Tales From Trash Country: Let Me Set Up This Incinerator Real Quick

“As I made my way back across the dark parking lot, this thought had solidified in my mind: we need to stop focusing on what to do with the massive mountains of reeking filth that other people dump on us. We need to focus instead on curtailing the creation of that garbage in the first place.”

A report from Joe DiCicco

Seneca Lake (photo by Peter Stergion CC-BY-SA-4.0)

A fire hall at the end of a long drive down dark country road sets the scene. It’s not even 6:30 but already it’s dark. Such is late autumn in Upstate New York. Romulus, New York, to be exact, in the heart of the Finger Lakes. A tiny little hamlet with a school, a couple churches, plenty of open farmland. I don’t think there’s even a convenience store anymore. Unfortunately, the setting is all too familiar. It is this rural location that sticks out like a sore thumb, a bull’s eye, a target, to predatory corporate interests.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.

As I pull into the parking lot of the Romulus Fire Department, I see it’s nearly full with colossal diesel pick up trucks; another tell-tale sign. As I park my car and make my way inside, I pass by a tall man, perhaps in his fifties, smoking a cigarette and glaring daggers at me. I’m not surprised. I’m known in these parts by some as a sort of speaker of truth who hits all the points. By others as a commie/liberal/un-American writer. A meddlesome writer, with, according to some, some sort of hidden agenda. Whatever that means. This particular gentleman wore a blaze orange hoody, the words printed on which I couldn’t quite make out in the darkness. It would become apparent which of the two opposites this gentleman likely saw me the moment I walked into the bright florescent lights of the fire hall.

A sea of blaze orange. Forty or more men, and a few women, taking up the first three or four rows of metal folding chairs placed in the hall. It wasn’t quite 6:30, and the meeting did not begin until 7. They must have been the first ones to there.

IBEW their sweatshirts read. Made in America.

A local electrician’s union. I nodded. It made sense.

They had, in all likelihood, been instructed by their supervisor to show up in force, to show their support for the project (of which I’ll get to in just a moment), to display how the region needs jobs, and of their willingness to take them. The proposed facility would need electrical run, and these electricians were just the ones to do it.

This is, of course, taken from the corporate playbook. Infiltrating A Community 100: All the Basics. Go to a rural community with a high unemployment rate (in this case, the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY, which is quickly becoming known as trash country) and dangle jobs over people’s heads. Construction jobs. Electrician jobs. Get these hopefuls to show up to these meetings, it all helps the end goal of the outside interest.

You want to put food in your baby’s belly? Well, these local yokels want to take that food right out of your baby’s mouth. You’re going to have to protect your family.

The thought turned my stomach that evening, and it turns my stomach now. The way these moneyed interests manipulate populations is simply perverse.

Seven o’ clock came around and over 200 people had packed into the fire hall (as always, there should have been three times that number). It was about what I had expected. It was meant to be a regular meeting of the Romulus Town Board, but this proposed facility was given the spotlight. A lawyer representing the company, Circular EnerG LLC, began with what was to be expected; a slide show presentation and a picture painted of a facility and industrial jobs package that sounded too good to be true. Plenty of buzzwords. Plenty of promises of “I’ve worked with numerous facilities like these before, folks, and let me tell you, they really are something special!”

The proposal, of course, is to build a garbage incineration facility that would accept refuse from all over the northeastern United States, by truck and by rail, to be burnt on-site and converted to energy. The proposed location for the facility is on a former army storage depot smack dab between the two largest of the Finger Lakes; Seneca and Cayuga. The facility would accept some 2,600 tons of other people’s garbage every single day.

After the lawyer spoke, a couple different environmental engineers, hired by Circular EnerG, took the mic and spoke briefly about the inner-workings of such a facility. I found it just a bit strange that a representative of the company itself was not in attendance; just its lawyer and sub-contracted engineers. Very little is known about the company itself. It’s a young company, having been in existence for only around two years, and apparently has an office in Rochester, about an hour away. I had difficulty finding any information at all about this company. I found sites for a Circular Energy with a ‘Y’, but the presentations, and indeed all the information about this company thus far spell it with only a capitalized ‘G’. In fact, the only information I have been able to locate on this company comes from the local news articles describing the proposed project.

Another neon-red flag.

This proposal is, unfortunately, just the latest in a long line of attacks on the Finger Lakes region of New York, some four hours northwest of the city. A region that for many years worked hard to brand itself as wine country, a land of beautiful rolling hills and numerous freshwater lakes. It would seem, however, that other interests are set on making the region the trash capital of New York State, and possibly even the northeast. The Seneca Meadows privately-owned, for-profit mega-landfill exists a mere fifteen minutes up the road from where this proposed incineration facility would stand. Seneca Meadows is by far the largest landfill in the state, and one of the largest in the northeast. It already accepts 6,000 tons of rotting filth a day, from numerous other northeastern states and even Canada, and stockpiles it just north of the villages of Waterloo and Seneca Falls. Now, if this proposed incineration facility was aiming to shut down the landfill, maybe even begin moving some of the mountains of trash from it to be incinerated, I may be more inclined to consider.

