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New York’s largest landfill wants to expand, but questions remain over the state’s waste future

The Seneca Meadows landfill rises as a horseshoe-shaped hill in Seneca Falls, NY.
Rebecca Redelmeier
The Seneca Meadows landfill rises as a horseshoe-shaped hill in Seneca Falls, NY. The landfill's current permit expires in 2025.

The road that climbs to the top of the Seneca Meadows landfill is steep and unpaved, muddied by trucks that haul in 6,000 tons of waste each day. The landfill mounds tower high above the Finger Lakes town of Seneca Falls, creating a horseshoe shape visible for miles.

But those trucks could soon be turned away. The future of the state’s largest landfill lies uncertain, with Seneca Meadows’ permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation set to expire next year, when its current capacity will be filled. As Waste Connections, the Texas-based company that operates the site, waits to hear from the DEC about its application to continue to operate and expand, a fight over the landfill has made its way to Albany.

The company has requested to expand the Seneca Meadows landfill to fill in the area in the middle of the horseshoe and allow the site to operate until 2040. Yet, as lawmakers and environmental advocates rally against the proposal, a greater question has emerged — not just over one landfill, but about trash in New York as a whole: where it will go and how it might change in the next decade.

“The point is that we need to be phasing out large landfilling as a practice,” said Anne Rabe, the environmental policy director at the New York Public Interest Research Group, an organization that has been involved in advocacy to close Seneca Meadows. Along with environmental concerns over the landfill’s operations, Rabe added that permitting the landfill to continue to operate would also be in direct contradiction to the state’s waste and emission reduction goals.

In December, the DEC released its first Solid Waste Management Plan in nearly 15 years, aimed at promoting reuse, reducing landfilling, and curbing the climate effects of waste. To Rabe and other advocates, the agency’s decision over Seneca Meadows will demonstrate how seriously it plans to take those goals.

“There's language in the Solid Waste Management Plan acknowledging that we need to prioritize creating and growing a circular economy,” said Assemblymember Anna Kelles, who has called on the DEC to not renew the Seneca Meadows permit. “The first step of that is recognizing that a lot of the things that we send to landfills is only waste because we call it waste.”

A DEC spokesperson said the agency continues aggressive oversight of the Seneca Meadows facility and will host additional opportunities for public comment before any decisions are made about the landfill’s future. The agency reviews each application to ensure its decision is protective of public health and the environment, upholds environmental justice and fairness, and meets all applicable standards, including those related to New York’s climate and sustainability commitments, the spokesperson said.

Seneca Meadows’ application to expand would create 47 acres of new landfill area and add 70 feet in height to the already-existing mounds. That would allow the site to continue to operate for decades as a final stop for municipal waste. Currently, most trash trucked to the site comes from across the state, with one quarter originating from New York City.

The company’s proposal has drawn sharp criticism from environmental advocates. Already, the landfill produces leachate, a kind of chemical-laden wastewater runoff, and it emits greenhouse gasses, which contribute to global warming. Residents in surrounding areas, including members of nearby Cayuga Nation, have said the site is disruptive to their community.

Seneca Meadows, however, said it has the infrastructure to continue to operate under strict environmental rules. It treats the leachate to remove some chemicals, and it captures most of the site’s methane emissions to create landfill gas, a kind of renewable energy.

“In my opinion, New York state should be handling New York state's waste products, we shouldn't have to ship it elsewhere,” said Kyle Black, the local district manager for Waste Connections, who oversees the site. “We have the capabilities, we have the technology, we have the ability to protect the environment, we have the ability to work with our communities and become better stewards of recycling.”

This fight over the site’s future comes as New York is already scrambling to meet the emission reduction commitments laid out in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, an ambitious climate law passed in 2019 that requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. Currently, waste is the fourth-largest contributor to those emissions.

Environmental advocates worry the DEC’s new waste plan fails to outline the tangible steps necessary to reduce waste and associated emissions across the state — and the agency’s track record demonstrates the difficulty of achieving its waste reduction goals.

The state’s previous waste management plan, released in 2010, detailed a plan to cut waste from an average of four pounds per person, per day, towards less than one pound of waste per person, per day by 2030. Yet, according to the agency’s count, the state’s waste output has instead slightly increased in the years since that plan was released.

The potential impact of the new plan remains to be seen. But the DEC’s decision on Seneca Meadows could help demonstrate its commitment to its goals, said Yvonne Taylor, vice president of the group Seneca Lake Guardian, which has been fighting to close the landfill.

“Right now, it's just a piece of paper,” Taylor said of the new plan. “But if they were to close Seneca Meadows when its permit expires in 2025, it would make this plan real.”

In the meantime, it remains unclear where waste trucked to Seneca Meadows would go if the site were to close.

Lawmakers say that bills pending in the state legislature could make a dent in the state’s waste output. Those include a proposal to expand the so-called “bottle bill” to make more beverage containers eligible for recycling at redemption centers and increase the refund amount. Other pending bills would place more requirements on the textile and construction industries to further recycle.

But passing those laws takes time — and changing New York’s culture and infrastructure around reuse and recycling may take even longer. This tension hangs over the decision on Seneca Meadows’ future, and how the state will manage waste down the line.

“It is very difficult to shut down disposal facilities like landfills, hoping that residents and businesses are suddenly going to generate less waste, or recycle more of what they generate,” said David Biderman, former director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. “You run the risk, when you close landfills prematurely, of forcing waste to go to other places.”