Email to the DEC, Town of Perinton and Senator Funke

The following is an email by Gary McNeil sent to the DEC, Town of Perinton and Senator Funke on December 21st, 2017. 

Mr. D'Amato, Supervisor Barker, and Senator Funke,

I'd like to thank all three of you for your recent communication regarding the High Acres landfill odor situation. You have assured the public that resolving this issue is a priority at both the state and local level. While the residents of Perinton and the surrounding areas can take some comfort in knowing that this issue will no longer fly under the radar, there are still many concerned about how we've gotten into this situation. On the surface, this appears to be a story of misguided leadership, lack of foresight, lack of oversight, and an unwillingness to take action until the problem was out of control. Waste Management has successfully created a narrative that they are a "good neighbor". The facts don't appear to back that statement up.

Based on WMs own data, the start of the current odor reporting trend was in March of 2017. The reporting stayed steady through the summer months, when WM responded to residents saying road construction was to blame. In fact, they put in writing that road construction was to blame from June to August. During those months, the smell was mostly a garbage smell, and not many residents knew how to report it. The gas smells started in earnest in September. Word started spreading through the east side about what people were smelling, and who to send emails to. As the gas odors continued into October, frequency, potency, and distance all increased, and people hit their tolerance threshold. The Facebook group was formed, and odors continued to increase. In early November I visited the WM site and experienced a very combative staff. I was invited to their site, yet they spent the first five minutes interrogating me about my motives, even though I was upfront saying I was simply a neighbor that wanted the odor situation resolved. They made it clear that they had powerful lawyers and plenty of funds to handle whatever problems they needed to. They also made it clear that historically the town had run interference for them with people like me. Needless to say, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. While I would have liked to get up and leave after 10 minutes, I stuck through it in order to learn as much as I could about their problems. I thought that if I'm going to move my family out of Perinton after growing up in Country Downs and Mason Valley, I was going to invest some time into what went wrong before making that decision.

So here we are in late December, on another night in Perinton that smells awful. The winds shifted out of the east earlier tonight, and, like clockwork, the odors started around Aldrich, made their way behind FHS, then into the south side of the Village, and finally over to Jefferson Ave. This isn't the first time we've predicted the odor based on time of day and wind direction, then watched as reports were logged over an hour across that swath of 6 miles. If this happens on a spring night when people are outside in the Village, the reputation of the Town and Village will deteriorate quickly. While hindsight is 20/20, it's hard to imagine the Town and the DEC approving expansion years ago, knowing what the risk of a deteriorating landfill brings to the surrounding communities. There are plenty of documented cases of landfills growing to a point where deteriorating infrastructure leads to an inability to control harmful gasses and odors. In the case of High Acres, regardless of the reasons they gave out in 2011, 2012, and now 2017, the perception is that they used to be able to handle 1500 tons of garbage a day, which is what they took in through the 2000-2010 time period. As time passed, and they started to increase daily amounts to 3500 tons of garbage a day, the odors started, and have been intermittent over the years, leading up the horrendous last 6 months. Perception is reality many times, and in the case of High Acres, excuses related to road construction, high rainfalls, and faulty systems, only serve to support the perception of the inability to scale the operation and a reactive oversight/management process.

So at this point, residents feel like the Town sold out years ago, the DEC failed in it's oversight, and WM simply doesn't care as they make millions in revenue off the site. The letter WM wrote to the DEC yesterday (12/20) supports many people's feelings. While we understand why the DEC is forcing WM to take these actions, they were in fact forced, after too many months of complaining. Just last year, in the 2016 Conservation Board meeting minutes, WM stated that the reason for any increase in complaints was because more "high end" houses exist around the landfill. While there are a few additional neighborhoods around the landfill, the fact that they are "high end" is irrelevant, and they do not address residents that built homes in the area 20-30 years ago that are now dealing with the landfill odor 6 miles away. It was a very arrogant response, which continued when I was onsite in November. The fact that they are just now apologetic and taking this situation seriously is a slap in the face to residents. The letter to the DEC also contained inaccurate information.

