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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