The Damaging Health Effects of the Dunn Dump

by Tom Ellis

RENSSELAER, NY: David Carpenter, a renowned local physician who studies the human health impacts of toxic materials, spoke at a December 2nd East Greenbush Town Board (EGTB) forum on the Dunn dump. He was the first presenter on a five-person panel.

The Dunn construction and demolition debris dump, owned by Waste Connections, sits atop a hill next to the Rensselaer public school campus and the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, and in between Rensselaer and East Greenbush neighborhoods. Odors and who knows what else escape from the dump into the school and nearby neighborhoods. Dozens of diesel spewing, noisy, dirty trucks traverse downtown Rensselaer streets each weekday beginning at 6 :30 a.m., to and from the dump.

David Carpenter is a Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the University at Albany’s School of Public Health, and the former Director of the state health department’s Wadsworth Center on Laboratories and Research.

Dr. Carpenter said old buildings are filled with contaminants not found in newer buildings, some poisons leak from landfills, and “no one pays attention to what is in buildings when demolished.” Among the contaminants are asbestos, a carcinogen; lead and hydrogen sulfides, both neurotoxins; brominated flame retardants, mercury, cadmium, PCBs and dioxins.

Air pollution from the dump and trucks, he said, cause lung cancer, heart disease and attacks. These are of concern to older people but have a cumulative impact for children. He said contaminants can attach to particulates, many chemicals are coming off the landfill, some damage health and reduce cognitive ability. Lead and PCBs reduce IQ, attention span, and increase misbehaviors. “Anyone living near a landfill, “he said, “will be exposed to it.” Construction and demolition debris waste, he said, should never be buried near a school.

The EGTB unanimously passed a resolution in March 2020 calling for the closure of the dump. The Rensselaer City Council and the Rensselaer County Legislature both unanimously passed dump closure resolutions in 2021.

Former Environmental Protection Agency Regional Director Judith Enck said the United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but generates twelve percent of wastes. The capital region, she said, is becoming a regional dumping ground with Norlite burning hazardous waste in Cohoes and Dunn (owned by Waste Connections) operating the largest construction and demolition (C&D) debris landfill in NYS. Ms. Enck said odor issues [from a few years ago] that got better but are back, municipal solid wastes and PFAS–a whole family of chemicals–are in the dump, and much of the C&D waste, once thought of as non-toxic, is toxic. Dunn dump leachate is trucked to the Albany sewage treatment facility which is designed to handle sewage, not PFAS chemicals, and then discharged into the Hudson River. She said the landfill should be closed before July when its permit expires.

Jonathan Pollack, a 26-year East Greenbush resident and retired mental health professional, said that since 2015 when the dump opened, his quality of life has diminished. He asked, “What about our rights?..If you can smell it, you can breathe it. I can smell it a lot. What message do we send to our children when their school is next to a dump?” He said he can hear at his house the beeping of trucks in the landfill, and sometimes on Saturday mornings when the dump is supposed to be closed. He concluded with “This needs to end now.”

Robin Ganance, formerly of Rensselaer but now living in Nassau, said “my family is very affected. Many family members live in the hollow (east of Third Street and north of Partition Street) below the dump. She moved from the hollow two years ago for health reasons. She said dumped wastes contain much more than C&D, the rotten egg smell forces her to return to Nassau after visiting family, the noise is sometimes so loud at the cemetery she cannot hear the services, the bridge over the Amtrak tracks in downtown Rensselaer literally shakes when trucks traverse it, and a Rensselaer city street sweeper blows “lots and lots of dust.”

She said, “They need to shut the thing down. They [truck drivers] do not care about [stop] signs. They killed a family cat. School buses have difficulty picking up kids because of the trucks, dogs have health issues from playing in the creek. This is not just my family. Who else is affected?”

Tony Luizi, DEC Region 4 director said “the department is listening.” Dunn operates under a combined mining and landfill permit issued in 2012 that expires in July 2022. He said DEC will determine if any Dunn dump application is complete for purposes of public and technical review, the public will have at least thirty days to comment, and DEC may require an adjudicatory hearing. Renewal applications, he said, usually do not require public hearings but DEC has decided to treat any Dunn request as a new application. He said DEC took Quackenderry Creek water samples, results were below the maximum allowed 10 PFAS parts per trillion, and new samples have been taken. He said the public can apply to participate in the adjudicatory hearings.

Following these speakers, Bob Welton of EG said the permit process is rigged in favor of the applicant and DEC must take comments through a much broader process than now planned.

David Ellis of Rensselaer said health is being overlooked with the permitting process, the public is not being surveyed about health issues, and hydrogen sulfide causes brief severe headaches. Dr. Carpenter agreed adding the hydrogen sulfide exposures cause temporary brain dysfunction.

