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As activists try to shut landfill, CWM ponders expansion

--Second of a three-part series--

When anthrax powder was found on Tom Brokaw’s desk at NBC News back in 2001, the desk had to be trashed.

It was wrapped in plastic, in fact, and junked whole.

Do you know where that toxic garbage ended up?

In the Town of Porter – in a hazardous waste landfill that has operated under three different companies, most recently CWM, since 1971.

Consider the other toxic wastes also at the Porter landfill:

• PCB poisons from a Hudson River project cleanup.

• Samples harvested from Love Canal.

• Lead- and asbestos-contaminated fill from the Erie County Medical Center property.

• Hundreds of tons of contaminated soil, concrete, clay tile and other materials from a recent hazmat cleanup in the City of Rochester.

Those hazardous materials were trucked to the CWM site along a two-lane road past the Lewiston-Porter schools, which sit about a mile or so away.

And if CWM wins a new permit renewal from the state, tons of poisons will be trucked down that same two-lane road for another two decades, and the Balmer Road landfill – now the size of 36 football fields – will get even bigger.

“This one can take the nastiest stuff in the highest concentrations,” local activist Amy Witryol said of the hazardous waste dump. “And the only way in there is in trucks past our schools. The opportunity to close one of these comes around only once every 20 years – this is one of those times.”

That’s why environmentalists like Witryol; Joseph A. Gardella Jr., a chemistry professor at the University at Buffalo; Tim Henderson, a longtime opponent of CWM who lost his son, Ryan, in a head-on collision with a hazardous waste truck on its way to the landfill; and several others are all, for various reasons, calling for the immediate shuttering of the facility.

“This isn’t the business this region needs to be in,” Gardella said. “We should close it as soon as possible and begin the transition” toward long-term monitoring of the contents that are already buried there.

“Enough is enough,” added April D. Fideli, president of the local Residents for Responsible Government organization. “People like to say this is an ‘in-our-backyard’ issue, but it’s in everyone’s backyard.”

Limited alternatives

But if CWM were to shut down, where would those hazardous wastes go?

The Porter landfill is the only operating hazardous landfill in the Northeast and has taken waste from every county in the state into its 710-acre site. In fact, CWM is but one of 17 such landfills left nationwide. The next-closest are in Michigan and Alabama.

“We’re stewards of the environment,” said Lori Caso, spokeswoman for CWM, who explained that the site provides a “safe and reliable disposal option” for hazardous materials, with full containment and constant monitoring. “There is a need for a facility like this.”

Caso said CWM has never hidden what’s in its Porter landfill, which sits on the original site of the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works. They are hazardous materials. But, handled in the right way, the hazardous materials are best placed in this landfill, she said, and because of the innovative ways CWM runs the site, the environmental benefit is immeasurable.

A double-lined collection system consisting of 2-millimeter-thick plastic, clay and other layers ensures no hazardous materials make it off the site, said Caso. The leachate from the site is collected and treated on-site, where any hazardous remnants are removed prior to the treated water being advanced to an on-site holding pond.

The water is annually discharged into the Niagara River.

All of this is done under the constant watch of state Department of Environmental Conservation officials, Caso said. The DEC maintains a permanent presence on the site, conducting constant oversight with unfettered access anywhere at CWM in order to ensure that public safety and state regulations are being met.

“There are so many safeguards built into this,” Caso said, adding that the hazardous contents buried there will never escape.

Those on the other side of the fence from CWM, however, aren’t buying it.

Dying technology

“There’s nothing secure about a landfill because they all leak; that comes from the EPA,” said Henderson, citing a 1987 Environmental Protection Agency report that stated “eventually all landfills leak.”

“Eventually, the seams break down. These things are constructed by man and are therefore open for mistake,” he said.

Gardella took issue with CWM referring to itself as an environmental “steward.”

“It’s a business, and it’s a profit-making business – we don’t call profit-making businesses ‘public service,’ ” said Gardella, who called CWM’s current operation “state-of-the art technology ... 40 years ago.”

But Karen Wehn, one of the DEC-contracted environmental monitors at the CWM site, conducted a series of tests last week on the site’s eastern slope and certifies the landfill’s safety.

“For me, it’s a labor of love because I feel like I’m doing something for this planet,” said Wehn, who is also a member of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. She believes CWM provides environmental benefits and is confident there is no way CWM’s landfill leaks.

