Dump here never: Saugerties celebrates the triumph of anti-landfill group

A prominent village mural is a testament to community support for the group’s efforts

In 1987 the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency proposed construction of a garbage incinerator or a landfill on the Winston Farm property off Route 32 in Saugerties. Some of the participants in the successful effort to stop the landfill described the actions and the process that foiled the plan and saved the farm at a program at the Saugerties Public Library on Saturday, April 7.

The discussion panel consisted of Gary Bischoff, Patti Kelly, John Hall and Lanny Walter. Arzi McKeown acted as moderator, presenting questions about the history of the Winston Farm Alliance to the panel.

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The history programs introduce young residents and newcomers to the rich history of Saugerties, McKeown said. The program on Saturday concerned more recent events, “which will some day be part of the history of the town,” she said. By discussing and recalling the history of the proposed Winston Farm landfill, “we can we prevent this part of local history from falling into oblivion, we can celebrate the accomplishments of all of those who changed the history of Saugerties as a way to empower future activists.”

The program was part of a series of historical presentations at the library, organized by the Friends of Historic Saugerties and presented on the first Saturday of each month, said Susan Davis, a member of the Friends of Historic Saugerties. “In the mid 1980s, our then-assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, who was chair of the Assembly Environmental Committee, was putting together the solid waste management plan which was going to change all our lives. Among other things, we were going to have to close our landfills and cap them because for years we had no idea that we were polluting our ground water by putting stuff in a dump.”

The RRA is formed

Recycling, along with composting, was going to be central to the new waste management plan Kelly said. At the time, many of the people at the talk were involved in an organization called Saugerties Concerned Citizens, Kelly said. “The RRA [Resource Recovery Agency] wasn’t even on our radar at that time, she said. “We were worried about getting a zoning law.”

In 1986 the state established the county Resource Recovery Agency, whose goal was to formulate a plan for recycling. Saugerties had a group working on a plan for recycling already in place, Kelly said. The RRA governing board was appointed by the county legislature, and the majority Republicans got four appointments, and the minority Democrats got one, Kelly said.

The legislature’s plan included a provision making county taxpayers responsible for any shortfall in the RRA’s income versus spending. In late 1987 or early 1988, word got out that the RRA with the assistance of the county had a list of sites for an incinerator, and eventually the site on Winston Farm was chosen. The plan included a county landfill if the incinerator plan didn’t work out.

“As word leaked out into the community, people got upset, they got concerned, they got aroused because they realized we were going to go from friendly Saugerties to a dump town,” said Kelly. “We also knew that at this same time New York City was trying to close their Fresh Kills landfill.”

As information came in, a call to the community went out. “It was totally non-partisan,” said Lanny Walter. “The participation was broad, and people from all political persuasions were engaged in the process. One of the first things we did was call a meeting of the community.”

The meeting at Saugerties High School drew a large turnout, Walter said. “We committed ourselves to organizing the Winston Farm Alliance. At this meeting, we created committees.” Committees included a legal committee, historic preservation, engineering, fund raising, lobbying legislative, publicity and water liaison, Walter said.

What happened is that people stepped forward to join the committees, to chair the committees and to work on the issue, Walter said. “These were all volunteers. Nobody made a penny. The beauty of it is people did what they said they were going to do, and as the chair of the organization I did not need to go and make sure people did their share. And we won – so far we won so we must have done something right.”

The panel: Gary Bischoff, Patti Kelly, John Hall and Lanny Walter. (Photo by David Gordon)

Volunteers and organizers

Former congressman and Orleans founder John Hall said his introduction to community organizing about a decade earlier “made it easier for me to organize to oppose the Winston Farm.” That was an effort to stop the Cementon nuclear power plant in Greene County, he said. “It was a plant the New York Power Authority wanted to stick on the west shore of the Hudson River, about six miles north of here. They picked that town because it was downtrodden enough, and they thought the people would be desperate for any kind of job. They had the arrogance to go ahead and spend $150 million of ratepayers and taxpayers money and buy property and put in surveying stakes and have the road graded in and contract with Babcock and Wilcox to buy a reactor that turned out later to be the same design that melted down at Three Mile Island in 1979.”

The Cementon plant, Hall said, had been “beaten partly by the same kind of organizing we saw here, but also by their own barrier of their decision making and their choice of the wrong product, the wrong manufacturer.”

