A 30-year old non-profit environmental group that bills itself as the protector of Seneca Lake’s water quality is catching flak for accepting a $15,000 contribution from the state’s largest landfill, which is located about five miles northeast of the lake.
Seneca Lake Pure Water Association (SLPWA) says it will use the money from Seneca Meadows Inc. (SMI) to fund certified laboratory testing of water from the lake and its tributaries.
“Very sad and disappointing,” Geneva City Councilor Ken Camera wrote in a recent email to SLPWA president Jacob Welch. “Your organization has sold its soul.”
Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian, another environmental non-profit, said SLPWA had “lost all credibility by accepting money from a corporate polluter. Seneca Lake Guardian would never start making deals with polluters in our region.”
In justifying SLWPA’s acceptance of the landfill’s money, Welch said that SMI had installed a reverse osmosis process to purify its leachate, a toxic brew that accumulates as rainwater filters down through mounds of garbage.
He cited the landfill’s claim that 99 percent of impurities are filtered out before the liquid is sent to a wastewater treatment plant in the town of Seneca Falls. That facility empties into the Cayuga-Seneca Canal, which flows into Cayuga Lake.
Welch noted that the landfill lies outside of the Seneca Lake Watershed and said that the SLPWA board “steadfastly focuses its efforts only in the Seneca watershed.”
One long-time member of SLPWA, who asked not to be identified, called that watershed boundary policy “parochial and not in keeping with the community spirit of the Finger Lakes … I think it was a mistake for SLPWA to accept the donation. I think it will affect their fundraising efforts with other businesses and private individuals.”
Camera said he’d contributed the the group last year but was terminating his membership in response to SLPWA’s new affiliation with SMI.
In response to Welch’s reply to his initial email, Camera wrote:
“Who is SLPWA fighting for: rich people who own boats and lakeside housing or the greater good of the region and the many livelihoods fully invested here?”
Eight of SLPWA’s 17 board members are from Yates County, and several have lakefront retirement homes on Seneca’s western shore. Welch and three other board members list Yates County addresses in Himrod, population 840.
“When you live in the shadows of the landfill and downwind of the smells or drive along the roads well traveled by the trucks importing garbage to the region or have your property values affected by its proximity or don’t have a second home somewhere else, the perspective is different,” Camera wrote to Welch.
SLPWA recently launched a fundraising effort to support its ongoing efforts to improve the water quality in Seneca Lake and to address threats from climate change, invasive species, and agricultural runoff, among others. It recently produced a video to explains its goals and challenges.
Meanwhile, Seneca Meadows imports garbage — usually by truck — from several other states and handles roughly one-tenth of New York City’s municipal waste. The landfill is owned by the nation’s third largest waste hauler, Texas-based Waste Connections.
Residents of Seneca Falls have long complained about the landfill’s powerful stench and the cavalcades of waste-hauling trucks. But SMI also has strong supporters, in part because it pays millions of dollars a year to the town under a host agreement.
Kyle Black, manager of Seneca Meadows, did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment, including emailed questions. He would not say whether SMI was first to offer the contribution or if SLPWA solicited it.
The landfill, which straddles the towns of Waterloo and Seneca Falls, is required to close in December 2025 under a local law that narrowly passed the Town Board of Seneca Falls. Only three of five board members reliably support it.
In spite of that law, SMI has applied to the state Department of Environmental Conservation to expand and continue operating until 2040.
The DEC is evaluating that application and is expected to hold a public hearing on the proposed expansion later this year.
And as candidates line up for local elections in November, SMI is widely expected to try to encourage the election of new board members who are willing to repeal the local law.
Democrats Doug Avery and Dave DeLelys, who support the law, are facing reelection challenges from Republicans that Avery believes are sympathetic to extending the landfill’s lifetime. If either he or DeLelys loses, the board is apt to vote to repeal the law, Avery said.
Avery said SMI’s contribution to SLPWA is part of a pattern of the landfill “upping the intensity of its philanthropic efforts” in advance of the DEC’s public hearing.
Those activities are reflected in a recent letter to the Finger Lakes Times newspaper in Geneva, where one reader gushed: “Seneca Meadows Landfill donates to the fire departments, libraries, school programs, youth programs, veterans programs, food pantries, golf benefits, Rotary clubs, and school scholarships…I bet most would vote to give them another 15-year permit.”
Avery said the landfill “gives money, but fully expects you to act on their behalf.” He said he expects SMI to call on SLPWA representatives to “speak on the landfill’s behalf” at the DEC’s upcoming hearing.
One former SLPWA board member, who asked not to be identified, agreed, saying: “Gifts like that have implicit strings.”
In his email response to Camera, Welch denied there were any strings attached to the SMI gift, which was reported in the Finger Lakes Times under the headline: “SLPWA Thanks Seneca Meadows for Contribution, Other Efforts.”
Welch said: “We did not have to announce we received it but did so because we do not harbor secrets.”
Welch acknowledged that “there were some people on the board who thought (accepting the SMI contribution) might not be a good idea because of the publicity,” but he declined to identify them.
Welch said in an interview with WaterFront that SMI’s installation of the leachate purification system contrasts sharply with the lack of responsible environmental action from the Greenidge Generation power plant in Dresden.
“Going after Greenidge is a viable and proper thing to do to try to protect our lake waters,” Welch said.
On April 17, Welch spoke at a rally in Dresden for environmental activists opposed to Greenidge’s plan to significantly expand its Bitcoin mining operation.(Welch’s comments begin around the 8:15 mark.)
He told a crowd of 100 or more that the plant discharges millions of gallons of heated water daily into Keuka Outlet, which flows into Seneca Lake. He castigated the company for continuing to delay a long-overdue study of the thermal effects of those discharges on lake water.
Two days later, Welch told the Torrey Planning Board that SLPWA was conducting private negotiations with Greenidge. Members of other local environmental groups said they were caught off guard.
In recent weeks, SLPWA has muted its objections to Greenidge’s plans to expand its Bitcoin operation (after the Torrey Planning Board gave its go-ahead). The project is no longer prominently displayed on the group’s website, although references to its past objections are contained in archived monthly newsletters. For example, the January 2021 newsletter contains a form letter SLPWA created so members could register their objections to the Greenidge plan with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Last month, SLPWA declined to help other local environmental groups pay for a newspaper advertisement memorial for Mary Anne Kowalski, a former SLPWA president who died unexpectedly on May 13.
The groups asked me to write the tribute to Kowalski, who had helped launch the SLPWA water monitoring programs that the group now considers to be its primary focus.
Welch and others had stipulated that SLPWA would not participate in the tribute if it mentioned Greenidge, even though the company had been Kowalski’s chief focus in recent months. In fact, her investigations helped lay the groundwork for news articles in The New Yorker and elsewhere that fueled national alarm over Bitcoin’s huge carbon footprint.
The Kowalski tribute advertisement did in fact mention Greenidge, and SLWPA carried through on its promise not to endorse it or to help pay for it.
Peter is a three-time Pulitzer nominated reporter covering environmental issues through his first-of-its-kind digital publication The Water Front. He’s won an array of Associated Press, UPI, and Society of Professional Journalist awards. His reporting on environmental issues continues to be featured in prominent New York publications and is available on FingerLakes1.com through an exclusive content partnership. Have a question or lead? Send it to [email protected].