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Long-haul garbage trucks use shortcuts across rural roads, triggering town resolutions against landfill expansion

  • / Updated:
  • Peter Mantius 

Long-haul garbage trucks, a noisy nuisance in towns and villages across the Finger Lakes, have prompted several local boards to pass resolutions opposing a bid to expand the state’s largest landfill, Seneca Meadows Inc.

“Routes 41 and 41A suffer from heavy traffic by southbound trash trucks returning from SMI to the NYC area,” said Chris Legg, supervisor of the Town of Skaneateles. “Both routes run close to Skaneateles Lake for its entire 16-mile length. A stretch of Route 41 is less than 15 feet from the lake…. Truck spills are a major concern.”

Seneca Meadows’ plan to add enough new capacity to allow it to continue collecting garbage through 2040 has stirred widespread opposition among Finger Lakes municipalities, businesses and residents. Those living near the landfill object to its noxious and potentially hazardous odors and its loosely regulated disposal of toxic leachate, as well as truck traffic. For many of those beyond the usual range of the odors, trash trucks are an irritating nuisance.

Skaneateles passed resolutions opposing SMI’s planned expansion in March 2020 and another last JuneGenevaInterlakenYates County and others have followed with their own.

In March, Rich Richardson, mayor of Interlaken, told SMI manager Kyle Black that his village had had three garbage truck spills in the past five years and that a trash hauler had just been pulled over for speeding through an Interlaken elementary school zone.

In May, Yates County Legislator Bill Holgate introduced the Yates resolution in part out of concern for heavy trash truck traffic through the congested village of Watkins Glen, where he works as a captain of the True Love schooner. 

“Sitting there on the dock you can hear the jake brakes of the trucks returning (south) as they’re coming down the Route 14 hill,” Holgate said. (The loud staccato thundering of jake brakes persists today in spite of a 2003 village ordinance that bans their use.)

The municipal resolutions have gotten SMI’s attention. Landfill officials have countered by encouraging other towns to pass resolutions supporting its expansion, a campaign that has met with limited success. 

Tony Del Plato of Interlaken

SMI’s Black has also pushed back against the Interlaken resolution by refusing to accept garbage from Interlaken residents.

“If somebody has a driver’s license with the village, they’re not using our facility,” Black said at a meeting in March with Richardson and Interlaken village trustee Tony Del Plato, who taped the conversation. “I’m punishing them for their resolution….You want us closed? We’re closed now.”

Black and Mark Benjamin, a landfill public relations official, met on March 13 at the Interlaken village hall with Richardson, Del Plato and Mike Reynolds, supervisor of the Town of Covert. 

At that meeting, Black told Del Plato: “This could have been talked about before the resolution happened….I wasn’t going to do anything. But you are personally petitioning other towns. So you’re carrying your village’s message to other towns. I have a problem with that.”

Black added that garbage trucks are legally allowed to use Route 96 through Interlaken. Furthermore, he said, the trash trucks passing through were likely headed for the Ontario County Landfill, not SMI.

Black did not respond to questions from WaterFront on whether denying Interlaken residents service at SMI as a punishment conforms with the state’s “enhanced public participation” policy. 

“To ensure meaningful and effective public participation, this policy requires applicants for permits … to actively seek public public participation throughout the permit review process,” the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Policy 29 states. To obtain a permit to expand, SMI must certify in writing that it has conformed.

The policy also requires SMI to hold public hearings and provide an easily accessible document repository. SMI has done both.

But Yvonne Taylor and Joseph Campbell, founders of Seneca Lake Guardian, called Black’s actions in Interlaken “a blatant and desperate attempt to curb public participation.” They have clashed with Black in the past.

SLG sent a copy of Del Plato’s tape recording to DEC Region 8 director Tim Walsh requesting him to address “improper attempts to silence public participation.” Walsh responded in March with a brief letter promising to investigate.

A DEC spokesperson sidestepped questions last week on that investigation or on whether Black’s statements and actions violate the agency’s policy. 

“DEC is aware of the provided recorded conversation between landfill employee(s) and others. DEC will continue to closely monitor the facility to ensure full compliance with applicable state laws and regulations,” the agency said in a statement to WaterFront.

Seneca Meadows straddles the towns of Waterloo and Seneca Falls.

The DEC is currently considering SMI’s application for a permit to allow its “Valley Infill” expansion. The landfill is currently running short of space for garbage, and its state permit expires in December 2025.

The expansion would provide enough new capacity for the landfill to continue operating for 15 more years at its current garbage import rate of 6,000 tons per day. 

The project would add about 47 acres of disposal area on top of the inactive Tantalo hazardous waste site within the landfill’s current footprint. It would raise the height of the landfill about 70 feet to 842 feet above sea level, making it visible to more Finger Lakes communities.

The DEC is requiring the landfill to prepare an environmental impact statement as part of its permit application. SMI’s final scoping document, recently approved by the agency, outlines what will be included in the EIS, which hasn’t been released.

SMI has committed in the scoping document to provide: 

“A map of traffic routes and mechanisms to encourage/require landfill and mining truck traffic on major highways…. (and to) conduct and include a complete update of the 2007 (study) on traffic, including tractor trailer traffic in the Finger Lakes, based on current conditions, regulations, and policies.”

Seneca Meadows straddles the towns of Waterloo and Seneca Falls. Two other major landfills are located within 30 miles, so not all garbage truck traffic in the area is heading to or from SMI.

Seneca Meadows-bound trucks generally arrive from the north after taking Exit 41 off the New York State Thruway and heading south to SMI on Route 414. Trucks from New York City often take Interstate 81 to reach the Thruway.

But plenty of trash trucks cut through the Finger Lakes on hilly, narrow, windy roads that weren’t designed for them. Roughly 250 of the big rigs “barrel through” the Village of Skaneateles on any given day, “forsaking the interstates to take shortcuts back and forth between Seneca Falls and metropolitan NYC,” according to the group Citizens to Preserve the Character of Skaneateles.

The wintry intersection of Routes 41 and 41A south of Skaneateles Lake.

They generate “continuous noise and increased air pollution while threatening catastrophic accidents along Skaneateles Lake, which is the drinking water source for more than 200,000 residents in Syracuse and surrounding areas,” CPCS wrote in a 2021 memo to the Town Board of Skaneateles.

Legg, the Skaneateles supervisor, noted that both routes 41 and 41A have long stretches with narrow shoulders, which sharply recede into ditches. 

“At some points, there is only an inch or two of pavement between the white line and the ditch,” Legg said. “Many hundreds of driveways feed both routes.” 

Trash trucks often travel in pairs or larger trains and often disregard speed limits, he added.

“Why should Skaneateles and other towns ask SMI to have their customers’ trucks stay on Interstates 90 and 81 rather than local roads?” Legg asked. “Because its the right thing to do and common sense.”

So far, SMI’s campaign to convince local boards to pass pro-landfill resolutions hasn’t accomplished much, and Black did not respond WaterFront’s request for an update.

After the Seneca County towns of Lodi and Varick passed resolutions in favor of SMI’s proposed expansion, local residents called for votes to rescind. Varick’s was rescinded, while Lodi’s measure withstood the revote, and stands as the region’s only pro-SMI expansion resolution, according to Seneca Lake Guardian.

Varick’s rescinded pro-SMI measure had been introduced by Tom Fox, chair of the county Republican Party and a former county sheriff. According to the Finger Lakes Times, Fox has a contract with Seneca Meadows to provide security services at the landfill.