In My View, June 29, 2011

Don’t Waste This Opportunity: A Milestone Moment for Orange County’s Waste Future

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D., President, Orange Environment, Inc.

The public is about to be short changed again by County Executive Eddie Diana’s obscure, largely behind the scenes and often self-serving way of directing Orange County’s future. Diana does not embrace transparent planning or champion public involvement, but his dealings with Jim Taylor will rank as his greatest hoodwinking.
Last year, Taylor secured state permission to build a waste-to-energy gasification plant in Montgomery. Orange Environment objected citing minimal environmental review, key questions left unanswered, and an application that failed to address required issues. Nevertheless, it was rammed through in time for a federal loan guarantee necessary for the financing. Having lost that battle, Orange Environment asks a bigger question. What is the least risky, most sustainable future for the waste generated in Orange County? With ongoing help from Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self Reliance and Barbara Warren of the Citizens Environmental Coalition, we outlined a game plan.
The plan is simple. Our waste is a resource too valuable to “gasify.” What we discard contains materials that should be “cycled” to recover their greatest value while minimizing transportation, pollution, and public health risks. We seek to maximize job creation, local economic gains, cost containment, and complete recovery of materials. We favor tried and true, relatively inexpensive waste-processing, energy-generating technologies, such as anaerobic digestion, which produces compost and energy. Such technologies can be established in many communities, reducing risk, cost, pollution and material loss while retaining flexibility for innovation.
This game plan may never be considered if Diana and Taylor have their way. Totally subverting transparency, Diana is about to sign a contract committing the County to the Taylor site for 20 years. By acting before the public review of revisions to the County Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), the first revisions in 16 years, Diana cuts off the legislature, the public, and the review process. That Taylor is one of Diana’s largest supporters and contributors and that Taylor needs the County’s commitment to attract investment plays no small part in this tactic. For Diana, this is major payback time to Taylor.
Taylor, not waiting for Diana, is pitching long-term waste contracts directly to the towns and villages, who actually control the waste stream, to guarantee the flow of waste he needs to operate. However, only Taylor gains from decisions to sign now. Municipalities should consider their options before acting. And, if OE has its way, far better, emerging options will be on the table.
What should occur? Taylor’s interests should not be confused with the public’s interests. The county should suspend signing a contract with Taylor until the SWMP has been reviewed with a comprehensive look at options and full participation of the public, municipalities and the legislature. The County should solicit the best options from the private sector and consider its own active role. Municipalities should participate as partners, understanding their choices from making independent contracts, managing their own wastes, to becoming part of a County plan. In short, there should be significant learning across communities, including assessment and development of options before signing contracts. If we are to act sustainably, we first have to think sustainably!
New York State is moving toward requiring total recovery of the waste stream. We in Orange County have a chance to lead the way. Or, we can cave in to Diana and wed ourselves to Taylor’s albatross. Which will it be? Diana has long dragged his heals on addressing a responsible approach to county waste and now would rush to fit Taylor’s timeline. When leadership is errant and absent, it is time that the community steps in.

Orange Environment, Inc. (www.orangeenvironment.org) is a non-profit organization based in New Hampton within site of the Orange and Al Turi Landfills that it closed. OE has advocated for greater than 90% recovery of the waste stream since the 1980s. OE’s recent work on bringing waste planning to the public has been supported by a Clean Air, Cool Planet grant.