Regional Solid Waste Authority – Inevitable or will Citizens have a say?

by Tom Ellis


The City of Albany is preparing an update to its 1992 long-range solid waste management plan (SWMP) for the years 2011-2030. A year ago, Mayor Jennings appointed a Steering Committee (SC) to help draft it. The SC met monthly during the last year.

During December, the city’s solid waste consultant, Clough Harbour & Associates (CHA), released a draft of the plan that it prepared supposedly with the cooperation of the SC, although it appeared to me that the SC was mostly steered by CHA and SC Chairman Bill Bruce.

According to the Dec. 15 letter to the SC from Kenneth Gallagher, principal planner for CHA on this project, the SC has until January 29 to comment on the 180-page preliminary draft SWMP, after which a final draft SWMP will be forwarded to the Albany Common Council “to start the public review and SEQR [State Environmental Quality Review Act] process.”

There are many parts to the CHA proposal. Some of them are good and some are not. A key one is the CHA recommendation to ask the state legislature create a multi-county regional solid waste management authority (RSWMA) to replace the much smaller informal solid waste consortium Albany now leads. Should the RSWMA be created, CHA recommends RSWMA build or have built a “regional solid waste treatment facility” “using either the conventional waste-to-energy technologies or one of the emerging technologies.” This facility would have a “nominal capacity of 1500” tons per day, large enough to meet the disposal needs of 700,000 people, and far more than the 222,000 who now reside in the municipalities that make up the existing planning unit.

At several of the SC meetings I have attended, either CHA or Bill Bruce have made it clear that a treatment facility like the one they favor would not be economical if sized for a small planning unit like the existing one. Thus a vastly larger planning unit is a prerequisite for a large incinerator or some variation of it.

Among the issues that need be discussed are: Do we want or need an authority? If yes, what size? If not, what is/are the best alternatives to it? Do we want an incinerator? How can we best move toward zero waste? Would an incinerator become a magnet for items best reduced, reused, or recycled? How will these decisions be made and who will make them?

I recommend against creating any authority and instead, intensify our efforts to force the existing consortium to maximize reduction, reuse, and recycling while operating in the open and accountable to all.

Authorities in NYS have a tendency to be anti-democratic and unaccountable. Often they are established for precisely this reason. Authority members would likely be wealthy businesspeople appointed by elected officials. Authorities are convenient mechanisms for borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on difficult-to-site facilities.

Some unlucky town or village, probably one that is mostly rural, poorly governed or whose elected officials are easily bribed would likely be targeted by the authority for some treatment facility its residents strongly oppose.

We have a lot of work in front of us but fortunately we have some time to carefully evaluate the CHA recommendations.

Tom Ellis is the Board Co-Chair of Citizens’ Environmental Coalition, Albany, NY and can be reached at

Published in the January/February 2010 Newsletter