But it’s not.

It is a separate entity from Seneca Meadows, entirely. And it is simply another artery to bring in other people’s filth into the Finger Lakes. And the people here are up to their necks in it already.

I looked up from my notes, sitting roughly in the center of the crowded fire hall. The engineer currently speaking was telling how the facility would use some 450,000 gallons of water from Seneca Lake every single day. This water would be used to cool incinerator machinery before being returned to the lake much warmer than it had previously been. Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest of the ancient glacial lakes that make up the Finger Lakes, is already under far too much stress. Numerous wineries, farms, and at least one power plant all discharge into her waters. Harmful Algae Blooms, or HABs, have become a serious threat in recent years. These are growths of blue-green algae known to be quite harmful to humans and wildlife. They occur due to nutrient loading into the lake, as well as warmer and warmer water being discharged back into the lake, thus promoting the growth.

Simply put, our lake cannot take anymore. She’s at the breaking point.

“Any true environmentalist should support this facility.” The lawyer finished up the presentation with. I scowled. The guy likely didn’t know the first thing about being a true environmentalist.

Indeed, proponents for the facility point out how many Europeans nations and Japan are already incinerating their garbage, as opposed to wholesale dumping it in populated areas. This is true, and in their case, it is a far more efficient and sustainable practice. That’s because they don’t create waste like we, as Americans, do. They practice recycling, composting, and reuse to a far more stringent level. Many companies operating in these nations are required, by law, to buy back the packaging they use in their products, discouraging excess use. Incineration is then the final step to deal with the very minimal bare ones, if you will, of what remains. They do not allow their citizens to simply create as much waste as their hearts desire, and then propose to incinerate it. They are not handling anywhere near the volume we would be at this proposed facility in Romulus, New York.

We filed out of the fire hall at eight o’ clock, about an hour after the presentation began. They do like to keep these things short and sweet. And my mind had been made up. I believed exiting this presentation even more strongly than I did entering it, that garbage is not the answer. As I made my way back across the dark parking lot, this thought had solidified in my mind: we need to stop focusing on what to do with the massive mountains of reeking filth that other people dump on us. We need to focus instead on curtailing the creation of that garbage in the first place. Once we have put into place stringent recycling, reuse and composting initiatives, and in the communities where the waste is coming from, only then can we consider the incineration of the minimal amount remaining. And I know many others in attendance at that fire hall agree. As I reached my car, I overheard an elderly woman exiting the hall behind me speak clearly into the cold early-December air:

“The Finger Lakes wants out of the trash business!”

Joe DiCicco

Joe DiCicco is an author of horror fiction as well as environmental issues. He holds a degree in Environmental Conservation and will choose people and Mother Earth over corporate profits, every time.

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Far From Paris…But A Climate Summit, All The Same

IT WAS ONE DAY after the worst snowstorm the Finger Lakes had seen all winter. Four feet of the white stuff, already beginning to melt on the sidewalks and roadsides as I made my way into the lobby of a local high school. Honestly, I did not know what to expect from the climate summit, especially one being held in such a rural area. But as soon as I made my way into the lobby, I knew I had made the right choice in coming.

Several booths had been set up, one from the Cornell Cooperative Extension, another from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, these offering troves of information on climatological science and how climate change in impacting the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. This particular summit had been sponsored by the Mynderse Academy (the high school it was being held at) Science Department, and included speakers from Cornell University, and the Museum of Earth, out of Ithaca, New York.

I signed in at a student-run booth (the young lady appearing just a bit surprised that I was a concerned community member and not associated with any university or organization) and made my way into the auditorium. I took a moment to get seated and marvel at how nice the school was, having a sizeable and dedicated auditorium. After all, the high school I went to didn’t have doors on the stalls in the restrooms, let alone an actual auditorium. High school was a while ago for me, but I seem to remember any sort of student assembly being held in the gym. Maybe I’m getting crotchety in my old age, but I couldn’t help but muse at how spoiled these kids today must be, with their high schools with actual auditoriums. What’s next? Doors on the stalls in the restrooms?

The auditorium filled up quick, with guests from all over the region. I noticed other members of the community in attendance, as well as local town and city politicians (not nearly enough of these). It being a school day, the students of the high school were required to attend the summit, and I could not help but wonder if they realized just how fortunate they were to be receiving this information at such a young age.

Things started off with Dr. Duggan-Haas, from the Paleontological Research Institution at the Museum of Earth, in Ithaca. Dr. Duggan-Haas immediately informed the crowd that climate change is indeed real, and it is indeed caused by us, humans. I would be lying if I did not say that the information was damning.

The take-away from Dr. Duggan-Hass’ speech came down to the fact that humanity is simply consuming too much energy, and that, if we are to have any sort of sustainable future on our planet Earth, we need desperately to curtail our hunger for it. Less usage is key.

