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Ewww, That Smell . . .

Area residents complain of stink, as public hearing about Albany’s landfill stirs the pot


Controversy about the future of Albany’s landfill resurfaced during a public hearing Feb. 21, as residents from throughout the region criticized the city’s trash operations and its latest proposal for expanding the existing Rapp Road dump. The hearing was held as part of a mandatory public-comment period that allows individuals a chance to provide feedback about the city’s scope environmental impact study, a document that summarizes what will later be included in the full EIS. Many, however, used the meeting as an opportunity to air continued grievances, especially about the noxious smell they say emanates from the site.

“During the last few years, the dump odor from the Albany landfill has gotten worse and worse,” said Tom Ellis, cofounder and co-chair of the board of directors for Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. “And, really, nothing has been done.”

The city’s scope EIS, however, only grazed the air-quality and odor issues associated with the existing dump and the potential effects of expansion, Ellis said.

“[The scope EIS] only had a couple of sentences about dump odors,” Ellis said. “It said that dump odors have been a problem in the past. Technically that’s a correct statement, but it’s deliberately misleading because it would lead you to think that this was a problem in the past and it’s not really a problem right now.”

The scope EIS generally can be thought of as the table of contents for the final impact study, which will describe and analyze the impacts of expansion, that the city will submit to the DEC, said environmental attorney David Brennan.

Brennan has been retained by the village of Colonie to advise the village on matters regarding the proposed Albany dump expansion. If approved, the expansion project would bring the active dump site slightly closer to the village, where the mayor and residents already report the need to pinch their noses.

“The village is highly concerned about the odor problem that exists today, that has existed for years at this point, and seems to be not being fixed,” Brennan said. He agreed that the city inadequately addressed the odor issue in its scoping document and said that he submitted comment to the DEC about the need for more detailed analysis about the chemical composition of the smell and its potential affects on human health.

“Another issue that we’re focusing on is that the economic impacts, as well as potential impacts to property values, should be studied as part of this document,” Brennan said. “Maybe the landfill’s existence itself doesn’t affect property values if it’s far enough away, but it’s hard to sell your home when you have an open house and people have to smell what’s going on outside. That’s a big concern of the village.”

Reports of stink caused by the landfill also have been reported by residents in Albany, Guilderland, and the Town of Colonie, Ellis said.

“I’ve seen DEC logs [of calls complaining about the smell], and I doubt if they’re complete, but they go on for page after page,” Ellis said. “Albany has demonstrated with increasing proof over the last several years that they are incompetent to manage a landfill. They cannot control the odors.”

Part of the problem, according to Ellis, is that dollar signs are clouding the eyes of officials in Albany. The city receives millions of dollars in income by accepting trash from private haulers and other communities. At the current filling rate, Albany officials estimate that the Rapp Road dump will be full by 2009. The proposed expansion, which calls for adding 15 acres east of the current active site, would extend the life of the landfill to around 2019.

The city’s scope EIS makes mention of alternatives to the dump expansion, including alternative expansion scenarios or utilizing a different site. These alternatives, Ellis said, only scratch the surface of possibilities and fail to take into account the real problem: Albany’s trash business is bringing in more trash than the city can properly manage.

“We need a full explanation and study of alternatives to the landfill [expansion],” Brennan added.

The DEC closed public comment about Albany’s scope EIS Feb. 23. Brennan expected that a final scope document would be produced sometime within the next month or two. “From there, the city has to prepare its impact statement, and that timeline is driven solely by the city’s ability to complete the work,” he said. Once the DEC accepts the city’s EIS as complete, the document will be put up for public review, likely sometime in the summer, Brennan said.

—Nicole Klaas

What a Week

Me and Strom Go Way Back

The Rev. Al Sharpton received quite a shock Sunday when he learned that genealogists claim that he is descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. Thurmond, who died in 2003 at the age of 100, ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist ticket. “Nothing—nothing—could prepare me for this,” Sharpton said of the findings, published in the New York Daily News. Sharpton said that he met Thurmond only once and described the meeting as “awkward.”

Forever, and Ever, and Ever

No surprise here: Postage rates may be hiked again soon. Included in the newest increase plan, however, is the introduction of a “forever” stamp. The permanent stamp would sell at the same price as first-class postage at the time of purchase, but it would show no denomination and could be used indefinitely. The proposed changes will now go to the United States Post Office Board of Governors, and if OKed, the new rates could begin as soon as May.

No. 7 With Rat Droppings, Please

An independent TV-news cameraman created a tizzy in New York’s Greenwich Village Friday when he discovered an infestation of rats running through a KFC-Taco Bell. Rafael Garcia’s footage captures at least a dozen rats racing around the floor and sniffing for food. “There were enough creatures in that room that they could have devoured a human being,” Garcia is quoted as saying in a report in the Los Angeles Times. By midday Friday, the health department was onsite and had posted a sign that read: “CLOSED.”

