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Catskill community power stops Wheelabrator’s toxic plan

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Catskill resident and children's author Hudson Talbott moderated a meeting regarding the proposed ash dump at the Catskill Community Center on April 23.
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In April 2018, Riverkeeper got word that Wheelabrator, the second largest trash incineration company in the U.S., was looking at an abandoned quarry in Catskill, NY to site a lined “monofill” of incinerator ash. Since the company seemed to be a year out from applying to the Department of Environmental Conservation, we didn’t take immediate action. During the 2018 summer we put in a FOIL request, but discovered there was little progress.

Hudson Talbott

Catskill resident and children’s author Hudson Talbott addresses the audience at a meeting regarding the proposed ash dump at the Catskill Community Center on April 23. Credit: Jon Phillips

On February 8, 2019, the Catskill Daily Mail published an article on Wheelabrator’s proposal for a toxic incinerator ash dump and a facility to recycle the metals in the ash. It also said that Wheelabrator had presented to the Catskill Village Board of Trustees on Jan. 23 and that Village and Town board members supported the proposal, particularly as a source of revenue.

Filling an abandoned quarry with ash might sound innocuous, but it’s not. Incinerating garbage these days means burning everything from food waste, to petroleum products like plastic, to electronics full of toxins and heavy metals. Burning concentrates existing toxins and creates new ones in the ash — including dioxins, lead, cadmium, mercury, and other toxic metals. Wheelabrator planned to truck, on small local roads, 445,000 tons of this toxic ash annually from its incinerators in Peekskill, Hudson Falls, and Poughkeepsie.

And then they’d dump it into a craggy, shifting quarry lined with a plastic sheet and pretend the liner sufficed to protect the Hudson River — just 2500 feet away at the nearest point — and underground streams and groundwater. As if the threat to the Hudson and its marine inhabitants wasn’t bad enough, seven communities of over 100,000 people rely on drinking water from the Hudson River just downstream of Catskill. Riverkeeper helped them — the City of Poughkeepsie, Village of Rhinebeck, the Towns of Esopus, Hyde Park, Lloyd, Poughkeepsie, and Rhinebeck — organize as the Hudson River Drinking Water Intermunicipal Council. The focus of the council, called the Hudson 7, is to protect Hudson River water quality.

Catskill ash dump

Credit: Jon Phillips

Once the article appeared, local community members, including Judith Enck, former regional EPA director, sounded the alarm about this dangerous project, and asked Riverkeeper to support the fight to stop it.

Our first organizing call on February 14 led to outreach to expand the core organizing group, and a plan that involved weekly calls; meeting with Catskill Town Supervisor Doreen Davis; a sign-on letter urging her to oppose the project and outlining its dangers; developing educational materials; informational and working community meetings; media outreach including a press conference; lining up incineration, geology, hydrology, and hydrogeology local experts; and more.

Fifty-three groups and some 200 individuals signed the letter to Town Supervisor Davis. Nearly 300 people showed up to the first informational meeting at the Catskill Community Center on April 23; more than 85 to the first working meeting at the Catskill First Reformed Church the following week. People were engaged and frustrated and not willing to let Wheelabrator undo all the positive changes they’d fought for in Catskill and the Hudson River.

On May 17 — nearly three months to the day from our first planning call — we heard that Wheelabrator met with at least one Catskill Village trustee to say they no longer wanted to pursue the Catskill site. We had a working meeting planned for that night. By that afternoon word was all over Main Street that Wheelabrator had pulled out — though it took until May 22 for Wheelabrator to issue its official letter to the Town. More than 50 people still showed up at the May 17th, working meeting. On June 12th, the DEC finally confirmed that Wheelabrator withdrew its permit application.

The fight against Wheelabrator coalesced the community and prepared them to tackle Catskill’s solid waste issues and to inform their neighbors about the dangers of the Wheelabrator proposal. Nobody wanted to see Wheelabrator just move to the next town with their toxic ash dump, and everyone at the May 17th meeting committed to help the next town win against Wheelabrator too.

 

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