RENSSELAER, NY: Until mid-March, when the coronavirus slowed organizing efforts, the Rensselaer Environmental Coalition (REC) continued making steady progress towards its goal of closing the Dunn construction and demolition debris landfill in Rensselaer. This 99-acre operation is located right next to the Rensselaer public school campus, and between Rensselaer and East Greenbush neighborhoods.
In response to considerable community pressure, and perhaps to avoid holding a public hearing, the NYS departments of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Health (DOH), held an”availability session” on February 27th at the Rensselaer public school at which their staff listened to Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents, including students, teachers, and parents.
Availability sessions are a device these agencies use to meet with the public off the record. While some people who are afraid to speak in front of large groups prefer them, others who would like to hold these regulators accountable find them far from adequate. Nevertheless, any meeting with environmental and health officials is better than none at all.
The two-hour availability session was held in a small, crowded, noisy school cafeteria, where, for the first hour, it was nearly impossible to hear people only a few feet away. During the second hour, after most of the more than 100 who attended had departed, conversing was easier.
The availability session was the first time the state health department made any public acknowledgement whatsoever about the dump, whose odors have sickened Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents in recent years, and whose intense truck traffic has congested downtown Rensselaer streets and subjected residents to noise and diesel pollution for more than five years.
One of the health department staff I spoke with told me there is no medical evidence that short-term or frequent exposures to hydrogen sulfide released by the dump causes long term health problems. Neither she nor a male colleague appeared to have any appreciation of the hellacious living conditions Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents, and Rensselaer students, teachers, and other school staff, frequently endure and cannot escape.
Follow-up letters from me to these two officials led to a response from one that fully evaded answering my health and safety questions. I followed with another letter that was not responded to at all. Such behavior is similar to that of DEC.
On March 11, the Town of East Greenbush held a public hearing to receive public comments on the effects of the Dunn Landfill. A week later, the town board unanimously passed a resolution that “urges the DEC, responsible for protecting public health and safety and for the protection of air resources, to revoke the facility’s operating permit.”
Despite rapidly increasing coronavirus concerns, nearly every seat in the town hall was filed on March 11. Among the first speakers was DEC Region 4 Director Keith Goertz, who said another permit violation had occurred on March 4 when dust blew off the Dunn property but not the dump itself. (REC members had documented the violation.)
East Greenbush (EG) residents, some of whom had opposed the dump since its proposal in 2012, Rensselaer residents, and others, described their illnesses and the sharply diminished quality of life dump operations impose on them.
One EG woman who opposed the dump eight years ago, asked why was a dump sited next to a school. Another asked how will children be compensated in fifteen years if they get dump-caused cancer and “How many violations is the Dunn dump allowed?” An older EG man said promises made in 2012 were all broken, which everyone knew would occur. Another man said, “We have a rotten quality of life.” A third EG man said the dump is “a massive operation squeezed behind neighborhoods.”
An asthmatic Rensselaer mother with a master’s in environmental health and toxicology, said “not being able to breathe is terrifying,” government must protect the most vulnerable, and DEC’s dump odor complaint telephone number is staffed by the dump owner. A Rensselaer man said the dump is negatively impacting multiple communities and nothing DEC or DOH has done or can do will fix the problem, other than to close the dump. A Rensselaer mom said her son’s health is now impacted by the dump, as are students at three school campuses.
At the final public event prior to the coronavirus forcing social distancing, about fifty attended a March 14 news conference held at the dump gate, at which REC and the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) issued a report documenting their discovery of PFAS chemicals in water at three locations near the Dunn landfill. While these are not local drinking water sources, they do flow downhill into the Hudson River, a drinking water source for seven down-river municipalities.
PFAS is a family of more than 5000 chemicals, many are persistent in the environment, and include PFOA and PFOS. Exposure to PFAS can cause cancer, liver disease, thyroid disease, auto immune deficiencies, and infertility.
Water samples collected at the three sites were taken to an EPA-certified lab that tested for 36 PFAS and found eleven. REC and PEER assert that much higher levels of PFAS chemicals are likely to exist in the millions of gallons of leachate trucked annually from the dump to the Albany County sewage treatment plant. Sewage treatment facilities cannot remove these chemicals, so they are discharged into the river.
The appearance of the chemicals next to and downhill from the dump reinforces REC’s belief the Dunn dump is accepting illegal materials, some of which are clearly hazardous. Published photographs of overturned trucks headed for the dump establish the dump is “illegally accepting general household waste, carpeting, car seats, and even biohazards like medical waste which could be responsible for the contamination we’ve measured,” wrote PEER’s Director of Science Policy, Kyla Bennett, in a news release. She added that “If this much PFAS is in the surface water, the leachate stored under the landfill which ultimately gets flushed into the Hudson River is sure to be far worse.”
Former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator Judith Enck, who spoke at the news conference, said these “highly toxic chemicals are escaping from the landfill and contaminating the water.”
PEER called on DEC to (1) test Dunn landfill leachate for PFAS, (2) make certain the dump does not accept wastes containing PFAS, (3) test the effluent from the Albany County wastewater treatment facility for PFAS, and (4) take enforcement actions against the landfill and close it.
As I write this on March 30, and while Governor Andrew Cuomo draws positive national attention for his coronavirus actions, he continues to ignore a long-standing public health emergency that impacts thousands of people directly across the Hudson River from the state Capitol Building, DEC and DOH headquarters, and the Governor’s Mansion.
Published in April/May 2020
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