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Colonie should not balance its budget with garbage

Colonie should not balance its budget with garbage

What at first glance appears to be a promontory overlooking the Mohawk River’s south shore is, in fa

Traveling south on Route 9 in the Town of Halfmoon, one comes to a hill crest just north of the Colonie town line.

Here lies a wonderful vista of the Mohawk River as it meanders past the aptly named hamlet of Crescent on its way toward Cohoes and its often-spectacular rapids and waterfall.

That vista is indeed wonderful, except in one odoriferous respect.

What at first glance appears to be a promontory overlooking the river’s south shore is, in fact, a landfill — the town of Colonie Solid Waste Disposal Facility.

One might ask, “What sort of 1960s-era ‘genius’ decided to put a landfill in such close proximity to a river?” The answer might be, “The same sort who thought it was a great idea to put a major arterial highway directly on the shore of another river nearby.”

Let’s not forget that at the time, our heavily polluted rivers were considered little more than dumping grounds themselves. One near Cleveland actually caught fire at one point. Fortunately, changes in attitudes and concerted efforts have vastly improved the health of our waterways.

It would seem to present an opportunity to remediate some other mistakes of the past. At the very least we should not be doubling down on them. Yet that’s exactly what the town of Colonie is apparently proposing to do.

The town of Colonie holds the required state Department of Environmental Conservation permit to operate the landfill. It expires in 2017 and the site is projected to run out of space by 2018.

In 2011, the town decided to close a budgetary shortfall by privatizing the operation of the facility. It signed a 25-year contract with Waste Connections, a California company that paid the town $23 million immediately along with $2.3 million a year for the next five years and $1.1 million a year thereafter.

A 25-year contract to operate a landfill then slated to close in only seven years may seem curious to anyone paying attention. However, part of the deal also offered financial incentives to the town to secure a longer permit that also increases dumping limits.

Accordingly, the town is seeking an extension of its permit to 2038 and increases in the site’s expanse (by 25 acres toward the river) and height (from 430 to 517 feet above sea level) to ultimately hold 10 million cubic yards of solid waste.

About 6 million cubic yards were within the facility by 2011. Before privatization, 140,000 tons of garbage a year from the town was brought to the landfill. Today, it’s allowed to take in 255,840 tons a year from both the town and the surrounding region.

Even so, Colonie was fined over a half million dollars by the DEC last year for exceeding the limits imposed by its current permit. Contrast that sanction with the $2 million to $10.8 million more the town will receive from Waste Connections if it succeeds in gaining the 20-year permit extension from the DEC.

As part of a society that still rabidly consumes and only marginally embraces reuse and conservation, our growing region produces a tremendous amount of trash — garbage that has to be disposed of somewhere.

It also is true that there is a powerful element of NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”) to this issue that makes the development of alternative solutions sufficiently difficult to make the status quo look very attractive to public officials charged with finding those alternatives.

Immediately shutting down the Colonie landfill is just not practical. Nonetheless, expanding it in such ways as to add decades to its life, exacerbating the aesthetic and environmental degradation already there, is not a constructive approach either.

Anyone driving past the site now can attest to the escaped trash that always seems to be strewn along the river’s shore and adjoining roadway and the stench that assaults the nostrils on hot days in the summer — despite concerted efforts to fully contain both.

Bolstering the town’s bottom line with financial incentives built into a Mephistophelean agreement does not justify furthering and accelerating the environmental degradation that affects a growing number of residents living near the landfill, as well as those just across the river in the neighboring town of Halfmoon.

If there ever was a problem that demands regional cooperation, solid waste disposal is it. If local elected officials prove unequal to the task, then maybe the state should step in and do it for them.

For its part, the DEC can encourage a jump start to the process by denying or at least significantly truncating and conditioning the permit that the town seeks, thereby removing incentives to continue in this unhealthy direction.

John Figliozzi of Halfmoon is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

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