COVID-19 and Dunn Landfill

by Tom Ellis

RENSSELAER, NY: The Covid-19 pandemic highlights a major problem with government in the USA, NYS, and locally. 

Executive agencies employ vastly more people than legislatures despite the complaint that legislatures are bloated. Elected executives (presidents, governors, county executives) appoint commissioners and other top staff, often subject to approval by a legislative body, to lead executive agencies. 

These appointed officials are thus directly answerable to the executive, who can fire them at any time. Lower ranking employees have civil service and labor union contract protections.

Civil servants unfortunately do not make policy decisions; they recommend them. It is often unclear if appointed officials decide policy on major issues. One example is the Dunn landfill in Rensselaer.

Does the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) allow the dump to continue operating or does DEC pretend that it does, when maybe it is the governor who is making the decision? Maybe DEC’s top staff read the governor’s mind and determine he wants the dump to continue operating, so it does with DEC’s seal of approval.

Allowing a dump to operate right next to a school is insane but nobody at DEC dares say so out loud due to the severe punishment that might or would occur; loss of job if an appointed official, or being ostracized if a civil servant.

What we get is an a agency of several thousand employees, many of them fine human beings, some of whom would love to immediately close the dump if they could, but who risk their careers if they try to advance that goal. Meanwhile the dump remains open.

Does the DEC commissioner have the power to close the dump or is he a pawn of the governor?

The state Health Department (DOH) is no different. During 2018, 2019, and 2020, as the Dunn dump was becoming increasingly notorious for poisoning Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents and Rensselaer public school students and staff, DOH had nothing to say. DOH was not the slightest bit proactive on this issue. It was like DOH lived on another planet or was unable to comprehend the English language. DOH seemed to not notice all the negative attention dump operations were receiving in the local news media.

Until February 27, 2020 when DEC and DOH held an “availability session” at the Rensselaer public school to hear from residents about the dump, DOH had said nothing about the dump. At the Feb. 27 meeting, DOH and DEC handed out a two-page information sheet to attendees in which DOH endorsed DEC’s talking points about the dump. DOH refused to provide any meaningful response to me when I followed up with three letters asking DOH to provide “medical and science-based evidence” in support of DEC and DOH’s assertion that “Exposure [to hydrogen sulfide odors] at the levels detected is highly unlikely to result in long-term health effects.” DOH would not respond at all to my question: “Are there any physicians employed in the state health department who are willing to back such an assertion?”

As for the governor, he says absolutely nothing about the Dunn dump, despite it being only a mile or two from the Governor’s Mansion and his state Capitol Building office. Meanwhile the governor pontificates daily on public health and the Covid-19, usually from his Capitol office. On May 2, he said, “I disagree with people who say put the economy ahead of public health…I am not going to put dollar signs over human lives. You do not have the right to jeopardize my health.”

Left unanswered of course is the question of why the state government allows the Dunn dump to damage the health or Rensselaer and East Greenbush residents.

It is my view that state government needs to be reconfigured in a manner that assures the governor does not have total control over state agencies, and so as to make the agencies accountable to the public, supportive of their missions, transparent in their decision-making processes and operations, and where employees can safely and publicly express their professional views even when they disagree with established policy. 

President Trump is widely criticized for muzzling science and scientists employed by the federal government but we have a similar problem here in New York State.

It should be a no-brainer that siting and operating a large landfill literally right next to a school is unacceptable. No one employed in DEC or DOH has the ability to say so in public. State government lacks a mechanism for state agency employees to make their views public without fear. Dump owners hope to keep the dump operating well past the year 2030.

Governor Cuomo gets lots of good state, national, and even international press for his Covid-19 initiatives while he continues to ignore the other public health emergency in his own neighborhood.

Published in May/June 2020
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