Out to Get Him

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide attack that targeted Vice President Dick Cheney at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. “I heard a loud boom,” Cheney has been reported as saying, when a suicide bomber detonated his charge at a security checkpoint at the base’s entrance. Early reports placed the number of casualties at 23. The attack points to a possible intelligence breach, as Cheney, who was in Afghanistan to visit with the country’s beleaguered President Hamid Karzai, was scheduled to fly out of Bagram the night before the attack but was grounded due to bad weather.

Defender on the Defensive

Nominee for head legal counsel to the poor in Albany County draws concern from local watchdogs

On Feb. 23, the Law Committee of the Albany County Legislature voted to recommend County Executive Michael Breslin’s nomination of Peter Torncello as head of the Albany County Public Defender’s Office. As a result, the Legislature will vote March 12 whether to appoint Torncello to the office.

Albany County Legislator Shawn Morse (18th District) abstained from the vote, citing his concerns with the confirmation process.

“I saw the name on there a few days before the meeting,” Morse said, “and I don’t know who the person is. And I am supposed to vote on the person with nothing more than ‘this is my name, this is my resume?’ I want to have the time to formulate questions that pertain to the person, his job, and his qualifications.”

Although Torncello came highly recommended for the position by Breslin, a number of local officials have expressed their concern over the appointment. The common thread in their objections to Torncello is that he was fired in 2005 from his position as an Albany assistant district attorney by District Attorney David Soares, who said Torncello botched a case involving a 16-year-old girl who allegedly had been kidnapped and sexually assaulted by a trucker.

Melanie Trimble, the executive director of the Capital Region chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed her concerns about Torncello at the Feb. 23 meeting. “We do not feel Peter Torncello is a good candidate because he was fired from the DA’s office for cause,” said Trimble.

Albany Common Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3) echoed Trimble’s sentiments: “I don’t understand. How does he go from being dismissed for not doing his job to now being in charge of the public defender’s office?” Ellis also said that he has spoken to a woman who was abused by her spouse and who says she was treated poorly by Torncello. The woman, at this point in time, wishes to remain anonymous.

Dr. Alice Green of the Center of Law and Justice said her organization has also been approached with concerns about Torncello’s record.

Torncello did not return calls in time for this article.

Trimble said the NYCLU received some complaints about Torncello during his time as assistant district attorney, but did not follow up on them because he was soon fired.

“I’ve not heard anything like that,” said Breslin. “I am sure whatever was the cause for Mr. Torncello leaving the DA’s office is not going to be in any way reflective of the conduct of Peter or the DA. And I am sure that is not going to be a problem.”

The district attorney’s office declined to comment.

Others have complained that a thorough, nationwide search was not conducted, and that qualified individuals who already work for the public defender’s office were overlooked. However, Albany County Legislator (and law-committee head) Paul Collins said he was confident a thorough search was indeed conducted. “It was a very thorough search. It met the parameters of the search. It was posted on the National Defenders’ Web site and various newspapers throughout the state. Peter Torncello is a very experienced, able criminal lawyer.”

Trimble said she sees Torncello’s appointment as an insult in light of recent reports by the Indigent Defense Commission indicating that the entire indigent defense system of New York state needs revamping.

Collins said that Torncello should be given a chance to bring his visions to the office.

“I am satisfied that Peter is a young man with a vision who is able to do this job,” Collins said. “There is no point in talking about how the office was run when Peter wasn’t the public defender’s office. We will give him three months, and then he will make recommendations. And I think it is fair that we let him figure out who is who, what is what and who is on first.”

Although Morse said he is not aware of any flaws Torncello might have, he said the confirmation process as it is would not allow him to find the good or bad. “I don’t want to be a rubber stamp,” said Morse. “This is politics as usual where you just appoint who you like and when it fails everybody just points fingers.”

—David King

Who wants to agitate? Environmental advocates discuss new bottle bill.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

A Bigger, Better Bottle Debate

Advocates join the new governor’s push for an expansion of bottle deposits

Silas Shaw was reluctant to em -brace his role as a “dancing nickel,” even as his father Chris Shaw, a dancing nickel himself, tried to coax him into it. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do,” Rennsalear resident Mary Lynch assured the boy. Silas’ lack of enthusiasm was in contrast to the animation of the small group of environmentalists gathered for the press conference Saturday (Feb. 24) at Troy’s First United Presbyterian Church.

Advocates from the New York Public Interest Research Group, Citizen’s Environmental Coalition and the New York Farm Bureau were gathered in support of Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s Bigger, Better Bottle Bill, to urge Sen. Joseph Bruno (R-Brunswick) to help the bill through the state Legislature.

Holding up a 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi in one hand and a bottle of iced tea in the other, NYPIRG senior associate Laura Haight pointed out to the crowd, “It makes no sense that this bottle gets recycled because it has bubbles, and this one becomes litter because it doesn’t.”

Haight said the bill would expand the current bottle law by placing $.05 deposits on all beverages that don’t presently have one—namely, noncarbonated drinks. Because the current law was implemented in 1982, before bottled water, juice, and sports drinks were widely consumed, it does not include these noncarbonated beverages. Nowadays, these drinks make up nearly a quarter of all beverages sold.