One crucial point that was made was the fact that, for example, hydraulic-fracturing (the process of injecting chemical-laden water at extremely high pressure into the ground to breakup shale deposits and thus release the natural gas) is indeed highly destructive to our planet, but so are all methods of mass energy consumption. It became apparent there is a conundrum here, far more complex than simply trying to live green, or find some quick-fix we can all do to set things right. Fossil fuels are the energy source we strive to move away from, while at the same time allowing more sustainable sources to exist.

Basically, green energy requires fossil fuel in some form to be practical, whether that be the creations of materials in solar panels or wind turbines, or the power needed for them to begin collecting sunlight or wind in the first place.

Now that doesn’t mean I’m anti-renewable energy. Quite the contrary. I believe we, as a human race, need desperately to invest in these sustainable alternatives to coal and oil and gas. But that’s only half the battle. The other half is simply reducing our overall consumption of energy, which leads me to my next point.

We can, all of us, make small changes in our daily lives to use less. Take shorter showers, turn off lights when not in use, recycle as much as we possibly can. Problem is, these minor changes in the day-to-day lives of the average human being are small potatoes in comparison to the megalithic hyper-consumption by corporate entities. So long as these private companies are allowed to, quite plainly, rape our Mother Earth for profit, little will change. This system of abject capitalism for the sheer sack of it is blowing through our planet’s natural resources at an utterly unsustainable rate.

International policy is needed to change this. Strict guidelines set forth to ensure Mother Earth’s precious resources exist for generations to come. But therein lies yet another conundrum; seeing to it that various world governments obey said guidelines. Good faith is not enough. It is imperative that any such climate guidelines put forth are followed to the letter. But then we run into the question of just who is tasked with enforcement of such a global climate treaty. The United States? Have we not acted as world police for long enough? And that’s assuming we would bother to try enforcement of such rules in the first place. The corporate culture and wanton capitalism that is inherently American would beg to disagree.

After several speakers, all with poignant information to share, the students were allowed to go home for the day, as it was after 2 o’clock by this point, or stay to learn more if they wished. I was not surprised to see nearly all of them decided to leave, and I don’t blame them. I’m sure I would have done the same when I was fifteen or sixteen. The remaining audience was then allowed to explore several different workshops located in various classrooms throughout the school. Composting, recycling, vermiculture, as well as the social cost of energy mass-consumption were all topics covered.

One very important issue that was touched upon was the difference between climate and weather, and it is a distinction I’m afraid most people are unaware of. Weather is what’s happening in your neck of the woods over a brief period; hours, days, weeks. Climate is what that weather tends to do over a more extended period; at least thirty years. This is a distinction people need to realize.

What is important is the global temperature average, not the wind chill in Pisswater, Okiedokie. Just because it’s cold outside where you are, does not mean the global temperature is not rising. 2016 was the warmest year on record, beating out 2015, which in turn beat out 2014. The Earth’s average temperature has been rising steadily since the early twentieth century, and exponentially since around 1980. And that is information from the Earth Observatory at NASA, which can be found here.

Like I said, the information is there, and it’s damning.

Walking out into the parking lot after the summit had ended, I could not help but be impressed. The information is desperately needed the world over, but especially in small towns and counties, where people may be more resistant to the facts. The professional data presented was university-level, not to mention free and open to the public. Far more people should have attended than did, but it’s a start. Like I said, it was refreshing to see such information presented in this small community. Hopefully we will see many more such summits and forums in cities and towns across the country, and the world. One can only hope

Yet how do we, as people who truly want to make a change, manage to get an actual dialogue with fellow community members, some of whom may be unwilling to listen?

This was yet another issue brought up at the summit, and I believe it is one of the most crucial of all:

We need to make it personal.

We need to connect the information to observable facts people can relate to. The trees blossoming earlier each year. The summers getting hotter and more humid. Certain crops not fairing as well as they used to. These are all things people can see, things they can understand. When you begin spewing numbers and trite data, most people are going to shut down. If they can’t understand it, or believe it has importance in their life, chances are they won’t listen. There is a decent possibility they may even become angry, feeling intimidated. But if we can give them something they can relate to, they may begin to see. Maybe all at once, maybe piece by piece. But they will begin to see.

It’s a small start, but it is a start. Talk to people around you, give them examples. Doing our part to use less is great, and it is crucial. But education is just as important. If we can spread the information, each of us doing our part, then that person will eventually spread the information on to someone else.

We have already passed a tipping-point, where what’s done is done. We are now living on an Earth with a certain amount of damage that cannot be reversed, not for many, many years. But what we can do is stop the damage from spreading further.

Joe DiCicco

Joe DiCicco is a writer from New York. He writes mostly fiction, but has recently begun delving into issues of environmental and social importance. He holds a degree in Natural Resources Conservation.

Joe DiCicco has a piece in the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance. All issues, along with Pagan Anarchism and A Pagan Anti-Capitalist Primer, are now available together as a digital download for $20 US. Or order them in print here.