“It’s like a large Ziploc bag, and we weld it shut,” said Wehn, who admits she garners some flack from fellow environmentalists.

Caso said its current landfill has only been breached once in its 18-year history. That was when a piece of equipment in the landfill tore through the first of two protective liners. CWM caught the problem right away, she said, when sensitive computerized equipment detected contaminated leachate between the first and second liners.

The second liner caught the leak, and the problem was fixed without any escape into the environment, said Caso.

Capacity issues

As CWM moves toward filling the last available cell at its current 3.5 million-cubic-yard landfill – roughly the volume of 1,100 Olympic-size swimming pools – it is already letting its customers know it’s having storage capacity issues. That’s a big reason why CWM has had to turn away business on large dumping jobs.

The number of trucks visiting the landfill, which opened in 1995 after a previous landfill there was closed, has dropped dramatically – from a peak of 60 a day to about a dozen a day now.

That’s why it needs a new, roughly 50-acre companion landfill that would “allow for ongoing and uninterrupted commercial waste land disposal” at annual volumes of 165,000 tons. CWM officials regard the proposed new landfill as “more of a continuation of the existing operations,” although it actually is a separate landfill within the “existing footprint of the facility.”

Without the permit renewal it seeks, CWM’s expansion plans can’t happen.

“As soon as the permit comes through, we will start to work on the [expansion] process,” Caso said,

There are huge financial benefits at stake for the Town of Porter, Lewiston-Porter schools, Niagara County and area laborers if the new landfill opens.

Already touting itself as “the highest taxpayer in the Lewiston-Porter School District” with the $480,000 paid in 2012-13, CWM estimates that the Town of Porter itself can expect $500,000 more in annual revenue if the second landfill gets built. Construction costs, CWM officials said, are forecast to exceed $55 million for the new landfill, with most of that to be spent on local contractors. And CWM employs 66 people.

Armed with statements of support from various local organizations and labor unions – including the Business Council of New York State, Buffalo Niagara Partnership, Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce, Teamsters Local 449 and others – CWM officials say they generate good business for Niagara County.

A recently commissioned study by CWM calculated its economic impact on Niagara County and the local economy. It estimated that the economic impact of the second landfill would be $24.9 million annually, with a $1.2 billion total benefit over its planned 32-year life span.


Those claims of economic benefits ring hollow with activists who are girding to challenge any proposed expansion of hazardous waste dumping on the site. Citing the DEC’s policy requiring the “equitable geographic distribution” of hazardous waste landfills, they argue that it’s time for CWM to cease its Porter operation. From a legal standpoint, it might be activists’ strongest argument.

Practically, said Gardella, it just makes sense.

“You are shifting the costs to this end of the state and shifting the risks to this end of the state, and impeding better technologies,” said Gardella, who criticizes downstate politicians who consistently resist hazardous waste landfills in their own backyard.

“Shifting the risks to Western New York is unacceptable,” said Gardella. “This is an overburdened community.”

Henderson, the environmentalist whose son died in the truck crash, said local governments have what is equivalent to a “chemical dependence” in relying on money from CWM.

“They’ve made a lot of money off of that site, but they’ve also left us quite a legacy. They’ll tell you what they give to a community, but they never tell you what they take away,” said Henderson. “I’ve always viewed them as an occupying force.

In hands of DEC

Community activists have been successful beating back CWM. Ten years ago, a subcommittee of the Residents for Responsible Government, “Stop Hudson River PCBs,” fought against 175,000 truckloads of PCB-contaminated soil destined for Porter. Some materials from the cleanup job – namely workers’ coveralls, brooms and other items – did find their way to the landfill, however.

Meanwhile, CWM’s permit renewal application, which was originally submitted by the company in 2010, remains in the hands of the DEC.

A public participation period on the repermitting application ended March 29.

DEC officials last November made a “tentative determination to renew CWM’s permit” and previously found that “ministerial” modifications to the permit would not result in any adverse impacts to the environment.

Any permit renewal, DEC officials emphasized in a fact sheet on the issue, would not authorize any “expansion in size or capacity” of CWM’s current landfill or permit “any new landfills at the CWM facility.”

“It will allow CWM to continue the management of hazardous and industrial nonhazardous wastes at permitted levels,” it stated.

A separate process, likely to begin later this year, would then be required for CWM to secure approval for the creation of the second landfill.

Read part one of the series.