  • Odors did not start in the "late summer months", they started in March
  • The increase in community notifications did not "begin in the fourth quarter", they began in September, which is the third quarter
  • The data displayed in the odor notification chart is not accurate (I'm attaching the accurate data our group has captured since 11/4 for comparison)

While these may seem like minor technicalities, it seems more like WM wants to create their own timeline and narrative of events, which further erodes the trust of the community. The open house they recently had was on short notice and many residents just don't have hours to spend onsite at a business that is contributing negatively to their life. They simply want the odor to stop. WM had mentioned to me in my meeting in November that their open houses are typically not well attended, which is a sign to them that people are happy with their existence. That reasoning is flawed, and if they use it again in this instance it should be refuted.

At this point the community has been told the following (high level summary):

  • The DEC will be aggressively monitoring the remediation, reporting, and communication efforts of WM.
  • The Town started a 6 month clock in November for holding WM accountable should they not resolve the issue (amount a few other steps they are taking)
  • WM has provided a multitude of reasons and excuses for failing to scale their business properly, and will do everything they can as outlined in their letter to the DEC to resolve the odor situation by the end of March. They also said we'd see a significant improvement by January.

The Fresh Air group continues to grow daily as more people are impacted by the odor and word spreads (1650+ people from Perinton, Fairport, Macedon, Penfield, Walworth, and Gananda). We're finding that many people miles away aren't even aware that they are smelling the landfill. They call the fire departments and RG&E to report gas leaks because they just don't think the landfill would affect them 5-6 miles away. As you are aware, WM requests that residents call their hotline to log complaints. I have personally communicated to them that people are not willing to do that. WM should not dictate the form of communication. Using the phone puts all the tracking and logging into the hands of WM, which is not where it needs to be. Ideally a 3rd party would be overseeing this, but since that isn't happening, our group took the initiative to track it ourselves. At first we were using a Google Form, but on 12/4 we released a mobile app called "Fresh Air for the Eastside". The app picks up your location from the GPS in your phone, and the weather conditions from the weather app in the your phone, all in real time. It also links to your email account for easy creation of the email which some of you are included on. The user simply has to record what they are smelling and it's intensity. All other data points are automated. Anything that can't be reported in real time (like when you're driving) can still be logged into the Google Form when a resident has time to do so. I've attached our data from 11/4 to 12/20, along with a chart which is much more accurate than the chart WM provided.

  • 643 complaints over 47 days (6.5 weeks)
  • 33 of the 47 days had at least 1 complaint (70%)
  • The minimum number of complaints was 1
  • The maximum number of complaints was 78
  • The average number of complaints for the 33 days was 20
  • 398 unique addresses filed at least 1 complaint

Lastly, a class action firm recently sent letters to residents with a survey. The firm is from Detroit and is partnering with another firm in Syracuse. I've provided our FB group my thoughts on this type of class action, urging them to ignore the letter. Nobody should be interested in getting $500 out of a class action lawsuit, having their future rights to complain taken away, and not focusing on stopping the odor. If legal action is taken in the future, it should be to drastically reduce intake or shut the landfill down completely. That being said, I cannot control what residents do, and there are thousands that aren't in our group that received the letter.

Ultimately, I think there is a short window for WM to show they can minimize the odor. WM has stated that 4-5 instances a year would be acceptable, and I think people that live in the 5 mile radius of the landfill would agree. The jury is out if they can attain that type of rate between now and the end of March. If they don't, the expectation from the community is that this site be scaled back drastically (going back to 1500 tons a day that was manageable), or it be shut down. Whether the DEC takes action to do that, or the Town does so through legal action, doesn't matter to the community at this point. Should the DEC or the Town fail to take action, and the odor continue, I believe many residents are willing to take necessary action on their own. I'm hoping it doesn't come to that, but all options have to be on the table if people are not willing to give up and move out of town without a fight.

I apologize for the length of the email but there was a significant amount of information to cover. We are looking forward to voicing these concerns, and many more, at the Conservation Board meeting on 1/16. Again, I thank you for your efforts and communications thus far, and hope we can find a viable solution in the coming weeks and months. I hope you are all able to enjoy the upcoming holidays.

FYI - I redacted the names and addresses in the complaint log attached.