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Neck High in Trash

The clock is running out for the city of Albany to figure out what to do about the dump

Last week it came to light that, at the beginning of March, both the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency had sent letters to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers objecting to Albany’s latest plan to expand the Rapp Road landfill. The mayor’s office had been banking on the 13-acre expansion to extend the life of the dump up to six and a half more years, and failed to make any contingency plans, his critics say. Currently, it is estimated that the landfill will be full by November.

“We are in an emergency now,” said Councilman Corey Ellis (Ward 3). “They have had 12 years to deal with this issue, and instead of dealing with it, this administration figured they would get an expansion. They never prepared for the future. That is the problem with this city: We don’t prepare for the future. And now we are in a crisis.”

According to Ellis, it should not come as a surprise if the state Department of Environmental Conservation finally rejects the city’s current landfill proposal, as the agency lately hasn’t been approving such expansions.

Ellis is one of the three announced candidates running for mayor this fall. To council President Shawn Morris, who has also announced her candidacy, the latest setback further illustrates the “murky” history of the landfill under Mayor Jerry Jennings.

“That information, the letters, were circulated among those reviewing the application, and not with the common council,” Morris said. “Not even with members of the common council who are in the appropriate committees. When federal agencies raise concerns, we need to be aware.”

The proposal for the eastern expansion was shot down by both federal agencies due to its impact on five acres of fragile wetland environment. As the EPA letter states, “The applicant has not chosen the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

The city argued that the least damaging alternative would extend the landfill’s life by only about three years. According to Frank LaVardera, vice president at Clough Harbor & Associates, as reported in a Times Union article, this smaller expansion wouldn’t be worth the cost of construction.

“Is that a negotiating point on their part,” Morris asked about LaVardera’s comment, “or is that real information? How are the costs amortized out compared to what we would save? All of that information isn’t even available to us now.”

Is that proposal’s estimated 2.8 year extension to the landfill’s lifespan calculated using the rate at which the city is filling it up now? she asked. If so, could the lifespan be extended if the landfill made cuts to the inflow of trash?

“We need to be taking steps now to find alternatives, and also to slow down the rate at which the landfill is being used up,” Morris said.

But cutting back on the intake of refuse raises a financial concern: The city relies on the $12 million a year generated in revenue at the landfill, and whether or not it is still a possibility to use the landfill as a revenue stream, Morris continued, she doesn’t know. “Without real numbers, even real estimates—which we haven’t had—would it really mean financial ruin for the city if we didn’t expand? If it doesn’t mean financial ruin, if it is staving something off for a couple years, then that is a completely different scenario.”

Ellis agreed with Morris. “One thing that I don’t know, because of the lack of transparency around our budget,” Ellis said, “is what does it really mean if we don’t expand that landfill? They say that we will lose money, but because of how the budget is set up, and how the landfill is operated, we really don’t know the hit we would take if we don’t expand.”

Councilman Dominick Calsolaro (Ward 1) said that he sees grim days ahead.

“If we only get the two-and-a-half-year expansion,” Calsolaro said, “it is going to hit us at the same time that we lose seven and a half million dollars in state aid from the convention center money. In 2011, we drop from 22 and a half to 15 million from the state.”

If you take the city’s claim that the landfill makes $12 million a year in revenue, then the city, he said, will be facing a $20 million deficit.

“So, whoever is mayor for the 2011 budget,” Calsolaro laughed, “they say $700,000 is 1 percent in taxes, so that is a 30-percent tax increase alone, just to make up for those two losses.”

He pointed out that this is the first time that the city has used its financial reliance on the dump’s revenue stream as a reason to request permission to expand the landfill.

“There needs to be a sit-down with waste-management companies, with environmentalists, with the Pine Bush people, and the city government,” Ellis said. “Now we need to make drastic decisions, which might not be the best decisions for citizens, might not be the best decisions environmentally or economically. It is now something that is hovering over our heads.”

When will the city know whether or not it can expand the landfill? “We are hoping to hear fairly soon,” said Robert Van Amburgh from the Albany mayor’s office. “I don’t know if there is a date established.”

On all other questions for this story, Van Amburgh directed Metroland to Nick D’Antonio in the Department of General Services, who did not return calls by press time.

—Chet Hardin

What a Week


Worry in the Hills

Community policing will be the first focus of new Pine Hills Public Safety Committee


The Pine Hills Neighborhood Association announced the resurrection of its Public Safety Committee, with Todd Hunsinger as the newly appointed chair, in response to a recent rash of violence in the neighborhood.

“I think I speak for a lot of Pine Hills residents when I say that crime is keeping us up at night,” said Hunsinger. “The concern is that crime in Pine Hills is keeping the residents up but the chief of police and the mayor aren’t losing sleep over it.”

Hunsinger, who got involved with the PHNA at a public-safety forum this past winter, was approached by the association’s president, Daniel Curtis, in early March and offered the position.

Hunsinger said that he took the position for “a lot of selfish reasons” at the meeting last week. “My wife has a realtor coming tomorrow to appraise the house because she’s saying ‘Enough.’ Personally, I would like to stay.”

