President Letter – TuriLandfill – Masada
ORANGE ENVIRONMENT’S ROLE IN CLOSING TURI LANDFILL
Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.
In itself, John-Henry Doucette’s article of Nov 16 on our acceptance of funds from Masada to fight the Turi landfill Expansion is a reasonable article. Its failings come from three sources outside Doucette’s control: the misleading tabloid-style cover page, the Record’s poor and incomplete past coverage of the issue that deprived Doucette of needed background, and the paper’s own troubling “follow the money” history on this issue.
First, the actual facts of the case are simple. I served in 1980 as the Goshen Town Environmental Review Board’s representative on Goshen’s team in the administrative hearing in Turi Landfill’s application to expand. I also gave expert witness testimony against the landfill expansion. Unfortunately, Turi prevailed and that expansion is still technically open 22 years later. I have spent all this time trying to close the facility.
Second, since Orange Environment’s creation in 1982-83, this issue has been on the top of our list. Along with closing Orange County’s landfill, closing Turi has been a key step in our goal of pushing Orange County toward a more sustainable approach to addressing waste. In the mid-1980’s we developed a waste blueprint that called for 90% or more waste recovery.
Third, while much of the period 1986-1999 was devoted to closing Orange County Landfill, in the mid-1980’s also Orange Environment spent more than $25,000 in a failed legal effort to prevent Turi from being allowed to accept incinerator ash at the facility.
Fourth, when Turi began its application for a new major expansion, we moved to intervene. In 1998 and 1999, Orange Environment stood against the Turi legal and expert team in administrative hearings, taking the lead role in arguing that the landfill was unfit to hold a DEC permit. An important element of our argument was that the Masada project removed any “need” for the Turi facility. The decisions in this case are on-line on the DEC web page (http://www.dec.state.ny.us/website/ohms/decis/indexac.htm scroll down to Al Turi) and the transcripts are public record. Orange Environment spend less than $25,000 to defeat Turi’s investment of millions in this expansion. With some help from the DEC, we prevailed. Turi recently exhausted its last appeal of its defeat. Despite the “Sopranos” public infatuation with the mob, the Times-Herald Record gave scant coverage of the real life drama of the hearings and has never really presented our primary role in standing up to Turi and blocking their expansion.
Fifth, more recently, when the Turi site was to be sold to French-owned multi-national Vivende Corporation which intended to pursue this expansion, Orange Environment moved to intervene and prepared expert testimony to defeat the application, helping to dissuade this application from moving forward. Currently, Orange Environment is an amicus intervener in Turi’s effort to extend the permit for it’s already filled 1980 site.
Sixth, Orange Environment is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization dependent upon grants and gifts for our work, as are other charitable organizations. We do not profit from litigation. Furthermore, my work as President, just as the work of other Board members, is entirely donated. We do have costs for experts, our attorney, our office and our membership-support expenses. While we received substantial public support for our epic battle against the Orange County Landfill, for some reason, my efforts to raise funds for the Turi battle were largely unsuccessful. The public seemed to feel there was no chance of beating Turi, so why waste money. The lack of Times-Herald Record coverage did not help public awareness. A grant request to the Civil Justice Foundation failed. For a time, it looked like there would be no way to stop this destructive landfill expansion.
Seventh, from among the many solicitations for support we issued, Masada Corporation was responsive to our need, providing funds toward the 1998-1999 administrative hearing costs and for subsequent expert costs to prepare for subsequent expansion request by Vivende. These donations were made without condition. Although Orange Environment has in the past turned away funds from “bad guys,” including Turi that did not meet our screen for acceptable funders, our extensive review of Masada led us to previously classify them positively. We are openly grateful to Masada for their generosity and assume that others in the community opposed to the landfill expansion will share our gratitude. Like most organizations, we do not generally make contributions public. In this instance, I was asked point-blank by a reporter if we had ever taken money from Masada, and I answered honestly.
Eighth, what is now the Masada Waste-to-Ethanol project grew out of a decade old vision by Middletown’s leaders to which Orange Environment contributed. The waste-to-ethanol project was chosen by Middletown from competitive proposals to meet that vision. On our part, we have viewed Middletown’s effort as the primary way for Orange County to responsibly dispose of wastes in an environmentally-positive manner, meeting or exceeding our 90% recovery target. In contrast, the Orange County government wasted $52 million of taxpayer money on an illegally sited landfill and subsequently opted to export wastes to Pennsylvania, a move that we view as irresponsible in the long term.
Ninth, for Masada and its predecessor, Pencor, Orange Environment created a series of initial conditions that had to be met for our support. These conditions included environmentally safe management, mitigation of local impacts, a citizen oversight process, community benefits, an agreement to fund a DEC on-site monitor, and a target of servicing in-county waste needs. Masada has always acted forthrightly to meet these conditions. Their environmental impact statement was one of the best we have ever reviewed. We have found them to be uncommonly open and forthright.
