Seneca Lake Guardian Refuses to be Bullied into Silence By State’s Largest Landfill
On November 18, 2022, a law firm representing Seneca Meadows, Inc, which operates Seneca Meadows landfill and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Waste Connections – sent an 11-page cease & desist letter to Seneca Lake Guardian threatening legal action. The letter is an attempt to bully local advocates into silence and stifle their First Amendment rights to public participation with the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation in a permitting process educating the public about the dangers of Seneca Meadows landfill, and all landfills for that matter, to air and water quality. Seneca Lake Guardian's response is linked here.
Seneca Meadows landfill is the largest of 27 landfills in New York State. It is permitted to accept 6,000 tons of waste per day and produce 75 million gallons of polluted leachate – formed when rainwater filters through waste – annually. A quarter of the garbage going to the landfill - which stands at 30 stories tall – is trash from NYC. The landfill accepts additional waste from 47 counties in NY State, four additional states and Canada. Leachate and wastewater runoff from the landfill contains per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can cause widespread contamination of drinking water and are documented to have harmful health impacts. Of the 75 million gallons of leachate produced annually, less than one-third is treated to remove PFAS and other contaminants. The rest, over 50 million gallons, is trucked, untreated, to Buffalo, Watertown, Chittenango and Steuben County wastewater treatment plants that are not required to test for, and don't have the mechanism for removing the PFAS.The discharges from those plants flow into and potentially contaminate drinking water sources in municipalities across the state. The landfill, which is slated to close in 2025, has requested an expansion that would add another seven stories and an extension allowing them to operate through 2040.
"Seneca Meadows is dumping millions of gallons of leachate containing toxic PFAS into our waterways all across the state, through wastewater treatment facilities that don't have the technology to filter it out. On top of that, it absolutely stinks and the methane emissions are a hindrance to meeting the GHG reduction goals laid out in the Climate Act. These are just facts, as much as Seneca Meadows, Inc. would like the public to believe otherwise. This attempt at intimidation, trying to silence us for speaking on behalf of the community, the environment and the future of our beautiful region is just bullying – plain and simple. We need the Governor to stand with everyday people and not the for-profit company fighting to keep Seneca Meadows open beyond its closure date of 2025," said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian.
"This is not the first time Seneca Lake Guardian has faced the threat of legal action for speaking truth to power - Greenidge tried to pull the same bullying tactics with a baseless threatening letter aimed to silence any criticism about cryptomining. Seneca Lake Guardian will not be threatened - they'll continue to educate the public on the dangers of landfills as is their First Amendment right and protected by New York's Civil Rights Anti-SLAPP law, and they'll continue to urge the relevant government agencies and officials to not allow Seneca Meadows Landfill to continue to operate past 2025," said Attorney Philip H. Gitlen.
"NYPIRG stands with Seneca Lake Guardian against yet another attempt by a powerful corporation to deter civic groups and community members from raising their voices to safeguard public health and the environment," said Anne Rabe, NYPIRG Environmental Policy Director. "Waste Connections has failed to take action to address pollution, including PFAS forever chemicals. The DEC must hold the owner of the largest landfill in the state accountable and protect all New Yorkers by fully implementing the statutory solid waste hierarchy, which prioritizes the reduction, reuse and recycling of solid waste before resorting to landfilling.
Two years ago, New York State expanded First Amendment protections by amending the anti-SLAPP ("Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") law, expanding protections and specifically preventing corporations from bullying residents from speaking out," said Assemblymember Anna Kelles. "The actions by Seneca Meadows fall squarely under the protections laid out in this law. I stand with Seneca Lake Guardian on their First Amendment rights to protect their community and their environment."
In 2020, New York State expanded First Amendment protections by amending the anti-SLAPP ("Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation") law. Sponsored by Senator Brad Hoylman and Assembly Member Helene Weinstein, the law amended the existing statute so that now, "if a defendant's speech or activity falls under the protection of the newly-broadened statute, judges will have the ability to dismiss these cases and require the entity who brought the meritless lawsuit to cover the defendant's legal fees." SLAPP lawsuits are used by powerful individuals or corporations to silence their critics – often community groups or press organizations – under the threat of baseless litigation.