Hunsinger, along with many members of the community, are focusing on the role of police in reducing crime in the neighborhood.

“One of our big concerns right now is the way policing is done in this city,” Hunsinger said. “We want to see that change. It would be nice to see more of a police presence, the term that a lot of people use is ‘community policing.’ ”

Curtis agrees that community policing is important, but is just one aspect of improving safety in the area.

“There’s no silver bullet here,” Curtis said. “The only thing that we can do is hope to change attitudes, and we need to change a whole culture, and changing a culture is going to take more than one action.”

Hunsinger also acknowledged the larger societal issues at play.

“You hear the chief of police talk about how the schools need to do more and how, as communities, we need to do more in terms of the lives of these youth, which is certainly all true,” Hunsinger said. “But the immediate concern is for them to know that crime sprees are not a career or recreational option, and that’s only going to come through tougher policing and better community vigilance.”

When asked if he felt that the drinking culture in Pine Hills makes the neighborhood a target for crime, Hunsinger said, “Absolutely. That’s a big part of the issue. Pine Hills has basically become an importer of crime. Not only do we have kids on their BMX bikes coming out of West Hill to find easy prey, but people coming from other communities. The reality is a bunch of inebriated unsuspecting 21-year-olds stumbling around the streets become really easy prey.”

Hunsinger said that he and his family originally moved to Pine Hills to be in a walkable community. “All those positive attributes of living in Pine Hills are being denied to residents right now, and I think that’s why people are so frustrated.”

Residents expressed those frustrations at the meeting last Thursday where four Albany Common Council members, including James Scalzo, chair of the Public Safety Committee, were present to answer questions from residents, many of whom expressed dissatisfaction with the response from the city.

“I can’t accept that as an answer,” said one resident in response to Scalzo’s suggestion that residents refer to APD Pine Hills liaison Rick Romand as an effort to stop crime. “Every single police officer should respond the best way possible.”

Curtis said that the council members were prepared for tough questions, and that he felt it was important for them attend and speak with residents face-to-face.

“We had one council member [Glen Casey] not even show up for political reasons,” said Curtis, who felt that Casey did not attend because he has been criticized by the PHNA. “If you have a neighborhood association that is frustrated with you as a leader, then it would seem to me the best thing to do would be to come out and remind people of all the things you do in the community.”

Casey did not return a call for comment.

The PHNA Public Safety Committee is still in the development stages, and is working on recruiting members and meeting with other committee chairs to determine the best course of action.

“I’m just a college biology professor just looking to be a part of the solution,” Hunsinger said. “I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do claim to have a serious vested interest in the well-being of my family, including a 5-year-old daughter, to try to make the neighborhood a neighborhood and not Tuffey’s crime map. I don’t want to live in a crime map; I want to live in a community.”

Curtis also said that those interested could contribute by volunteering with the Midtown Neighborhood Watch. According to Curtis, some crime experts estimate that 100 to 200 volunteers are needed to properly patrol the streets; there are currently less than two dozen.

—Cecelia Martinez

Mission Accomplished

The gift of water delivered thousands of miles away

For the first time, the people of Pontsheng village in the Leribe region of Lesotho, Africa, have access to clean drinking water, thanks to a PlayPump, an innovative well system that uses the power of play: Children spinning on a playground merry-go-round pump clean water from a deep well into a 660-gallon storage tank. For the 110 adults and 145 children of Pontsheng, the PlayPump is a life-saving gift, and that gift came from the Capital Region.

Three years ago, Delmar resident Toni McGrath watched a Frontline report about PlayPumps. From that night on, McGrath was determined to raise $14,000 here in the Capital Region, enough to completely fund the construction of a single PlayPump in one community of sub-Saharan Africa. In 2007, Metroland reported on her efforts to bring PlayPump’s simple solution to the dire water crisis [“The Gift of Laughter and Water,” Vol. 30, No. 47]. McGrath launched Albany Friends for PlayPumps to coordinate her fundraising efforts, and by April 2008, she had raised the full $14,000.

McGrath has been eagerly awaiting word from PlayPumps International to find out what community her efforts would impact. PlayPumps International has contacted McGrath with a report and photos of her PlayPump, now fully functional.

The people of Lesotho, a tiny mountainous kingdom landlocked by South Africa, are among the poorest in the world. The infant mortality rate is 10 percent. Due to lack of proper sanitation, 22 percent of deaths in children are from common diarrhea. A full third of the adult population is infected with HIV, and the life expectancy recently dropped below 35 years.

Now, according to McGrath, “Our PlayPump will improve hygiene and health for all the people of Pontsheng village. It is located near the primary school so children will have access to clean water and sanitation and that improves school attendance and retention of students. Women and girls will spend less time trekking for water. This means the girls will have more time for school and the women will have more chances to engage in income-generating activities. Children will be able to drink clean water, and the chances of getting intestinal diseases that kill small children and babies will be greatly diminished. And finally, the children of Pontsheng now have a merry-go-round in their schoolyard.”

PlayPumps International has stated a goal of installing 4,000 PlayPumps by 2010. If that goal is met, the pumps will be providing a free, clean, and sustainable drinking supply to at least 10 million people.

—Kathryn Geurin

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