Tenth, beyond our visit to the Tennessee Valley Authority to see the pilot plant and speak with the scientists who created the technology, Orange Environment arranged for Middletown to conduct an early feasibility review of the project by an ethanol expert associated with the Institute for Local Self Reliance. We also asked a local industrial process expert to review the project. These reviews confirmed our favorable impression of the project and its reasonable chances for success. They also pointed to some problems that could be expected and for which mitigations would be required. We used this information to help shape the project. Finally, we also had the owners screened to assure no record of mob ties. They came up clean.
Eleventh, Orange Environment supported an effort by Masada to gain County approval to locate the plant on property on the overall Orange County landfill parcel. This location would have avoided the interface with Middletown commerce and residents and helped pave the way for productive use of the landfill property and healing the deep riff between Orange Environment and the county. The county refused.
Twelve, as part of the effort to involve the County, Orange Environment also sought to have the county take a lead in bringing towns and villages together to negotiate terms with Masada. Absent the County’s willingness to participate, we played no role in these contracts. However, we regret that all Orange County waste is not going to Masada and that towns and villages did not negotiate contracts from the point of greatest strength, namely as a block.
Thirteen, community support for Masada was evident until a concentrated negative campaign emerged late in the process, after most mechanisms for public input had already passed. This campaign utilized an ad hoc public meeting in December 1999 to marshal opposition and also spent on the order of a million dollars on advertising in The Times-Herald Record as part of its attacks on Masada. Over time, more and more citizens reasonably became concerned based upon the disinformation thus disseminated.
Fourteen, the Record’s coverage has been prejudiced against Masada since the lucrative ad campaign, as their current tabloid expose format illustrates. On Friday, November 15, 2002, the Record cover placed a red banner of “exclusive” over a headline reading “Masada Secrets: Inside the Damning Report Officials are hiding from Taxpayers.” The inside story is
to a consulting report completed for the City of Middletown that summarizes risk issues associated with the project. These issues are not new, but have been known since the project’s inception. The purpose of the report was to assure that Middletown’s final contract with Masada be capable of addressing all eventualities, protecting the city fully. However, the Record never explained this context. The cover and headline were hardly accurate reflections of the story’s content. And the story made no reference to a lengthy review process that preceded the report and to mitigating permit conditions. The Record effort was merely an irresponsible hatchet job. It was during my deconstruction of this article to the Record reporter that he asked me about Masada funding OE.
Fifteen, the result was another yellow-press piece on Saturday, November 16, 2002. The Record cover shows me standing before an Orange Environment poster. The headline, “Follow the Money” leads to three connected boxes: “1. Orange Environment supports Masada Project, 2. Masada gives money to OE to fight rival Al Turi Landfill, and 3. OE tapped to watchdog Masada.” Again the cover has little to do with the story on page three.
This cover is obviously designed to harpoon the oversight board that we have designed to watchdog Masada. It would be unfortunate were this to occur. Beginning with our first experiments with such oversight bodies at the Orange County Landfill in the early 1980’s, Orange Environment has made the design and sponsorship of community monitoring of hazardous facilities a major part of our work. Masada voluntarily implemented the program we designed for them when the DEC failed to include the process in the permit for the facility. They have given us carte blanche to create a broad-based and representative body that can meet with Masada, DEC and Middletown representatives on a regular basis to ask questions, get answers, review compliance data, and otherwise assure that the facility fixes any problems and operates safely. We designed this process so that we would start it and help facilitate it, but we would not control it. We also made sure that concerned citizens from Middletown can freely attend. Meetings will be open to the public and press. Our attorney will call the first meeting, Scott Thornton, who lives in the Masada plant area, and the group will subsequently self-organize. In short, even if Masada had bought our allegiance, the process we designed would not allow us to shield them from public oversight. We are not the primary watchdog. Rather, the community is empowered to play this role. This is the same approach that OE has always used.
The fact is that Masada has neither tried to buy nor would we ever sell our independence. For the Record to imply this suggests either that their own purse-strings are being tugged or that they are engaging in careless tabloid journalism that undercuts those seeking to be fairly informed. In fact, one might envision an even better cover for the paper: “Follow the
Record focuses scathing attacks against the project.” The fact that the Record appears to support Turi Landfill here and failed to cover Orange Environment’s campaign against the landfill in the past also is suggestive of a potential special relationship between the paper and the hauling and landfill industry that is threatened by Masada’s new approach and which has apparently bankrolled the opposition to the facility.
In this regard, paralleling the Record’s request for a detailing of funds we received from Masada to fight Turi, we hereby ask the Record for details of its relationship to Al Turi Landfill and other actors in the waste disposal and hauling industry, the amounts paid for advertising in opposition to Turi landfill, and the sources of funds. Just what is the paper’s stakes in shaping this issue the way it has?
We hope to continue our good relationship with the paper as a force for a fact-based approach to independent, informative journalism. But we cannot condone the Record’s recent irresponsible work. And our attorney, Scott Thornton, is in the process of serving notice on the paper that they will have to correct their front page misinformation in a similarly visible and responsible manner.
Orange Environment, Inc. is a non-profit, community-based organization based in Goshen and dependent upon the community if we are to continue to play a leading role in reshaping Orange County in a more environmentally sustainable direction.