Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story read that Supervisor Greg Lazzaro was credited with starting the WMAC. However, the WMAC is part of the Town Code and existed prior to his election.
The Seneca Falls Town Board has come under fire for approving the renewal of the annual operating permit for the Seneca Meadows Landfill against town attorney advice, but also for basing that decision on data the town was unable to provide to residents.
“It seems to me that Supervisor (Greg) Lazzaro, along with Councilmen (Lou) Ferrara and (Thomas) Ruzicka, are more interested in working on behalf of Seneca Meadows than they are in working for Seneca Falls,” said Valerie Sandlas, local resident and member of Seneca Falls Environmental Action Committee. “Their latest decision to approve the landfill’s operating permit, against the town attorney’s advice, is evidence of their concern for the landfill and their disregard for our community.”
The permit in question had expired in August 2016 and was pending review and completion of odor mitigation programs after several complaints began to be reported by residents and businesses in both the Seneca Falls and Waterloo area.
When the town board finally voted 3-2 to approve the permit at their May meeting, angry residents called Lazzaro a sell out.
“The fact that Supervisor Lazzaro would grant renewal of the landfill’s local operating permit solely on the word of Kyle Black (landfill district manager) is unfortunate,” said Doug Avery, who heads the Seneca Falls Environmental Action Committee. “There was no public debate or explanation, although an explanation was requested that night. There was no presentation of statistics, and renewal was granted over the objections of the town’s attorney.”
Avery said the landfill needed this permit due to the coming renewal with the DEC, and Lazzaro “obediently did what they told him to do.” Avery also noted he wasn’t entirely convinced the odor complaints have really gone down.
“This is another sad example of how our town leadership is more responsive to the bidding of Seneca Meadows than to the residents of Seneca Falls, and the disdain he holds for the very people who put him in office,” Avery added.
Lazzaro chairs the Town of Seneca Falls Waste Management Advisory Committee. The committee is tasked with the monitoring and compliance of all forms of waste management. Part of those duties include ensuring the landfill kept to the Host Community Agreement and maintained appropriate permits.
By the committee’s October 2016 meeting, Lazzaro told members that he could see no reason for the existence of the WMAC. According to meeting minutes, he stated he “believes the DEC compliance officers located at Seneca Meadows Landfill are monitoring compliance and our committee is not needed.”
Committee member for WMAC Barb Reese didn’t agree and listed six reasons she believed the committee was necessary. She also suggested it may be “better to have another member of the town board, someone who sees a reason for the existence of the WMAC, to serve as chairman for this committee.” Lazzaro declined to resign as chair, but noted he believed the Citizen’s Advisory Committee would be the committee to propose waste alternatives.
In May when the board approved the landfill permit, Lazzaro was asked about the WMAC’s silence during all the controversy surrounding the landfill. Lazzaro admitted then that the committee could be doing more.
“The odor issue has not been resolved, so why would they possibly approve the permit?” Sandlas questioned. “It defies logic and shows that their concern is for the landfill not the people of Seneca Falls and surrounding communities.”
Sandlas said she finds it even more frustrating that Seneca Meadows is allowed to self-monitor for odors. Sandlas has been active in notifying landfill officials when the odor is particularly strong.
“All of my recent complaints, the latest mailed to me on June 22, 2017, states that there was no odor detected at the complaint site,” she said. “In fact, my last 10 reports all state, ‘Went to caller’s location, at the time of the investigation there is no landfill odor.’ If there is never, or rarely, any landfill odor, then why are they spending millions of dollars on an odor mitigation program?! Simply put, their odor reports are not accurate.”
Frustrated, Sandlas believes the landfill is denying the severity of the odor problem, “probably because they don’t want a paper trail being sent to the DEC.”
If there is, in fact, no odor then community members would not be calling to complain and there would be no need for a multi-million dollar odor mitigation program, Sandlas reasons.
“When the board acts in a seemingly improper or confusing way, it is proper to get ‘heated’,” said local resident Jan LaValley. “When the board calls for a vote and grants a landfill permit when the landfill has not met the requirements for odor control, and over the advice of counsel, without explanation or debate, yes, we object.”
What’s more, recent actions by the town board has lead to a feeling of mistrust by residents of the very people they elected to represent them.
“Why would any government officials put their citizens and environment at risk by granting a landfill a permit before its odor mitigation project is complete?” Sandlas asked. “Something stinks, and it’s not just the landfill.”
But just because the town board was unable to provide numbers, that didn’t mean the statistics didn’t exist.
Seneca Meadows Landfill District Manager Kyle Black said landfill employees were among the first to notice an odor problem. Complaints started coming into the office sometime in November 2015. By that time, Black said they were already looking into what the problem might be. When the problem still persisted into 2016, Seneca Meadows created a hotline and by March 2016 the number of odor complaints the landfill had received at their onsite offices peaked at 231. The number of calls had dropped significantly by February 2017 with 41 complaints, and stayed low until May – the same month the town board approved the landfill’s annual permit – when calls doubled to 85 odor complaints.
Black said they continue to take odor complaints, but the number has remained relatively constant, although the data has not yet been tabulated on the bar chart provided to fingerlakes1.com.
As a landfill, Black said, it’s not uncommon to have some odor problems, after all they are dealing with garbage. But that is also what the Host Community Agreement is for – to offset issues like dust, truck traffic and odor.
So what happened in 2015-16 that made the odor such a huge problem? Black said it was something that has never happened to them before.
That winter was an extremely mild one, with record high temperatures and lots of rain. The odor was emanating from the Western Expansion section of the landfill which hadn’t been completely capped at that time, Black said. There are some 200 wells installed to suck out the gases produced during the decay process in that section. The wells are pipes placed vertically in the ground and connected to horizontal pipes. The wells suck in gases like a vacuum. The gases are moved through the connecting pipes to the gas facility where part of it is then turned into natural gas used to heat many homes here and beyond.
Water, thanks to gravity, naturally drains down to the bottom of the landfill, becoming leachate, where it is captured by a liner and removed via pipes to be treated at a wastewater treatment plant.
Black said crews were scheduled to put in additional wells, but due to the wet weather, vehicles couldn’t make it up the hill without first putting in roads made of rocks that had to be hauled in.
With all the rain, many of the gas collections wells started filling up with water, preventing gas from being sucked into those wells.
The water also “super charged” the organisms that create the gases during the decaying process. This caused a significant increase in the amount of gas the landfill was producing and the water filled wells couldn’t keep up.
At this point, it seems like the perfect storm.
“Up until this section and the inclement weather, we’d never had this kind of problem before,” Black said. “We were trying to fight nature.”
It took time and help from outside agencies to find the appropriate solutions, Black said, which they have been implementing over the last several months. In fast, Seneca Meadows has invested $7.5 million in odor control technology over the past year.
Seneca Meadows also tests air quality quarterly as mandated by the DEC.
About 40 to 60 percent of the gas created by a landfill is methane, which has no odor. Most of the remaining gas is carbon dioxide, but less than 1 percent are volatile organic compounds, called trace gases. The odor at the heart of the complaints was coming from trace gases, Black said.
Black said they installed several pumps in wells in that section of the landfill as part of the odor mitigation plan and they have worked well increasing the amount of gas collected daily from 9,000 standard cubic feet per minute to over 12,000.
Now crews at the landfill are working on installing odor control right at the dump site to reduce trash odor.
If nothing else, Black said this has all been a learning experience and “now we can stay ahead.”