Pondering the value of landfills in the Finger Lakes

May 1, 2013

Hundreds of Finger Lakes residents gathered in Geneva recently for what’s expected to be the first of several conversations about the region’s landfills.

The Finger Lakes is home to New York’s two biggest landfills. A proposed expansion - and odor problems - at one of them has made this a particularly touchy subject of late.  

Ontario County administrator John Garvey was one of three speakers invited to participate in a summit, hosted by Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

His home turf includes the Ontario County landfill and he says waste issues are inherently complicated, "but I think we have agreement on general directions in New York state, and I think we’re headed that way, to reduce the waste stream," he says.

Right now an average New Yorker throws out about 4 pounds of garbage per day. The state has set a goal of reducing that to about half a pound by 2030.

Meanwhile, Garvey emphasized the economic benefits of playing host to a major landfill. He says his county will get about $80 million in benefits over its 25 year operating agreement with Casella Waste Services.

But some members of the audience accused Garvey and his counterpart from Seneca County of "stumping for the landfill companies."

Finger Lakes resident Joann Goff says many of her concerns were not addressed.

"I thought there was too much lecturing."

"I thought there was too much lecturing, speechifying, without a lot of knowledge. I don’t know how many times each county executive said 'I’m not an expert, but…'"

Attendees were invited to write down questions for the panelists, many of which involved what moderator Mark Lichtenstein calls “externality costs.”

"Things like impact on roads and impact on property values and impacts on health," Lichtenstein says. "It’s hard to put a value on those things, it’s like quality of life kinds of stuff."

But he says that information does exist and where there are gaps in the data, that’s exactly where this region has an opportunity to move the conversation forward.

"And maybe this area becomes a place where we have a test bed and we start to demonstrate a next level of knowledge on those things," Lichtenstein says.

He says organizers are hoping to hold another landfill event sometime this fall.