In their cease & desist letter, Seneca Meadows, Inc. claims that because DEC issued operating permits for the landfill, the landfill somehow cannot have an adverse environmental impact. Generally, landfills are one of four major sources of PFAS, and they account for 17 percent of total methane emissions. In the group's response, Seneca Lake Guardian attorney Phil Gitlen writes, "If a NYSDEC permit means that there will be no unacceptable (indeed, disastrous) adverse environmental impacts, there would have been no PCBs in the Hudson River and so-called carcinogenic 'forever chemicals' (e.g., PFAS) wouldn't have been in the Village of Hoosick Falls water supply."
Seneca Meadows, Inc. also alleged that Seneca Lake Guardian committed "defamatory conduct" by saying the landfill is a source of harmful air contaminants and noxious odors. That claim was not even supported by the documents Seneca Meadows, Inc. provided, including one document that detailed "one-hour ambient air sampling conducted on five days in June and July 2018 at two locations...showing concentrations of three compounds classified by DEC as "carcinogens" and Formaldehyde...each of which exceeded the DEC 'Annual Guidance Concentrations.'" Seneca Meadows also pointed to only 350 calls made in a one-year period – or nearly one per day – to their own odor hotline to refute Seneca Lake Guardian's comments about odor – which Seneca Falls residents have long complained about and local businesses have pointed at as the source of their struggle to expand.
Seneca Meadows, Inc. also took issue with Seneca Lake Guardian's comments about the 75 million gallons of PFAS-laden leachate produced annually. One-third of that leachate is treated locally, and in their letter, Seneca Meadows, Inc. fails to mention, as Gitlen writes, "that most of the leachate sent off-site is untreated, that at least some of the facilities to which it is transported do not provide treatment that can effectively remove all of the expected landfill leachate contaminants, and discharge these landfill leachate contaminants to waters that are used as a source of drinking water."
Seneca Meadows, Inc. also alleged that Seneca Lake Guardian's comments about the methane emissions produced by the landfill were defamatory. While they did not deny the landfill cannot process all the methane it emits, Gitlen writes, "It seems that your client's real gripe isn't that there aren't methane emissions from the landfill, but that Seneca Lake Guardian has failed to pat your client on the back for the steps it is required to take to mitigate, but not eliminate, the effects of those emissions."
The Seneca Meadows landfill, located in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of American Women's Rights, is the largest of 27 landfills in New York State. It is permitted to accept 6,000 tons of waste and produce up to 200,000 gallons of polluted leachate – formed when rainwater filters through waste – per day. A quarter of the landfill – which stands at 30 stories tall – is trash from NYC, followed by four other states.
Seneca Meadows was previously required to stop receiving waste and halt operations by December 31, 2025. However, Waste Connections, the Texas based parent company of Seneca Meadows Inc., spent around $200,000 in 2021 promoting pro-landfill candidates who won seats in Town Board and County races and are now supporting the Valley Infill, SMI's planned seven-story high expansion. The expansion would keep the landfill operating through 2040 with allowable dumping on the Valley Infill (the former toxic Tantalo superfund site), rising another 70 feet into the viewscape. Even with the planned closure in 2025, the mountain of garbage promises years of problems and remediation that could take generations to mitigate.
Leachate and wastewater runoff from the landfill contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which can cause widespread contamination of drinking water and harmful health impacts. Landfills are one of four major sources of PFAS, and landfills account for 17 percent of total methane emissions.
SMI is located two miles from Cayuga-Seneca Canal and three miles from every school in Seneca Falls and Waterloo, potentially exposing students to airborne particulates and unseen gasses known to contribute to respiratory illness, asthma, and migraine headaches. The landfill cannot process all of the methane that is generated and is forced to burn almost a billion cubic feet per year in 5 flares, contributing to climate change.
SMI is harming the Finger Lakes' natural resources that have led to the region being under consideration for a National Heritage Area Designation, and which the $3 billion, 60,000-employee wine and agritourism economy relies on. The odor from the landfill can be smelled from miles away, including at Thruway exit 41, the northern gateway to the Finger Lakes. Large, sustainable employers in the area are finding it difficult to recruit and retain employees, because nobody wants to raise a family near a dangerous landfill.
SMI's expansion is also at odds with the overwhelmingly popular amendment to the New York state constitution passed last year, which guarantees every New Yorker the right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment.
Seneca Lake Guardian is a New York State Not-for-Profit Corporation with 501(c)(3) and is dedicated to preserving and protecting the health of the Finger Lakes, its residents and visitors, its rural community character, and its agricultural and tourist related businesses through public education, citizen participation, engagement with decision makers, and networking with like-minded organizations.