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Groups detail opposition to proposed Catskill incinerator ash dump at meeting

Proposal would transport 445,000 tons of toxic ash per year on local roads.

Catskill, NY — More than 200 people packed a community meeting last night at the Catskill Community Center to learn about the threats from a proposed incinerator toxic ash dump in an abandoned quarry in Catskill. This would be the first such use of a quarry in New York State. A diverse coalition supported by more than 50 community and environmental groups organized the meeting and will hold a follow-up organizing meeting on May 3, at 6pm. Because of yesterday’s overflow crowd, organizers are securing a larger venue — likely the high school — than the previously announced Catskill Community Center.

The proposal, by Wheelabrator Technologies, the second largest trash incineration company in the U.S., would create a toxic ash dump in a former quarry in the Town of Catskill near the shore of the Hudson River. The project would involve trucking approximately 445,000 tons of toxic ash per year on local roads — including U.S. Route 9W — through Catskill and surrounding communities. Wheelabrator expects to use the quarry for at least 48 years. Further, the quarry site is made up of highly permeable hydrology, which is known to have extensive drainage systems and springs, adding to the likelihood of toxic ash reaching the Hudson River and groundwater through the leachate – the toxic liquid created when rain and ground-water mixes with the ash. Incinerator ash like that from Wheelabrator incinerators includes high levels of heavy metals and carcinogenic dioxins. The ash poses a significant risk to human and natural communities as well as the entire Hudson River ecosystem.

The ash would come from Wheelabrator’s operating incinerators in Peekskill, Poughkeepsie, and Hudson Falls, New York, which are the largest air polluters in Westchester, Dutchess, and Washington Counties, respectively. Wheelabrator may have the option of bringing in toxic ash from other incinerators too.  

The organizers of and speakers at the meeting called on Catskill Town Supervisor Doreen Davis to protect the Town of Catskill and its neighboring municipalities by opposing Wheelabrator’s proposal. Supervisor Davis has said she will wait for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation to complete its multi-year administrative process before acting, but there is no current application before the DEC. Speakers and participants encouraged Supervisor Davis and the Town Council to act preemptively to protect the water, air, and public health. Supervisor Davis was invited to present at the community meeting, but declined the offer; she was in the audience. Each of the speakers outlined different dangers from locating a toxic ash dump so close to the Hudson River in permeable hydrological features.

The panel included Judith Enck, the former EPA Regional Administrator, Richard Webster, Riverkeeper’s Legal Director, and Dr. David Walker, a geologist and Catskill resident.

“The proposal by Wheelabrator to site a toxic ash dump in the town of Catskill is one of the riskiest projects to be proposed in the Hudson Valley in recent memory,” said Enck. “This is a public health and environmental threat that must be swiftly rejected.  It is important that every elected official in the town of Catskill and village of Catskill inform the public on where they stand on this proposal.”

“A dump for toxic ash in Catskill is a bad idea on multiple levels,” said Webster. “If constructed it would cause water and air pollution, major impacts from trucks, and impede the economic development of the town.”

“There is no good place to site a toxic ash dump, but the Peckham quarry is the worst possible location,” said Walker.

All but one of the questions and comments from the audience expressed concerns or outright opposition to the ash dump. Audience members who spoke included local business and landowners, Catskill residents and residents from neighboring communities, and concerned people from along the Hudson River, including from communities for which the Hudson is their drinking water source.

Background: Wheelabrator converts waste into toxic ash and air pollution. For every 100 tons of trash burned, 30 tons become ash that must be landfilled, and the other 70 tons become air pollution. The three Hudson River Wheelabrator trash incinerators in Peekskill, Poughkeepsie, and Hudson Falls pollute the air with emissions that include dioxins, lead, mercury, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and hundreds of other harmful chemicals. Incinerator pollution has been a point of public contention for decades due to the health risks associated with their pollution. A 2017 study by a New York University professor of environmental medicine found that the Wheelabrator trash incinerator in Baltimore – the same size as their Peekskill facility – releases enough fine particulate matter that this one pollutant alone caused an estimated $55 million in health damage to people across several states, as far away as New York.

The Dirty Truth of Incineration: Wheelabrator claims that they produce “clean” energy, but the truth is much dirtier. Though the phrase “waste-to-energy” sounds nice, it’s a public relations term and not reality. Incinerators cannot literally turn matter into energy, which would violate the laws of physics. They turn trash into toxic ash and toxic air emissions while recovering a small portion of the energy that it took to create the materials being destroyed. Recycling and composting the same materials in the trash saves 3-5 times more energy than incineration can “create.”

Health Risks associated with incineration:

  • People living near a Wheelabrator-owned ash landfill in Massachusetts “experienced higher rates of brain, bladder, and lung cancer than normally expected.”
  • In Europe, a study found that the background level of dangerous – sometimes carcinogenic – pollutants was higher around areas used for incinerator ash disposal.
  • Incinerator ash contains a number of heavy metals, which can cause poisoning if ingested and may pollute surrounding air and water.

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