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New approaches for dealing with solid waste

The question of handling solid waste in Sullivan County has come with some challenges over the years, and also with various suggestions about how to manage those challenges. In 2004, members of the legislature were committed to the Sullivan County Landfill in Monticello. At the time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and a group of litigious neighbors had other ideas.

After a lengthy and costly legal battle, the legislature ultimately decided expansion was no longer a reasonable way to move forward, and opted instead to export the county garbage to another county upstate. Sullivan was not the only county to make that decision, and now Greene, Ulster and Sullivan counties all export their solid waste to a landfill in Herkimer County.

Perhaps in part because of that connection, for about the past year, the chairman of the Ulster County Legislature has proposed that the three counties join their sold-waste operations into the Greene Ulster Sullivan Solid Waste Authority (GUS).

The Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency paid for a feasibility study of the proposal, and it says the amount of solid waste generated in 2017 was about 98,000 tons in Ulster, 41,000 tons in Sullivan and 26,000 tons in Greene.

Ulster County Chair Ken Ronk has been driving the issue. In his annual address delivered on February 13 he said, “For decades the county legislature has struggled with the issue of solid waste management. We all know that there is a problem with spending $55 a ton to export our trash, but the right answer has eluded us. The time has come for action on this issue instead of countless meetings and commissions ….”

He said the results of the feasibility study would be presented to the Ulster legislature on March 13. He added, “In short, folks, assuming nothing else changes, GUS has the potential to save all three counties a combined $3 million a year. In the golden age of consolidation and efficiency that we live in, this is an opportunity that should not be missed, overlooked or underappreciated.”

Deputy Sullivan County Manager Dan Depew said that various county officials had travelled to Ulster County in recent weeks, to hear details of the plan. He said the legislators were open to hearing more about it, but at this point the proposal is in its infancy, and legislators are not leaning one way or another about whether to commit to such a merger. He said, however, that one of the important issues that will be in the minds of the legislators as they contemplate such a change would be possible impacts to the environment, which lawmakers are committed to protecting.

The DEC and other agencies in the country have been slowly but steadily moving away from landfill over the past couple of decades, and there’s no guarantee that the one in Herkimer will be able to keep taking in waste forever. One of Ronk’s goals, while studying the details of whether GUS might be feasible, is also to look at ways of processing solid waste other than dumping it into a landfill.

In the past, various organizations have presented proposals to the Sullivan County Legislature to process municipal solid waste. Taylor Biomass Energy proposed a “gasfication” process that would have turned some of the solid waste into a gas that could have been burned for heat or energy. That process did not move forward, but the company is still active in an attempt to open a gasification project in Orange County.

Depew said it’s worthwhile to consider alternative forms of solid waste processing. He said, “I think if you’re going to talk about waste, all of these things have to be analyzed and looked at, because you don’t want to fix the problem for the next 30 years, the same exact way we were dealing with the prior 30 years. Landfills are kind of outdated; they’re outdated technology. Sometimes it makes sense to continue down that road and sometimes it doesn’t.”

So, it’s too early to know if this particular bit of consolidation will come to pass, but from our vantage point here on the Upper Delaware River, both joining with others to solve a problem and finding alternatives to landfills as a waste-disposal alternative seem like steps in the right direction.


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