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 Garbage in the Pine Bush

City Proposes Landfill Expansion

by Tim Kostoroski

The City of Albany continues to treat its most valuable environmental asset, the Albany Pine Bush, like garbage. Literally. After decades of building a mountain of trash in the middle of the Pine Bush, the City is seeking permission, yet again, to expand the landfill in order to add another 10 to 15 years of space.

The last expansion, called the "interim landfill", was approved in 1990 by then Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Thomas Jorling, and was supposed to last no more than three years. During the "interim", Albany was to find a suitable site or solution for its long term waste management needs. Jorling, who overruled the DEC administrative law court's decision to deny a permit for the last expansion, stressed the importance of the City to move rapidly to implement an alternative solid waste program. In his 1990 decision he stated "I cannot envision any set of circumstances that would justify the extension of the life of this interim landfill or the approval of another such facility in any other part of the Albany Pine Bush."

Apparently the City had a different vision. Ten years later the mountain of trash is still growing, and the only solution Albany has come up with is to dump more garbage into the Pine Bush for another 15 years. Jorling's 3 year interim plan could soon turn into a 25 year plan.

How is this possible? The bottom line is that there is simply too much money at stake. Albany Mayor Gerald Jennings sees the Pine Bush not only as a place to dump the City's garbage, but also as a major revenue source. In his 2000 budget proposal, Jennings projects $7.3 million in tipping fees from the landfill. That's approximately 7% of the entire city budget. Without that revenue stream, Jennings budget would have a very large deficit, which would force him to be a little more creative and make some tough decisions (2 things many politicians don't have the ability or will to do). Multiply that $7.3 million over 15 years and you're talking about $110 million! With that much money on the line you can bet that there is tremendous political pressure to get this expansion approved. Unfortunately, as history has shown us, it is highly likely that due to this pressure, back room deals will be struck, and DEC will approve the expansion.

That is why Save the Pine Bush is gearing up for a long major battle over this proposal. A hydrologist has already helped SPB review the City's permit application, and SPB's attorney Lewis Oliver Jr. has submitted comments on the application to DEC on behalf of SPB. The key point in the application is the classification of the aquifer under the Albany Pine Bush. In 1986 the Commissioner of DEC determined that the Pine Bush aquifer is a "principal aquifer," which is defined as a potential source of public drinking water. New York State regulations prohibit construction of a new landfill or lateral or vertical expansion of an existing landfill over a principal aquifer. Thus, building the landfill in the Albany Pine Bush over the principal aquifer is prohibited. One would think that this would force Albany to look elsewhere for a dump site. After all, rules are rules. Right? Rubbish!

You can't break the rules, but there is always a way to get around them. The City has realized this, and had adopted the strategy of requesting DEC to declassify the Pine Bush aquifer. If the aquifer is no longer considered a principal aquifer, then the rules prohibiting landfills over such aquifers will not apply. The City submitted a "Pine Bush Declassification Study" as part of their DEC permit application. According to Mr. Oliver, the reasoning and conclusions in this study are "completely flawed" and "contain several important scientific misrepresentations and mistakes." In his comments submitted to DEC, Mr. Oliver shows point by point how the Pine Bush Formation meets NY DEC's criteria for a principal aquifer. In response to the City's claim that poor water quality, as a result of solid waste leachate from the existing landfill, will prevent this part of the aquifer from ever being used as a public water supply, Mr. Oliver points out that a small contaminated area does not justify declassifying the entire aquifer or granting a variance for further contamination, and water that may not be suitable for public supply might still be acceptable for some types of commercial/industrial/cooling uses. Lastly, Mr. Oliver points out the obvious, "It hardly seems consistent with current environmental standards for an entity responsible for polluting an aquifer (or a stream) to argue that the polluted condition justifies scrapping rules that prohibit the pollution (what if General Electric made this argument about PCB's in the Hudson River?)".

The City's rationale is quite disturbing, and if DEC agrees with this rationale it would set a precedent for allowing declassification or variances for construction of landfills over principal aquifers all across the State. Mayor Jennings should be made aware that his desire to keep the stream of "dirty money" flowing into the City's coffers, not only will jeopardize the survival of the Pine Bush ecosystem, and the potential water supply in the aquifer, but will undermine the policy of the Clean Water Act and DEC that protects ground water resources across the entire State. This should be great cause for alarm for NY environmental organizations who care about ground water issues. It seems logical that a coalition of such organizations should be formed to help defeat this application.

So what does all of this have to do with the Pine Bush? Well, it means the obliteration of 25 more acres of Pine Bush that could serve as part of a vital link of other areas of Pine Bush, the continued stresses a landfill operation posses on the species and ecological systems of the Pine Bush, the inability to do controlled burns anywhere near the place, the cumulative impact of this and many other pending projects on Pine Bush species, especially the Federally Endangered Karner Blue Butterfly, and the reduced protection of the quality of the ground water that Pine Bush vegetation relies on. In short, it means a lot.

published December 1999/January 2000 Newsletter
Last Updated 12/3/99


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