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Saratoga County's dormant landfill may get waste

3 companies submit proposals to take over rural site

Saturday, October 13, 2012
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The faded sign and vacant administration building are seen at the Saratoga County landfill site.
The faded sign and vacant administration building are seen at the Saratoga County landfill site.

— Saratoga County fought local opposition for years — and spent millions of dollars — to build the county landfill off Kobor Road, amid the farms a dozen miles northeast of Saratoga Springs.

But for all that effort, it’s never been used in the decade since it was finished.

The nine-acre plastic-lined depression in the ground is as empty as the day construction wrapped up in 2000. The administration building is shuttered, its truck scales untouched.

But that could change by next summer, as county officials plan to sell or lease the landfill to a private landfill operator as a way of generating money.

County leaders are also talking about building a sewage treatment plant on adjacent land. It would serve the northern part of the county but could also treat the contaminated fluid collected once the landfill is operating.

The two developments — with their potential to alter a quiet agricultural landscape — are reviving memories of the protracted and bitter fight the citizens’ group Farms First and the town of Northumberland fought in the 1990s to try to keep the landfill out.

Farms First and the town both contended the $10 million landfill was never needed — and they say the fact it never opened has borne them out.

“It was so unnecessary. To this day I can’t figure out why they did it. It didn’t make any sense,” said Barbara Weed of Schuylerville, who led Farms First in a dogged fight that saw green-on-white “Farms First” signs posted along roadsides throughout the county.

“It’s a monstrosity, and now they’re trying to unload it because they’re feeling the pinch,” she said last week.

county needs cash

County officials insist selling or leasing the landfill is the right move for the county, one that will generate much-needed cash as the county struggles with multimillion-dollar losses at the county nursing home.

“The county made a significant investment in this facility and it is the responsibility of the Board [of Supervisors] to find out whether we can get some return on our investment,” said Edinburg Supervisor Jean Raymond, chairwoman of the county Public Works Committee.

With the prospect of the landfill finally opening, Weed worries that eventually Saratoga County taxpayers will be stuck again — for the cost of cleaning up environmental problems after a private landfill operator has filled the landfill with waste and gone.

County officials say the environmental record of prospective operators will be a major factor in their decision.

Last week, the county received proposals from three private companies who would like to run the landfill.

The bidders are:

Finch Paper of Glens Falls. The company owns the 700-employee Finch Paper mill and has operated a paper mill sludge landfill on land next to the county site since 1997. It may be looking for more space.

“Having ample affordable space for our waste is very important to us. We think it might be possible for the two of us to work together,” said Finch spokesman John Brodt.

New England Waste Services of New York, of Ithaca, is a division of Casella Waste Systems of Rutland, Vt. Casella operates landfills and residential waste collection systems throughout the Northeast. It leases the Clinton County landfill in northern New York and a number of municipal landfills in western New York, but owns no landfills in the Capital Region.

Capital Region Landfills, of Clifton Park, is a division of Waste Connections, of The Woodlands, Texas. Waste Connections in 2011 bought County Waste and Recycling of Clifton Park, one of the region’s largest trash collection companies. Waste Connections last year leased the Colonie town landfill in a 25-year deal that could bring the town more than $100 million.

Details of the proposals weren’t released. County officials say everything is open to discussion in upcoming negotiations with all three companies, and state law allows the proposals to remain secret.

“It would collapse the negotiations if that information came out,” said Hans Arnold of Gerhardt LLC of New Hartford, the county’s solid waste consultant.

County officials said they want to make a decision by year’s end.

“This process does not commit the county to any specific course of action,” said Landfill Subcommittee Chairman Alan Grattidge, R-Charlton. “We want to find out what these private companies may offer to see if it’s something that will be beneficial to the county in the long run.”

bitter fight

But to critics, the failure to release more information is a reminder of the secrecy they say surrounded the county’s selection of the Northumberland site, on what had been farmland.

“If the proposals are going to be held in secret, then nothing has changed from 17 years ago,” said Edgar A. King, who as Northumberland town supervisor from 1992 to 2003 led the town’s fight against the landfill.

Planning for the landfill began in the late 1980s, when the state Department of Environmental Conservation was issuing orders for town landfills — none of which met modern environmental standards — to close. Counties across the state were being urged to develop county or regional plans.

But in late 1987, the Board of Supervisors refused to authorize borrowing to build a waste incinerator in Malta, causing state officials to bring renewed pressure on the county.

A list of 10 possible landfill sites, most of them on rural land in the eastern part of the county, was then developed — and public opposition began to emerge. County consulting engineers inspecting some sites reported feeling threatened; the Weed family owned land at one site, and Barbara Weed became active when the family received an eminent domain notice from the county in 1990.

Over the next five years, Weed dug into legal and technical documents and attended dozens of hearings, becoming the public face of a new organization with hundreds of supporters: Farms First — a group devoted to the concept that farmland shouldn’t be taken by government just so a landfill would be remote from the county’s growing suburban towns.

“We as a family spent way too much time on it for there not to be some bitterness,” said Weed, who then had young children and is now a grandmother several times over.

The Kobor Road site was selected by the Republican-controlled Board of Supervisors in 1991. While the farmers who owned the land sold willingly, the controversy led to the defeat of Republican town supervisor Carl Seymour by King, a Democrat and dairy farmer who vowed to fight the plan at every step.

He did, filing lawsuits against the county and DEC as the county applied for a DEC permit, hearings were held, and a permit was granted.

The town overturned the permit in court in 1998, but on narrow enough grounds that additional hearings overcame the objection.

The county, essentially, argued that a thick layer of impermeable clay soil made the site ideal for preventing future leaks; the town said thin deposits of sand could spread pollution and make the clay unstable.

“Our engineers raised a number of concerns I still seriously believe were real,” King said last week.

By the time construction started in late 1998, the county had spent nearly $5 million in legal, engineering and other consulting fees, and it paid $5.4 million to have the first nine-acre section of landfill built. Flush with money from growing sales tax revenue, the county paid cash, avoiding the further controversy that would have come with borrowing.

worries continue

But during the years of the permit fight, other things had changed.

The last municipal landfills in the county closed without causing a crisis for private waste haulers. Haulers instead took waste to the Colonie landfill, the Hudson Falls incinerator, and other landfills.

In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “flow control” legislation unconstitutional, so the county couldn’t force waste haulers to bring their collected refuse to its landfill.

“I think by the time it was built, it was probably not needed,” said Raymond, who was elected Edinburg supervisor in 1987 and is one of the few current supervisors who participated in the original decisions.

“At the time the decision was made it didn’t matter whether it was needed or not, because DEC was holding a gun to everyone’s head,” she said.

Northumberland Supervisor Bill Peck, who is Edgar King’s nephew, has said the landfill has a valid state permit, and he sees no grounds for the town to resume the fight of 20 years ago. He suggested that he will push instead for a host community benefit package, such as payments to the town.

“There was opposition to the county landfill in the 1990s as well as to the Finch landfill, which is right next to it,” said Peck, who is on the county landfill subcommittee. “Overall, the experience with Finch has been positive. We will take a close look at these proposals and carefully weight the benefits and costs.”

King said he’s as concerned about the plan for a sewage plant in an agricultural area as he is about the planned opening of the landfill.

“History will bear out that wherever a sewer line is run, development occurs,” King said. “If they run a sewer line through agricultural land, it’s going to bring pressure on everyone who lives along there.”

 
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