It was a foreshadowing of what Saugerties did when it brought in a legal team to fight the RRA in Saugerties, Hall said. “Activism is like a muscle, and you use it and it works, and it feels good,” he said. “It’s the other half of democracy; people in office is the part that everybody thinks of in an action or inaction as the case may be, but the citizens out here whether we’re quiet and obsequious, or whether we get up and say ‘we like this, but we don’t like this,’ and we show up, as Lanny said, in force at a county legislature meeting or a school board meeting. That’s flexing that muscle, and this community has done much of it and is better off for it.”

The committee system was what made it really easy for people to get involved, Bischoff explained. “I wasn’t there at the organization at the original meeting, but when they put out the call for volunteers I was a volunteer.”

Because people could do as much or as little as they felt comfortable doing, large numbers of people participated, whether just baking cookies or writing a letter, Bischoff said. “It was a good community spirit that was behind this.”

Moderator Arzi McKeon (photo by David Gordon)

Overcoming obstacles, building strength

“Your fight continued over a ten-year span,” moderator Arzi McKeon said. “What were some of the triumphs and some of the problems you faced?”

At one point, the community was offered a million dollars, Bischoff responded. “A lot of people started to question [the effort], so where we had almost universal buy-in, all of a sudden [it’s] a million dollars, we won’t have to pay taxes, it’s going to put a lot of quality into the schools, we’ll have recreation, et cetera et cetera.”

However, “we did eventually convince people it was an indecent proposal,” Bischoff said.

Kelly said she focused on knowing what was motivating the proponents of a landfill. “What did they know? How did they know it? So I made phone calls to some legislators, and I’ll tell you about my call to Danny Alfonso. He was a force in the Republican caucus,” she said. When she raised the landfill issue with him, he told her it was a done deal. ‘Tell everyone in Saugerties it’s a done deal, it’s going to happen. We’re sticking it to Maurice [Hinchey] and putting it in his back yard.”

That conversation was enlightening, “but I thought it was also encouraging,” Kelly said. “If this was about sticking it to Maurice before they had done any engineering or any soil testing or done their homework, then we were not on such an uneven keel. There was such an arrogance and certainty in that comment and I started to feel we could beat them.”

Hall recounted his personal experience of driving his daughter to school on days when she missed the bus. “Mornings, when I was driving her, I drove past the site. I had seen the artist’s renderings, what it would mean to have two smokestacks 315 feet tall, and we knew they had a plan to accept 2020 tons of garbage a year for 20 years. Ulster County doesn’t produce anywhere near that much garbage. They were obviously taking garbage from somewhere else – and New York City was sending garbage to Pennsylvania and paying for the landfills out there and paying the cost of trucking.”

Hall was outraged. “It’s it or me,” he said to himself. “I’m not moving. This is my town and these people are not going to do this to us.”

Hall described attaching an orange weather balloon to a line and floating it at 350 feet. With a friend from Nashville (“they have battles like this in Nashville, but they tend to lose them”), he got the balloon up. “That was a high point for me.”

“People could see that balloon everywhere,” Kelly added.

As the Winston farm Coalition reached out to other organizations, they were joined by just about every organization in town, Walter said. “The town board joined, the village board joined, the school district joined, the fire companies that were hosting the technical committee joined, the PTAs joined, the Garden Club joined. There was virtually no organization that didn’t join us.”

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What doubts did they have along the way?

“Never, I never thought we were going to fail,” Kelly said. “There were times of frustration and anger when we just needed to vent, but I never thought we were going to fail.” However, she said, the organization realized that the RRA would not be honest with them, and they attended every meeting, tape-recorded meetings, and made sure they had all their facts straight.

Following a hearing conducted by the state legislature  environmental committee, Kelly said she was sure the landfill proponents would lose.”After all the testimony, the head of the environmental committee, Richard Brodsky, turned to Phil Sinagra, who was then in charge of the [county] legislature. “How many votes do you have to do this landfill?” Brodsky asked. “Do you have the votes?”

Sinagra said no.

(Photo by David Gordon)

Tenacity wins the day

Hall said he knew earlier that the effort would be successful. “When Michael Gerard, the attorney, first came on board. He had been the guy that broke the Love Canal story and won for the people of Western New York, where their water had been poisoned by industrial waste being buried and homes and schools built on top of it. It was one of those tragedies that you read about, that people make movies about, like Erin Brokovitch and he had not only beaten the powers that be at Love Canal, but was largely responsible for beating the Westway plan, which I believe was to be a six-lane elevated highway on the West Side that would be built on a landfill.”