“It’s been 25 years since the original bill was passed,” said Steve Breyman, executive director of the Citizen’s Environmental Coalition. “Our deposit system needs to reflect the new beverages we are consuming and generally not recycling.”

The Bigger, Better Bottle Bill also would require the beverage industry to return all unclaimed deposits to the state, helping to finance recycling projects and programs like the Environmental Protection Fund. Currently, the companies keep the unclaimed deposits—an estimated profit of $85 million to $140 million a year.

According to New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform—a coalition of state grocers and other businesses—the Bigger, Better Bottle Bill will put a “tax” on bottles, making recycling less effective.

“The bottle law is inefficient,” said James Rogers, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York and member of New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform. “It is an unnecessary step to require customers to bring back recyclables to the store, instead of putting them at the end of their driveway.”

Rogers said the bill will hurt the economy by taxing as much as $.15 cents per bottle—causing a decrease in sales—mostly because beverage companies will increase their prices to offset the loss of unredeemed deposits. Companies currently use the unredeemed money to pay for the handling fee of recycled bottles, but under the new law, this would be returned to the state. Rogers also claimed the bill will do nothing to boost the amount of recycling being done, as beverages consumed in public will not be recycled, and senior citizens already have a hard time returning bottles to be redeemed.

“It’s a misnomer to call this a tax,” Breyman argued. “It’s a deposit one pays temporarily. Once you return the used bottle, you get your nickel back.” Plus, he said, the bill won’t harm curbside recycling, but will work with current programs to enhance overall success.

“We need this bill to fund additional environmental protection,” asserted Breyman. “We need it to keep litter out of our farm fields and hometowns, and to divert materials from our landfills.”

A far as criticism from New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, Haight calls it “not credible.”

“They’re an industry front group,” she said. “Every credible recycling group in New York state—those that do the recycling—support this proposal.”

—Jeannielle Ramirez

Working on the inside now: Blair Horner.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Letting in the Sunlight

After nearly three decades of good-government advocacy, the advocate adopts a new approach

It is a fresh workday for Blair Hor ner. Starting the first Monday of this month, Horner, who has made a living as a constant critic of state government for the past 27 years with New York Public Interest Research Group, starts his new job—in state government.

Sitting in his sparse office at the NYPIRG headquarters on Washington Avenue, Horner looked back over the years.

“We did this march across the state,” Horner said, recalling the 1982 bottle-bill campaign. “It started in April. We were walking from Montauk to Albany. I was organizing the Long Island part of the walk. It was April, so we were expecting rain, but it was sunny. But the second day is just started pouring rain. And then a major snowstorm hit. And I am walking from somewhere in Suffolk County to the Queens border every single day, and it is just snowing like crazy. And then Queens comes, my part of the walk is over, and what happens? Sunlight and warmth.”

He laughed, and put up his hands as though to say, ‘No one ever said grassroots campaigning would be easy.’ But the campaign was a success, he added, one of the first major successes of his long career.

Now Horner will be moving on, having accepted the position of special adviser on policy and public integrity in the attorney general’s office. This isn’t the first job offer inside government that Horner has gotten, he said, but it is the mission of Project Sunlight that convinced him this time to take the plunge.

Project Sunlight is an idea that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo campaigned on and brought with him to the Capitol. According to the attorney general’s office, Project Sunlight will establish a database, expanding the public’s ability to police their elected officials. The idea is simple: Take information about politicians that currently exists and can be found on the Internet, and bring it together under one, easily navigated Web site. The information will detail the voting records of elected officials, and which financial backers are supporting these politicians.

“I think it is the discreteness of the project itself,” Horner said, about what attracted him to the new position. “The primary goal is to get this database up. And I am not there ’cause of my technological skills, ’cause I am over 50, therefore I don’t have any, right?” What Horner will bring to the project is his understanding of how government works, to shape how the database should look and function.

“In addition, there will be policy stuff that will come out of that,” Horner said. “There will be public-integrity issues that I will help the attorney general’s office on, but it is pretty much a focused, semi-autonomous type of project that I am starting from scratch.”

The challenge of starting a new project is daunting, he said. Everything still needs ironing out, he doesn’t know how many people will be working on the project or where it will be housed, and there is no real path to follow. As far as he knows, this kind of project hasn’t been undertaken by a state government anywhere in the country. All of this appeals to Horner.

“It doesn’t feel like I am just being put into big machine. This is something that is specific, that matches up with where my interests are,” he said. “If I get involved with it, I think I can help.”

“I have advocated for things like this in the past, and here is the chance to make it happen,” he continued. “I believe that in a democracy, if you think you can help, you should. I don’t know what will happen once I get it running. I doubt I will be with the attorney general as long as I have been with NYPIRG.”

Cuomo has reported that nearly $700,000 will be budgeted for Project Sunlight. Horner will be paid $125,000 a year in his new position, up from his $70,000 salary at NYPIRG.

He said he hopes to have the Web site available in time for the 2008 elections.

—Chet Hardin

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