I mentioned how in 2003, DEC granted BASF Corporation a low cost cleanup of its toxic manufacturing property south of downtown Rensselaer supposedly because a more extensive, thorough, and much more costly cleanup, would have generated too much truck traffic, noise, and congestion for Renssleaer. Nine years later DEC ignored what it did in 2003 and granted Dunn a dump permit knowing the new dump would generate a large volume of tractor trailer traffic, noise, and congestion.

Mary, who also lives near Jonathan, compared the dump to a house on fire, said DEC’s remedial efforts over the years “doesn’t do anything” and asked “Is there no recourse when nothing works? Why waste more time?” She asked Mr. Luizi if we have enough of a record–”a substantial record”–to close the dump.

Mr. Luizi said DEC has five consent orders with Dunn in the last three years, he is aware that some people calling the telephone number staffed by Dunn have to wait 20-30 minutes to make a complaint, and “this is unacceptable.” He insisted that calling the complaint telephone number is the best way to register dump complaints, and said Dunn must respond within a fixed time and report complaints to DEC.

Judith Enck said “it is a little crazy” for people to have to call the dump [and not DEC] to make dump complaints. She said there is five years of data and she is not confident Waste Connections will provide accurate data on calls. Mr. Pollack said people do not call the complaint number because of the long waits and, based on his experience, “the response time [to complaints] is never.”

Lou Sebesta lives on Partition Street. He bought his house in 2013 never expecting the truck assault that began two years later. He said acute truck noise occurs on Partition Street and asked “How is Dunn not a public health emergency?” He said most trucks weighed in 2018 were overweight. He has a decibel meter and said on September 28, fourteen of fifteen inbound C&D trucks passing his house were louder than a fire truck responding to an emergency. He asked, “How much is our quality of life worth?” Lou said some trucks are louder than 100 decibels, and the decibel scale is logarithmic, meaning a reading of 80 has ten times the intensity of a 70. Lou said the tractor trailers drip dirt and he carefully passed around a food container with 1.4 pounds of dirt and dust he had picked up on Partition Street early that same day.

Chirs Kielb of Menands, a retired epidemiologist who frequents Rensselaer, highlighted the results of a summer 2021 truck survey of Rensselaer residents living along the truck route. Chris said 44 people returned surveys, about 1/3 of those delivered. Eighty-four percent of survey respondents said they were often bothered by the trucks, 89 percent said the trucks diminished their quality of life, 75 percent sometimes lose sleep, 2/3 sometimes must go indoors, and 55 percent sometimes cannot go out for a walk. She said quality of life issues can impact health. .

Wendy Dwyer of Canaan, a retired nurse, said a nation’s greatness can be measured by how it treats its most vulnerable. Even if the Quackenderry Creek is not a human drinking water source, she said, it is for amphibians and birds. She recounted an experience where a person employed picking up giant dumpsters told a man to place the dangerous stuff near the bottom to reduce the probability of it being noticed.

Mike Papero lives on Partition Street. He said the permit excludes much that is important, and that, when issuing the dump permit in 2012, “DEC did not deal with the intangibles and unmeasurables” such as stress and irritation. Trucks pass close by his house 50,000 times a year, he said. “I have zero confidence DEC will deny the permit.”

Rensselaer Mayor Mike Stammel, a Republican (who won election to a full term a month earlier), said the county legislature recently voted 19-0 to close the dump, “the whole county is against the dump” and “that should mean something to DEC.” He said the city was only looking for money when it accepted the dump years ago. Their attitude was damn the city, school, people, students. He told the EGTB [all Democrats] “we three jurisdictions [Town of East Greenbush, City of Rensselaer and Rensselaer County] want the dump closed. We speak for the people.”

East Greenbush Supervisor Jack Conway asked Mr. Luizi if there were or are any conditions that would lead to immediate dump closure. Mr. Luizi said DEC could issue a summary abatement order and close the dump if there is an imminent endangerment to human health or safety.

In response to a question from a board member about how DEC evaluates indicators of quality of life when reviewing dump applications, Mr. Luizi said he could not offer any insight but said the matter might not be decided by DEC. He said DEC could issue a notice to revoke the permit but the burden of proof would be on DEC. In response to a question from Chris Kielb, Mr. Luizi said DEC will look at how to mitigate truck issues in the permit renewal.

Noel of Rensselaer said it is cruel to ask an ailing community to produce evidence and asked DEC “How much is our health worth to you” and what more evidence do you need?

Supervisor Jack Conway said, “No one not cashing a Waste Connections check is in favor of this” and said the EGTB is unanimous in opposition to the dump. “We have to win” this, he said, because the future of East Greenbush and Rensselaer are at stake. He said it is tremendously frustrating for East Grenbush to have no jurisdiction over the dump but have the dump problems.

This was the second town board meeting this fall that East Greenbush devoted to the Dunn dump. A public hearing was held on September 29. Video recordings of both are on YouTube.