Why can a tall landfill like the Statue of Liberty rise higher?
It’s hard to miss Seneca Meadows, the largest landfill in New York State: At nearly 300 feet tall, it’s almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty, including its base.
It is a decades-old warehouse that houses millions of tons of garbage, spreads over 350 acres, and is an artificial landscape that can be seen from miles away. For homes located in the east, it causes early sunset.
And then, of course, there’s its smell, an ever-changing stench that has inspired comparisons to litter boxes, dirty diapers, spoiled meat and rotting fruit, as well as online maps showing where it “stinks.”
But over the past several years, it has seemed as though the abuse of smell may soon be coming to an end: According to a state statement, the landfill was scheduled to close at the end of 2025.
However, the landfill’s owner, Texas-based Waste Connections, has indicated in filings with the state that it wants approval to fill a 47-acre “valley” between two giant hills at the site — enough to fill MetLife Stadium 10 times. At least – a project that is estimated to last until 2040.
The project would raise the top of Seneca Meadows by about 70 feet — almost to the height of a 35-story building — making it one of the tallest man-made structures in upstate New York and an exotic scent in the largely rural Finger Lakes region. .
Residents in and around Seneca Falls have long complained of a host of issues with the site, including truck traffic, choking dust and the potential for contamination of drinking water.
They tell tales of “garbage bombings” where an exterior wall of dirt collapses, creating a cascade of garbage. Flocks of annoying seagulls, searching for free food, are constantly circling, depositing their guano on roofs, cars and customers in nearby shopping malls.
Even supporters of the landfill, whose oldest sections date back to the 1950s, admit they would love to have it if Seneca Meadows — and all the ills associated with it — weren’t there.
Michael J. said: “If we had to make a decision today, from what we know, obviously there wouldn’t be a landfill there,” said Ferrara, the Seneca Falls town supervisor and lifelong resident, who supported the expansion plan. “But he’s been here a long time.”
He suggested that keeping the landfill open would likely make the company a better neighbor.
“They are not taking the landfill with them: unfortunately, it will still be here,” Mr. Ferrara said. “If it’s open, they have to take care of it a lot.”
Representatives for Waste Connections declined to comment on their critics or the “canyon backfill” project, which is currently being evaluated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Site District Manager Kyle Black directed a reporter to the Seneca Meadows site for details on current operations and expansion plan, which the company’s initial application says is necessary to “provide much-needed solid waste disposal services locally and for the state.”
This influx of garbage is undeniable: more than two million tons a year arrive via thousands of trucks plying off New York State Road. According to the company’s 2021 annual report — the most recent available — the garbage deluge includes solid waste, construction debris and a category known simply as “sludge.”
The waste comes from all over the state, and from farther afield, but its largest source is New York City, which sent about a quarter of the total tonnage in 2021, averaging about 1,500 tons per day.
The expansion plan has sparked an outcry from many environmentalists and business owners in two neighboring areas: Seneca Falls, known as the cradle of the women’s rights movement and the supposed inspiration for the book “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and Waterloo, which claims to be the cradle of the women’s rights movement. To be the birthplace of Memorial Day.
In February, hundreds signed a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, imploring her to stop the expansion, citing a host of problems with landfills, including abundant emissions of “climate-destroying greenhouse gases” like methane.
Others accuse the company of buying off city council members in Seneca Falls through large campaign expenditures on behalf of landfill-friendly candidates by a group known as Responsible Solutions for New York. The group has received at least $195,000 in donations from Waste Connections since the beginning of 2019, according to state election records.
One of the winning candidates in the 2021 election, Caitlin Laskowski, a Republican, denied knowing anything about the Responsible Solutions group, saying she was “equally surprised” when she received paid mailings from the group supporting her campaign. She added that she had not yet reached an opinion on the expansion, saying she wanted to “make sure the correct procedure is followed.”
Earlier this month, there were signs that the expansion might face some formal local opposition, when the City Council — including Ms. Laskowski — voted to put forward a lucrative agreement with Waste Connections.
