Tensions between county, town of Ellery erupt at Chautauqua County landfill

Many people throw away their trash without considering where “away” really is. For Chautauquans, “away” is across the lake in the town of Ellery, where all the nonhazardous solid waste produced in Chautauqua County is collected and decomposed in the Chautauqua County Landfill.

But for some of the residents of Ellery, “away” is, of course, right in their backyards. For this reason, Ellery Town Supervisor Arden Johnson is opposed to a proposed landfill expansion, and said the landfill already poses risks to the health and natural environments of those who live near it. Expanding its size will only magnify these risks, she said.

“It certainly isn’t fair to the people who live in that area to have a landfill in their backyard,” Johnson said. “We certainly want to protect the people from all waste, dust and noise pollution, keep the town in order and promote safety and a healthy, clean, attractive environment for our residents.”

Pantelis K. Panteli, the deputy director of public facilities for Chautauqua County, said the expansion is necessary to provide enough space for the waste produced by the county.

Additionally, the expansion will not create any additional negative environmental or health impacts, but if the county does not expand it, it will have to ship its waste to other landfills, costing taxpayers more money, he said.

The landfill stands out because it also accepts waste from surrounding communities, including Erie, Pennsylvania, and Cattaraugus, Erie and Niagara counties in New York.

The county made this decision in 1996 so residents would not have to pay for the landfill’s costs in taxes, Panteli said.

“Because economies of scale improve the cost, our choice was either to increase the price for all our residents and not take waste from the outside, or secure our county waste with other counties’ wastes in order to be affordable,” he said.

Nonetheless, Johnson is proposing a local law called the Solid Waste Management Facility Law, which would ban the construction and operation of new solid waste management facilities in Ellery. It also includes an anti-fracking waste clause, prohibiting the storage of fracking waste at the landfill site, which would likely come from Pennsylvania where the extraction method is legal.

“We’ve heard there’s been fracking waste going into the landfill east of us, and we certainly don’t want that here if we can prevent it,” Johnson said.

The town performed independent studies of the environmental impacts of the landfill expansion. It determined seismic activity was a potential risk, as the expansion would place the landfill next to a fault line that was active in the 1990s.

“I’m not an environmentalist — and I don’t pretend to be — but we’ve hired people that have looked into it, some of whom are environmentalists,” Johnson said. “We’re doing all this for the good of the people in the town of Ellery.”

George Spanos, the director of the department of public facilities in Chautauqua County, said he is skeptical that Johnson’s worries reflect the beliefs of the entire town.

“Personally, I do not believe the town’s elected officials are concerned about the items they mention in the news,” he said. “I think they’re concerned with how they’re going to get financial benefits from the landfill. That’s what their call has been, that the county pay the town of Ellery hosting fees.”

Johnson said the town has lost more than $300,000 in tax revenue from the landfill property owned by the county, and that this landfill is the only one in the state where the county does not pay the town hosting fees.

“It they just took in-county garbage, the landfill would last forever,” he said. “But if you keep bringing in thousands of tons a year, it’s going to fill up.”

But Spanos said everyone in the county is made better off by the landfill, as transporting the waste somewhere else would cost $40 to $45 per ton plus $35 per ton in disposal fees.

“Like every other resident in Chautauqua County, the residents of Ellery benefit from having a low disposal fee,” he said.

If the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation approves the expansion, it will occur in multiple stages, the first of which will begin next summer and conclude in September 2017, Panteli said. The county does everything it can to manage the landfill in a way that is environmentally and economically responsible, he said, citing the naturally produced methane gas it collects from the decomposition of the waste and distributes to the energy grid for the county.

The landfill is inspected at least once a week by the DEC, and the records of those inspections can be found in the regional DEC office in Buffalo, New York, Panteli said. They are also copied to the town of Ellery.

Additionally, he recognized that the expansion project will only occur assuming no new technology emerges in the field of waste storage or reduction.

“If a better alternative for our waste comes out 10 years from now, we’ll go in that route and won’t complete the next stage of expansion,” Panteli said. “Or if people would recycle and compost everything, then we wouldn’t be needed over here. But people generate waste, and they don’t want it in their backyards and garages. And somebody needs to take it.”