Battle rages over proposed landfill expansion

Comparison shows CWM landfill in Niagara County is closer to schools and residents than most facilities of its type

There’s been a tug of war for 15 years between CWM Chemical Services, which has proposed expanding its hazardous waste landfill in Porter, and opponents of the project.

Since Investigative Post last reported on the proposed expansion, opponents have filed paperwork with the state that aim to show the community is a bad fit for a hazardous waste landfill.

As part of these filings, opponents challenged claims by CWM that the new landfill would generate nearly $1.2 billion in economic benefits for the community.

Opponents also filed an engineering report that found that at one point, as many as two out of every five trucks destined for the previous landfill exceeded weight limits. The trucks pass by Lewiston-Porter schools on Creek Road, which has an enrollment of about 2,100 students.

“It’s just very worrisome to essentially know that bombs on wheels are going by my schools every day,” said Wendy Guild Swearingen, resident of the Town of Porter and mother of two children who attend the schools.

Opponents also filed paperwork that claim the landfill is located too close for comfort for local residents and school children.

An independent assessment by Investigative Post found the landfill slated for expansion is closer to closer to schools than all but two of the 16 other commercial hazardous waste sites across the country.

Likewise, Investigative Post determined the proposed landfill is located in a more densely densely populated area than all but two of the other landfills.

“The vast majority of these facilities, the 15 or 16 that are left, are remote, removed from schools and people,” said Amy Witryol, a resident of Lewiston and a leading landfill opponent, who commissioned the economic and engineering studies.

The company said it stands by its economic estimates and has enough safety measures to prevent community exposure to toxins.

“We are probably the most highly regulated site in New York state,” said Lori Caso, a spokeswoman for Waste Management. “We don’t do anything without these regulatory agencies watching what we are doing and monitoring what we are doing.”

Landfill an outlier

CWM, an affiliate of Houston-based Waste Management Inc., began its push for a new hazardous waste landfill 15 years ago when the company’s existing landfill began to run out of space for new waste.

If approved, the landfill could receive enough waste to fill more than 1,100 Olympic-size swimming pools with the world’s most toxic substances, such as arsenic, PCBs and cyanide.

The location has been a landfill for over four decades, but closed in 2015 after it reached capacity. CWM has operated the landfill since the 1980s.

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Opponents of the landfill filed documents with New York Department of Environmental Conservation Administrative Law Judge Daniel O’Connell, aiming to prove the community is not an ideal location for dumping hazardous waste.

There are only 16 commercial hazardous waste landfills nationally. Before it closed, the CWM landfill was the only one of its kind in the Northeast and one of just over a dozen that accepted PCBs, a probable human carcinogen.

Compared to these other landfills, opponents say, Niagara County’s location stands out – for the wrong reasons. In a petition filed by Witryol, she documented the proximity of the landfill to both schools and residents.

Investigative Post did its own analysis, using government data and Google Earth, and found the location is closer to school buildings and in a more densely-populated area than all but two other sites. These landfills are located in Michigan and Ohio.

While the CWM landfill is less than two miles from the nearest school buildings — half of the other landfills are located at distances at least three times further away.

The Niagara County location is also more populated than most of the other locations. The population is about 3,000 in the 3-mile radius surrounding the facility. The median for the other landfills is only five people.

Six of the landfills have no residents living in the surrounding three miles. Nestled in the Great Salt Lake Desert, the nearest homes to the Clean Harbors Grassy Mountain landfill in Knolls, Utah, for example, are 11 miles away.

“If I were a parent or lived in the community, I would also be concerned,” said Dr. Claudia Persico, assistant professor at American University, whose research focuses on the impact of toxic release inventory sites on school children. “It really makes the most sense to locate them in areas that are less population-dense and less close to schools.”

A hazardous waste landfill comes with the potential threat of lowering the water quality in the area. The Niagara County location is one of only three commercial hazardous waste landfills in the Great Lakes Basin. The landfill is about three and a half miles from both the Niagara River and Lake Ontario.

There are also concerns that proximity to radioactive and hazardous waste has already impacted health in the community. A 2008 state study found elevated rates of cancer in the area. It did not, however, link these rates to the hazardous waste landfill.

Niagara County is also home to other waste sites – Modern Landfill, Inc., which accepts non-hazardous waste, and the Niagara Falls Storage Site, which houses leftover radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project.

Truck violations

A letter submitted to O’Connell, the administrative law judge, shows trucks too heavy for the roads were arriving at the landfill on a regular basis.

KHEOPS Architecture, Engineering and Survey, an engineering consultancy group, found that between 1995 and 2015, overweight trucks entered the landfill each year. This peaked in 2012 when 39 percent of the trucks, or 3,826 vehicles, exceeded weight limits.

Violations of transport laws raise concerns about traffic accidents.

