimated to bring the county about $1 million in annual revenue.

County officials ended up walking back that assessment. An independent financial analysis conduct by Environmental Capital, LLC, found that the deal would bring the county an estimated profit of $22,660 per year.

In May, the Cortland County Environmental Advisory Board, an independent citizens’ group, presented its own financial analysis of the deal that appeared to show the exact opposite of what the county originally promised: the deal would, in fact, lose the county money–to the tune of $1 million each year.

Victor Siegle, a Homer businessman who serves on the board, said the county’s financial analysis failed to take into account the “useful life” of the landfill. He argued that by importing tens of thousands of tons of ash, the county would shorten the life span of its landfill, which would lose the county money in the long run.

“If we bring in ash for trash, we’re going to have approximately twice the density [in the landfill],” Siegle said at Tuesday’s forum. “If you fill the landfill with twice as much, it lasts a shorter and shorter time.”

“Ash for trash ends up being more expensive than anyone comprehended because all the costs are being divided into a very short amount of time,” he added.

From left, Jane Snell, Donald Hughes, Richard Wolfson and Victor Siegle discuss the health and economic impacts of importing incinerator ash at the Cortland County Office Building Tuesday night (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

From left, Jane Snell, Donald Hughes, Richard Wolfson and Victor Siegle discuss the health and economic impacts of importing incinerator ash at the Cortland County Office Building Tuesday night (Peter Blanchard/Cortland Voice)

Siegle says legislators also failed to take into account the high cost of monitoring a landfill once it closes, a process that often takes at least 30 years to complete, he said.

During Tuesday’s forum, Siegle also presented his latest financial estimates while outlining a number of possible alternatives to ash for trash.

The most viable financial alternative, Siegle said, would be to do four things: 1) close and cover the landfill, 2) recycle heavily, 3) use flow control, a method used by municipalities to increase trash intake and 4) amortize the landfill over 60 years.

“We must bite the bullet and determine the most practical way to close our landfill,” he said. “Cortland County is not equipped to manage a commercial landfill.”

Legislator John Troy, who has publicly supported the ash for trash deal, had been scheduled to discuss the economic impacts of ash for trash at Tuesday’s panel before deciding last week to back out, citing a lack of concrete financial estimates from the county.

The county has spent roughly $235,000 towards the ash for trash deal, according to county clerk Jeremy Boylan.

Are there potential health risks?

The Onondaga County Health Department has conducted extensive testing of ash produced from the OCRRA incinerator, according to Howard Hughes, a chemical engineer and former OCRRA board member who discussed the health impacts of ash for trash at Tuesday’s forum.

The health department tests the ash for metals, many of which are probable carcinogens, including arsenic, beryllium, lead and cadmium, he said.

“I was rather surprised by how high the metal content is,” Hughes said.

Michael Wolfson, a physician who also participated in Tuesday’s panel, spoke about the health risks of dioxins, which are chemicals formed during waste incineration or trash burning.

“Dioxins are extremely dangerous carcinogens. They pose a risk to anyone who comes into contact with them,” Wolfson said. “The health risks are significant.”

Hughes said people can become exposed to dioxins through runoff surface water that carries the ash, airborne dust (if the ash becomes dry) and flooding at the landfill.

Wolfson and Hughes both agreed that current testing of ash is flawed.

Hughes said that the testing conducted by Onondaga County is voluntary and fails to consider all possible routes of exposure.

Wolfson doubled down, saying the testing is “wholly inadequate” to protect public health (Wolfson has previously called the ash byproduct “a cancer factory”).

So, what’s holding up the deal?

By March, both the Cortland and Onondaga legislatures approved a final environmental impact statement, alleviating concerns of some lawmakers who were worried about the health and environmental impacts of importing ash.

The economic outlook, however, has been the main impetus behind the county’s decision to put the proposal on hold.

Since the aforementioned environmental advisory board presented its figures in May, Siegle has attended several private meetings with county officials working on the ash for trash proposal.

Following Tuesday night’s forum, Peggy Mousaw, the county’s director of budget and finance, tried to assure residents that the county was working with Siegle and other officials to determine their next course of action.

“I don’t want you to leave tonight with the impression that the county has not been proactive on this issue,” Mousaw said. “The reason you don’t have an answer right now is because we’re actively doing our due diligence … with all the options that are out there. Every time we have a meeting, another option pops up.”

Mousaw, who was hired by the county in May, said the county has agreed to use Siegle’s cost accounting formula as they explore all of their options for the landfill.

When asked by an audience member at Tuesday’s forum why the county would still consider going forward with the idea given the drawbacks, Siegle said the proposal initially showed great promise for the county’s future.

“It was the hope of the million dollars, without all the cost accounting to see what happened,” Siegle said. “I believe it was a sincere hope, too.”

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