The leachate the site produces — about 200,000 gallons per day, on average — is of particular concern to activists like Joseph Campbell and Yvonne Taylor, co-founders of Seneca Lake Guardian, a group that seeks to protect the waters of the Finger Lakes.
According to the company’s 2021 report, tens of millions of gallons of that leachate — contaminated with toxic substances such as arsenic and a host of dangerous chemicals — were collected and shipped to processing facilities across the state, including to Buffalo, Ms. Hochul’s hometown. But environmentalists there and elsewhere have raised alarm about the ability of such public systems to handle some of these toxins.
“We are an American viticultural region,” she said. “It supports 60,000 jobs, a $3 billion industry here, tourism and agriculture, all of which depend on clean air and clean water to survive.”
The opposition also includes Waterloo Container, a neighbor of the landfill, and a bottle wholesaler across Route 414, whose employees have complained of a “sewage smell” that makes them feel sick and prompts them to board up warehouse windows.
Bill Lutz, the company’s president and a longtime local resident, said the landfill has profoundly changed “the entire ecology of two towns.”
“They changed the air quality, they changed the temperature,” Mr. Lutz said, noting that decomposition inside the landfill generates “so much heat” that the harsh winter snows of central New York often won’t accumulate at the site. .
The final version of the company’s plans is likely to be released in the coming weeks and will face a range of government environmental reviews. Its prospects may be complicated by the state’s ambitious emissions-reduction plan, which was passed in 2019.
The Department of Environmental Conservation said it is reviewing hundreds of public comments it has received since the landfill expansion proposal.
Garbage continues to be trucked upstate even as New York City takes steps in recent months to try to process too much trash. In June, the City Council passed a package of waste composting bills, which set a target date of 2030 for eliminating all organics and recyclables from the waste stream.
Sandy Nurse, the Brooklyn City Councilwoman who sponsored many of these bills, says she supports closing Seneca Meadows.
“We throw it away and think it goes away, but it doesn’t,” Ms. Nurse said.
She noted that the city spends about $450 million annually to ship its waste to other states in addition to upstate New York.
Frank Sinicropi, another Seneca Falls board member who supported the host agreement with the landfill, was blunt. “Ask the mayor of New York City, where the city’s trash is going,” he said.
Waste Connections appears to be well aware of the public relations challenges: The company has a complaints hotline, which results in a site visit by a landfill representative and an official report, although some residents complain that such reports are usually considered inconclusive.
Landfill managers also use a variety of methods to try to mitigate odors, including aerators that release flower-scented mist along the perimeter of the site.
The Seneca Meadows website says that the company is working to collect methane gas emitted through decomposition and use some of it to generate electricity, and adds that the waste it accepts is “non-hazardous.”
The company creates dozens of jobs at the landfill and dozens more in construction and operations, Mr. Black said in an email.
The company has been active in community organizations and events, including in late July, when hundreds of local residents flocked to the Seneca Meadows open house, lining up for a bouncy house, free barbecue chickens, a vintage car show and a live falconry demonstration. (The company uses about a dozen of these black-eyed raptors to scare away sea gulls.)
Perhaps the most popular attraction were tours of the landfill looming above the open house, where buses slowly climb the slope to the top, offering great views of the landfill – and the landscape – as well as the piles of shredded used rubber tires. In the landfill liner system.
These outreach efforts have resonated with people like Bill Ryan, 74, a retired accountant and longtime Waterloo resident, who said he thought Seneca Meadows was “a great thing for the community” — pointing to the various local functions and events they supported, including That’s the fireworks display Friday night at this year’s county fair.
Standing at the fairgrounds, just outside the boundaries of the landfill, Mr. Ryan said complaints about the stench were exaggerated.
“The smell is a nuisance,” said Mr. Ryan, who was wearing a Seneca Meadows hat. “The smell is not dangerous.”
Audio produced by Sarah diamond.