The alliance’s lawyer presented evidence that the accumulated waste at the Winston Farm over 20 years, with the heavy vehicles passing over them, could crack the lining and allow the poisons to spill, and that this could affect the Kingston watershed. “Michael Gerard walked in, wearing a more expensive suit than anyone there. At that point, I knew we were going to win.”

“Although we were great, and put up a mighty battle, the New York Supreme Court helped us a little bit,” said Walter. “The concept of the RRA was to gather all the garbage in the county and all the recyclables. The term they used was flow control. If they could generate enough money for depositing the garbage they could have a successful operation. In 1994 the Supreme Court ruled that flow control over municipal dictates is against the Commerce Clause in the Constitution. The companies in the garbage business had a right to compete for the garbage. RRA now had to compete for the garbage, and it definitely weakened their financial position.”

Eleanor Minsky, who served on the RRA board, recalled that she “had spent three years in the mouth of the lion.” There was one thing that saved her, she said, and that was the community. “Every single meeting the community was there, and I could feel their energy coming to me,” she said. “I had negative energy all around me, with people who wanted to get this dump in Saugerties. I played a big part of getting the truth out to the community. But one thing, if you are lucky enough to have someone on the inside of the agency itself, and somebody strong enough to stand up to the charm of Charlie [Shaw, the agency director] and the meanness of people like Steven Wing, the attorney, then that person is invaluable.”

Introducing Barbara O’Reilly, Walter described some of the activities she had been involved in, including a “paint-out” organized by local artist Ron Naar. It raised $30,000. The group organized dances, a lookalike dog show, sale of yellow bowls and other events and fundraisers, “Our big fundraiser was that Michael Lang wanted to have a Woodstock festival on the Winston Farm, which was the original site desired for the Woodstock Festival,” said Walter. “The town wasn’t willing to agree to that.” Eventually the town leaders were persuaded to allow the event. It netted $50,000 for the alliance, which had been given 500 tickets free to sell.

The landfill wars aren’t over

This was in 1994, when the battle over the landfill was winding down. The alliance closed down with $80,000 in the bank, which will be used for development of Bristol Beach, a property on the shores of the Hudson slated to become a new park.

Kelly noted that members of the alliance attended hearings in other towns where the RRA considered siting landfills and helped them resist. The message was that this was not a NIMBY (not in my back yard) action, “and we felt that no town should have a landfill this big forced on them,” Kelly said.

The final question was what made the landfill opposition work. What lessons were there for other activists?

“Delay, delay,” Bischoff counseled. “We raised questions. We looked at their documents. We raised questions about conflicting points in their documentation, and it was very difficult for them to proceed on schedule.”

While the project was delayed, the Supreme Court made a ruling denying the RRA’s right to operate as a monopoly.

Bischoff also attributed much of the organization’s success to its committee structure, with each committee handling a different part of the operation.

Many of the people who were part of the alliance then are still part of the alliance, or were until last year, when  it was dissolved, Kelly said. “Having Lanny as our chairman for 30 years was a big help because there was an institutional memory.”

Other long-term members were able to tell new people about the organization’s development. She also credited reporters with investigative work, citing Jim Gordon, then of Woodstock Times, and Josh Margolin from the Times Herald-Record. Kelly said she wished Gordon could have been at the meeting, because “he was so much a part of it.”

One last piece of advice Kelly had for young activists was that the RRA was planning a regional landfill, but this one in Sullivan County or Greene County [or Ulster]. “They have plans,” she said, “but they won’t let anyone see them, so it’s like we’re back at the beginning again.”

In response to a question, Bischoff said local garbage is now trucked from a transfer station in the Town of Ulster out west to Seneca Falls, with some going to Sullivan County. Bischoff estimated that the cost to build and operate a landfill would be greater than the present system.

“Having a landfill is like a license to print money,” Bischoff warned. “It would have been such a magnet for out-of-county waste.”

“We worked hard, but we had fun,” Kelly summed up. “It was a joyous experience working together. Friendships that were built over the years as we did this, not just this but the casino. These are lifelong relationships that were built, and as hard as we fought, it was fun. Plus, we sent John [Hall] to Congress.”

The meeting broke up with Hall performing his Saugerties song.

John Hall sings his song for anti dump activists (photo by David Gordon)

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