Trucks carrying hazardous waste en route to the landfill have a designated route that requires them to pass by the campus of the Lewiston-Porter Central School District. This includes an elementary, middle and high school. The route was chosen because other roads in the area are not designed for heavy truck traffic, according to the company.

If CWM’s application is approved, up to 220 trucks could pass the schools each day.

To ease traffic concerns, the company created “blackout” periods during the school days when the students arrive and leave, to prevent school buses and trucks driving on the roads at the same time.

But according to some, these rules haven’t always been observed.

“The transport rules have been terribly ineffective. There have been chronic violations,” said Witryol.

In 2008, the DEC fined the company $175,000 for a series of violations that included receiving a truck of flammable liquids at the landfill during school hours and failing to send warning letters to transportation companies that passed the schools during “blackout” hours.

The company said it sent out warning letters to the trucking companies, but could not prove this to the state.

There was also an incident where a truck flipped onto its side about a half mile away from the school, spilling its contents onto the road. The company said the truck that tipped over had accidentally come to CWM instead of another landfill. Because of this, it was not carrying hazardous waste.

In another incident, a resident was killed during a car collision with a hazardous waste truck.

Because CWM works with third party trucking companies to deliver the waste, it is not responsible if a truck violates transport regulations.

As part of its application for the expansion, the company included worst-case scenarios, such as a car colliding with a truck in front of the schools. The truck, in this example, spilled waste containing lead, cyanide, and mercury onto the roadside.

Based on the company’s modeling, it concluded that if this happened, air contamination should not rise to a level that violates state standards for short-term concentrations of these toxins.

“If a truck overturned in front of Lewiston-Porter carrying soil with PCBs, we would be out there, and we would clean it up,” said Caso. “This would really amount to sweeping up the dirt, making sure that nothing was left and then bringing it back.”

There have also been hundreds of spills at or near the landfill in the past two decades, according to state records, including of PCB oil, as well as hazardous waste and leachate, which is a mixture of toxic liquids.

Billion dollar estimate

The company has contributed economically to the community through taxes and fees paid to local communities and the state, as well as wages, and money paid to vendors and contractors, among other payments.

The company estimates the economic impact of the landfill would be about $24.9 million per year, amounting to a total of $1.2 billion, based on a 32-year lifespan.

But those claims were challenged by Dr. Nicolas Rockler, chief executive officer of Kavet, Rockler & Associates, an economic and public policy consulting firm, in a letter submitted to the judge, which was commissioned by the opposition.

The company’s economic report, conducted by accounting firm Bonadio & Co., “fails to provide a credible picture of the proposed landfill’s economic impact,” wrote Rockler.

Absent from the company’s economic estimate is any mention of possible negative impacts, he wrote. This could include a decline in property values and tourism. These costs would have been included in any “credible economic analysis,” he wrote.

Rockler also had concerns about the Bonadio report’s overall methodology.

“Some data appear to be double counted, some are misclassified, some are offered for non-coincident time periods, and certain dollar-value figures have not been adjusted for inflation, rendering time-period comparisons inaccurate and misleading,” he wrote.

The company’s economic report also doesn’t make it clear whether ongoing costs associated with the old landfill, such as its monitoring, have been inaccurately included in costs for the new landfill, wrote Rockler.

There are also concerns that money spent outside of the region were added as local economic impacts and whether the correct time frame for the lifetime of the project was used, wrote Rockler.

“Taken together, these shortcomings are likely to misrepresent the likely economic impacts from the project, and given the environmental risks involved, are worthy of concern,” he wrote.

In response to the criticisms, the company said it is confident in its $1.2 billion estimate.

“We bring a lot to the community, especially to the Town of Porter, because of our host community agreement,” said Caso.

The company would pay the Town of Porter $3 for every ton of waste brought in, with a guaranteed minimum of $200,000 per year.

Bonadio & Co., which wrote the report for CWM, did not respond to requests for comment on the criticisms.

Limited demand for storage

A key argument from the opposition is the landfill is not needed.

A 2015 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency analysis determined there was enough landfill capacity nationally to last until 2034.

The creation of hazardous waste has been on the decline since the late 1990s because of improved technologies and a growing awareness of costs and risks. This reduces the amount that needs landfilling, according to a state report.

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“It doesn’t make sense to locate a new landfill in any location in the United States,” said Witryol. “There isn’t enough hazardous waste to go around.”

Judge O’Connell is expected to rule on what issues related to the landfill can be included in an upcoming state administrative proceeding, including issues raised by opponents. A date for this proceeding has not been scheduled.

Following the hearing, O’Connell will make recommendations to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation and the Siting Board, which will decide if the company is granted the permits and certificate needed to open the new landfill. A decision could come next year.

Judy Boslet, who lives on the same road as the landfill, is hoping the company’s application fails. She remembers truck after truck passing by her house when the landfill was in full swing.

“We’ve had this toxic waste coming into our community for over 40 years,” she said. “Enough is enough.”