CATSKILL — Scores of community members from near and far filled the Catskill Community Center beyond capacity Tuesday night to learn more about a proposed ash landfill.
The forum, moderated by local author Hudson Talbott, featured guest speakers Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Richard Webster, legal director of Hudson Riverkeeper; and local geologist Dr. David Walker. Presentations began at 7 p.m. and lasted for over two hours, with a Q&A session following. The meeting was standing-room only, with attendees trying to listen in from the sidewalk or watch the live stream on their phones.
Residents gathered in response to an application from Wheelabrator Technologies, a waste-to-energy company, that is interested in leasing 158 acres on Route 9W in Smith’s Landing, including a former quarry owned by Peckham Materials Inc. The company would haul ash from its incinerators in Peekskill, Hudson Falls and Poughkeepsie to the Catskill location and separate the metals from the ash. The application, first submitted in 2017, is currently under review by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Wheelabrator has no plans to burn waste in Catskill.
Enck took the floor first, cautioning residents to be wary of the appeal behind the theory of waste-to-energy.
“They do not eliminate the need for landfills,” she said. “More carbon comes from garbage than from coal.”
Incinerator plants are still left with a waste product: ash.
“I don’t think twice when I burn wood in a woodstove,” Enck said. “But I would be very worried ash when you’re burning garbage.”
For every four tons of trash burned, one ton of ash is generated, Enck said.
When the trash is burned, the heavy metals and dioxins, which come from burning plastics, remain, she said.
The metal ions left in the wastewater that the company plans to bring to the village’s sewer plant cannot be removed, Webster said, meaning the ions would be discharged into the Hudson River.
Wheelabrator facilities are subjected to toxicity testing, Wheelabrator Director of Communicators and Community Engagement Michelle Nadeau said earlier this month.
“Energy-from-waste ash is regularly tested by independent laboratories using approved U.S. EPA methods and is routinely found to pass the U.S. EPA toxicity test for waste and, therefore, determined to be a non-hazardous waste, according to NYSDEC and U.S. EPA standards,” Nadeau said.
“The proposed facility will operate in accordance with stringent state and federal environmental standards designed to protect public health and the environment while providing significant long-term economic and environmental benefits to the town and village.”
The community should not wait until DEC has completed its review to fight back, Enck said.
“That could take six, seven, eight years,” she said. “The people that do that wind up spending $100,000 easily. The time to stop this is before the process starts.”
“It is easier to stop something from coming to fruition than closing something that’s already open,” he said.
Webster encouraged the residents to call on the town to pass a local law to prevent the project and others like it from happening.
Enck has had successes on the local level with the Clean Air Law in Coeymans, which prevented an incinerator plant at the Lafarge-Holcim cement plant and with state legislation to prevent an incinerator plant from being developed in Romulus.
Enck also encouraged the community to look ecologically sustainable businesses instead for the site.
“To quote Paul Gallay [President of Riverkeeper], we did not spend the last 50 years cleaning up the river to have it put at risk with this project,” Enck said.
The Hudson supples drinking water for the town of Esopus, town of Hyde Park, town of Lloyd, town and city of Poughkeepsie, town and village of Rhinebeck.
Webster told cautionary tales from his time spent working with coal ash dumps.
“I have seen a lot of towns regret allowing them,” he said. “They have been promised things that never materialized and left with pollution and problems.”
The high amount of truck volume will be a deterrent for new businesses, Webster said.
“The town will actually lose money,” he said.
Wheelabrator estimates that the village will gain more than $250,000 in revenue from the company’s sewer usage.
Walker felt the site was a poor choice from a geological standpoint.
The bedrock in the quarry are made of carbonate, he said.
“They are soluble in water,” Walker said. “They are leaky and they get cracks in them. And it’s as close to the river as possible. It’s a really unfortunate choice. An astonishingly bad choice.”
The carbonate bedrock can turn into karst, which leads to sinkholes and caves, Walker said.
“It’s not like if you’re pregnant or not pregnant,” Walker said. “It’s an inperceptible change. Are we dealing with a sealed basin or a sieve? They couldn’t have picked a worse site in Greene County.”
Wheelabrator has not found evidence of any karst on the site, according to a statement.
“The presence of any karst at the proposed Catskill site would likely cause the site to be dropped from consideration,” according to the statement.
Walker did not have much faith in the quarry retaining any leaks, he said.
“The notion that this thing isn’t going to leak is preposterous,” he said. “It isn’t if they leak, it’s how fast they are leaking.”
A study Wheelabrator sent to DEC in its final report showed Tracey’s Landing Quarry lost or infiltrated 4,290,000 gallons in 34 days, a rate of 87 gallons per minute, Walker said.
The site is not suitable as is, Walker said, and it will only get worse when Wheelabrator blasts the land to make a valley for the ash.
“It’s like putting a racing saddle on a donkey and pretending you have a race horse,” Walker said. “It’s still a donkey. Don’t put that donkey in the races or we’re all gonna be jackasses.”
Wheelabrator selected the site due to “site environmental considerations, viewshed preservation and proximity to neighbors and Wheelabrator’s incinerator plants, according to a statement from Wheelabrator.
The company has invested more than $1 million in environmental testing for the site.
Walker recalled the use of the Hanford River in Washington as a nuclear testing site during the Cold War.
“Let’s not become Hanford on the Hudson,” he said.
Anthony Pilatich grew up on the property in question, he said during the Q&A portion.
“I remember going hunting when I should have brought a fishing pole,” he recalled.
Natural springs had flooded the potato field and there were fish in the makeshift pond, Pilatich said.
Talbott said the turnout for the forum was great.
“People got excited in a positive way,” he said. “Most of all they got informed. People that thought it was a done deal learned we can still do something to stop this.”
Talbott is cautious about prompting the town to pass a resolution, he said.
“I’m for it but it sets a precedent for other administrations and other interest groups,” he said.
The town released the following statement in response to the forum:
“Last night members of the town board attended the forum at the Community Center concerning the possibility of a monofill being located in a quarry in Catskill. We have requested a copy of last night’s presentation materials to distribute to the members of our town board, along with members of the planning and zoning boards. Since DEC has not completed its review and no proposal has been submitted, the town board is also considering the actions available to us as a municipality. We appreciate the input from the community and we will keep our constituents informed on next steps.”
Greene County legislators Jack Keller, R-Catskill and Michael Bulich, R-Catskill attended the forum.
“I think there needs to be a lot of consideration about the project and the public needs to know exactly what is going on,” Keller said. “All I want is the truth.”
Keller thought the meeting was effective.
“I thought it was a true demonstration of what democracy is all about.”
Bulich wants to continue to learn more.
“If it can be done and its environmentally safe and it’s proven it’s not toxic, I don’t have any objection to it going forward,” he said. “I would love to find a solution to our solid waste problem.”
Bulich said the town was making the right decision.
“It seems like they want to get all the facts and not engage in the hysteria,” he said. “I commend them, that’s what I would do.”
On May 3 at 6 p.m. Riverkeeper will host a organizing meeting for community members at a location to be determined.