Despite objections, committee endorses "ash for cover" at Cortland landfill

CORTLAND, N.Y. – A committee of county legislators endorsed a five-year contract agreement Thursday with the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency (OCRRA) that would allow the county to use ash as a form of "alternative daily cover" at its landfill.

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The Solid Waste Committee of the County Legislature voted 4-1 Thursday to send the contract to the full legislature for a vote. Legislator Raylynn Knolls voted against the measure, while legislators Tom Hartnett, John Troy, Charles Sudbrink and Gordon Wheeler voted in favor.

All 17 county legislators will vote on the contract at its meeting on Thurs. Nov. 19, at 6 p.m. at the County Office Building.

Thursday's vote comes as the county's controversial ash for trash proposal with OCRRA remains in limbo.

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)

Why ash for cover?

DEC regulations require landfills to be covered by a minimum of 6 inches of compacted soil cover or some other alternative cover material. Alternative sources of cover can include any material that receives a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which includes ash.

The purpose of BUD materials, like ash, is to isolate municipal solid waste from the atmosphere, which prevents garbage from blowing away.

Traditionally, the county has mined for shale near the landfill and used that as cover. By importing ash from OCRRA, the county would save taxpayers’ money, legislators said.

If the contract is approved by the full legislature, the county expects to import about 4,500 tons of ash per year and would charge OCRRA a tipping fee of $14/ton. By that measure, the county would receive about $64,000 in revenue from importing ash and an additional $100,000 in savings on mining equipment, according to Cortland County Highway Superintendent Phil Krey.

Members of the Environmental Advisory Board, an independent citizens’ group that was formed in response to controversy over the ash for trash proposal, attended Thursday’s meeting to address health and financial concerns regarding the ash for cover contract.

Victor Siegle, who serves on the board and has been a vocal opponent of the ash for trash proposal, argued that importing ash for cover would do little to stem long-term financial losses at the county’s landfill operation.

“Ash for cover, from the financial point of view, is about the same as the current landfill process, but both of them still lose a lot of money,” Siegle said in a phone interview Wednesday. Siegle has proposed that the county close the landfill, recycle heavily, use flow control (a method used by municipalities to increase trash intake) and amortize the landfill over 60 years.

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

Other legislators felt the committee was rushing the contract through the legislature, leaving little time for public awareness.

Legislator James Denkeberger, who resigned from the Solid Waste Committee in September but attended Thursday’s meeting, expressed dismay with the committee’s decision.

“We have basically been listening to well-paid experts and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars [for them] to tell us … what we already wanted to believe,” Denkenberger said. “Victor [Siegle] has been working very hard for six months to do the work that this committee should have been doing.”

Is ash safe? Health committee releases report

An ad hoc health committee that was formed by the Cortland County Legislature to assess the potential health impacts of importing incinerator ash into the county landfill released a list of recommendations Thursday.

The report ultimately concluded that the committee lacked the information and resources to answer specific questions about health risks to county residents.

Legislator John Troy, a proponent of ash for trash who served on the committee, said he felt “very confident” that importing ash would not present any health risks.

“I hope we’ve appeased a lot of the people by having this committee,” Troy said. “I think it’s kind of a no-brainer to do this, in terms of additional revenue.”

Committee members did not find any research to weigh in either way on three health questions that were posed to the committee, according to Cortland County Public Health Director Catherine Feuerherm.

Those questions included: 1) What is the health risk of airborne ash and fine ash particles? 2) What is the health risk of ash contamination on land, surface and waterways? (e.g., by truck accident or flooding at the landfill) 3) What is the health risk of dioxin exposure through any route?

“The research, if it exists, we did not find it in our committee,” Feuerherm said. “While John [Troy] says we didn’t find any research to support negative health impacts, neither did we find research that said, ‘There are no health impacts.’”

Alison King, an EAB member who served on the ad hoc health committee, said the county has other fiscal options for the landfill that would not involve importing hazardous chemicals from another county.

“The fact that there weren’t clear answers to these questions doesn’t mean we are comfortable with the decisions,” King said. “We found concerns.”

Todd Miller, a hydrogeologist and an EAB member who also served on the health committee, said the more prudent option for the county would be to not import ash.

“If there’s no study either way, the prudent thing to do is not go ahead and do it,” Miller said. “When there’s nothing available, you don’t conclude it’s safe. That’s not logical.”

Health Committee Recommendations on Importing Ash by Peter Blanchard

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