Garbage In, Garbage Out

 

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.

For The Sunday Gazette

 

What I write today is trash-talk. Not the kind of taunting endemic to opposing NBA players, but real trash—garbage, rubbish. This is a story, and—at least in Schenectady County—a success story, one about “solid waste,” the stuff that we throw away at least once a week. I’ll have to try hard to hold your interest today because so many of you might consider that disposal of solid waste is old hat, a problem solved years ago. Well, it is here, but not in some neighboring counties.

Certainly we all remember how, 15 or so years ago, barges full of waste from New York City were being pushed aimlessly about with no place to dispose of their contents. At that time, Niskayuna, Rotterdam, and Glenville were all operating their own landfill, “enjoying,” if that term can be associated with garbage, the revenue received from commercial waste haulers, BFI and others. As I recall, Schenectady city ran a landfill on Cheltingham Avenue, but received no revenue from it because all that was brought there was waste picked up from inside the city by municipal workers.

But all of these landfills, and those all over the state for that matter, were under edict to close. All those, that is, except for the very few that were already equipped with “modern” liners that prevented the most noxious deposits (old campaign leaflets, perhaps) to leak deep into ground water and thence into the nearest river. And the closure had to be done just so, with installation of caps that were very expensive.

Now, here’s where the three largest local counties did things very differently. Albany, whose landfill also served some of that county’s towns, decided that they just couldn’t forego the revenue being derived from landfill operations. They fought EnCon and somehow obtained approval to keep their landfill open. And, though bursting at its seams, it is still open, earning the city something like $13 million a year, revenue that will be hard to replace if the landfill is closed. And it will cost millions to either build a new landfill in, perhaps, Bethlehem (controversial there) or to extend the current landfill into more of the Pine Bush (very very controversial, like trying to drill for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge).
Colonie and Montgomery County face a similar problem, although each has plenty of vacant land on which to build a new landfill, however unwise that might be. All they would need is lots of money.

Saratoga
County
did a somewhat better thing. They built a new multi-million dollar landfill and put it in mothballs against the day when the whole current waste disposal system might collapse. If it does, then the funds spent could accurately be called waste money. If it never does, then the funds were waste(d) money. Time will tell.
When Saratoga closed its landfills, it effectively forced commercial haulers to ship their material way away, out of sight, out of mind. The county then had to forego income from running their own facilities, but up there they just allocated an abundance of tourist-generated sales tax to replace that revenue; its towns and Saratoga Springs were held pretty harmless.

Counties much further north decided that the best thing to do was to replace their closed landfills with a huge “burn plant,” a humungous incinerator that reduces cubic yards of waste to a fine ash. But, as officials should have known, such plants are voracious—they need tons and tons of waste daily, much more than could be supplied from local pickup. And since the facility was unable to attract the needed waste from distant points, the communities who invested in the burn plant have lost their municipal shirts.

Now, at the time I resumed the office of Niskayuna Supervisor in 1989, the town had in place a young Councilman, Jeff Scardino, who was chairman of our solid waste committee. He said to our Board and those of all other county municipalities that what should be done was to form a Solid Waste Management Unit, a mechanism whereby all of us cooperated to do something sensible. The voting members were the five town supervisors, the mayor of Scotia, and all 15 county legislators. (The city could not join immediately because they were already part of the Albany-based ANSWERS planning unit, but were able to do so a few years later.)

The alliance was indeed created, we started to meet regularly, and pretty quickly decided that the best thing to do was to close our landfills in accord with state standards as soon as possible, ship the garbage out, and use the sudden influx of newly initiated sales tax money to minimize the size of the bond issues needed to close the landfills.
An important factor that made our decision easier was that the city was already operating a large transfer station that could be used as a staging area for export, and it continues to be used for that function to this day. <>
Niskayuna
made out best in this arrangement, but no one begrudged that having happened. As it turned out, Glenville had to close its landfill almost two years before Niskayuna did, and so the question arose as to whether we would accept their garbage (for a fee, of course) in the intervening time.

What, you say, one of our towns accepted a rival’s garbage? Unheard of. No, the towns are not rivals, they are part of the same county legislative district. Part of the so-called “Niskayuna” school district is in Glenville. The revenue Niskayuna received greatly reduced the size of the bond issue the town needed for landfill closure and the final payment on that bond was made two years ago.

Concomitant with planning for landfill closure, recycling began, two years before it was mandated by the state. Considerable education had to be done to implement the practice, but by now all county and most state residents are old pros on how to handle this. Two very competent municipal employees keep the recycling practices and the transfer station running smoothly, Jeff Edwards of the county for the former and Carl Olsen of the city for the latter. The only reservations I have are that the Planning Unit hasn’t felt the need to meet in years, though I think it should, at least annually, and that we still are not recycling cereal boxes.


Oh, Niskayuna did one more thing, too. The town continues to operate a small transfer station of its own, supposedly for residents who don’t want to hire a commercial hauler. But I think the real reason is that going there is an honorable way to get out of the house on Saturday morning, and the town’s golf driving range is right nearby. Fore!

 

Edwin D. Reilly, Jr. lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday opinion section.