Ulster County needs to become a leader in materials management and leave behind our outdated paradigm of trash disposal.
There are many facets to this challenge but to start the modernization process, Ulster County’s government must absorb the Resource Recovery Agency (RRA) and turn it into a county department. I am a board member of the RRA, but I am expressing a personal opinion.
A county takeover is not a knock at the agency’s staff or operations. The RRA executive director and staff should continue in place. But instead of intermittent “oversight” by a five-member board of rotating unpaid citizen volunteers, RRA operations would be guided by county executive Jen Metzger, and thus, be more directly answerable to the public. Moreover, a new materials management department could coordinate with the county’s existing planning, environment and public works departments to create ways to collect and process useful reusable materials, and do necessary waste disposal.
Our current solid waste “solution” needs drastic upgrading. In 2023, the agency will spend about $17.5 million, with revenues of about $20 million. UCRRA operations will handle approximately 150,000 tons of materials, mostly trucked by huge diesel-burning tractor-trailers some 240 miles west and north to the Seneca Meadows landfill. The heavy trucks then run empty 240 miles back. Meanwhile the stuff they dumped, which includes a lot of useful material, decays and creates methane gas, a catastrophic destroyer of our atmosphere. About $10 million dollars a year of RRA spending goes directly to fuel or dumping costs. It is a costly and crazy system to continue in our emerging climate crisis.
So, what now? Uncertainty. The town board of Seneca Meadows voted to close the facility by 2025, but the Texas-based owner seeks a state permit renewal till 2040. So we may simply continue shipping waste far away for several more years. But as climate change worsens and restrictions and costs of diesel rise, a complex and costly future is coming into focus. Ending our trucking-trash addiction needs millions of dollars for local facilities to create materials management programs, for organics, reusable and recyclable products.
The idea is maximum diversion. But looming very large is whether (and especially where) to site a new localized landfill(s), and how to simultaneously institute waste reduction and reuse programs requiring diverse locales, equipment and workers. Planning, siting and constructing such facilities are key development decisions. Ulster County’s enormous expanse, with 20 towns, villages and the City of Kingston and rugged diverse topography dictate that an array of approaches will be required across disciplines and departments. The RRA does not have that expertise, but county government could supply it using in-house personnel, creating efficiency and cost savings and real time supervision of the work.
But the most important reason the county should take over the RRA is because key solid-waste management solutions are too important to be decided by the five-member board of an independent agency answerable to no one. Officials are elected to make key decisions, not duck them. It is a simple principle of democracy.
And key decisions are coming down the pike. April 4 is the deadline for response to the RRA’s Request for Ideas, essentially, a document requesting preliminary plans for dealing with our 150,000 tons of stuff. The RRA request expressly agrees to consider privatization of our waste stream, and for importing solid waste.
A preliminary proposal is already in, for a roughly $60-million facility that turns solid waste into natural gas. The Tennessee-based company proposing the idea says it will finance the facility, its own and operate it and control all the byproducts. They view sales of natural gas as a financial winner. Other options include the RRA, or some other entity, building a county landfill, partnering on a regional landfill, or “recycling” former town landfills, refurbishing those toxic time bombs and using the resultant space as a modern, lined local landfill.
One would expect the county executive to have a key role in such decisions. Yet, Jen Metzger officially has no role to play. Likewise, county legislators who appoint the RRA board also have only limited authority over bonding, and have no role in RRA policy decisions.
The RRA is an anachronism from an earlier form of government, formed in 1987 as a public benefit corporation. At that time, the state was closing environmentally toxic town landfills, and town officials said the county legislature had to devise countywide solutions, widely expected to be a landfill or an incinerator. Today, the RRA is still a separate independent agency, set up to allow county legislators to avoid making tough decisions on solid waste. When county voters created a county executive position in 2006, no provision was made to bring the RRA under executive oversight.
So there is still that fundamental disconnect, and it bodes ill for successfully modernizing our materials management. For example, county legislators have drafted plans for progressive solid-waste management programs such as the proposed Resource Innovation Center, and a separate Zero Waste initiative. They may be laudable ideas, but both are happening absent any involvement by the RRA, creating new independent programs for what common sense dictates should be a coordinated and unified effort.
Encouragingly, executive Metzger seems to understand that while there is no constituency for garbage, there is huge value in proper materials management. Her Executive Order #1, among other initiatives, sets a goal of diverting 100 percent of organic waste from landfills and incinerators by 2030. That would reduce “trash” management by about 30 percent, roughly 50,000 tons annually. To achieve this, a multi-faceted and geographically distributed organics collection program is needed, not only to turn organics into compost, but to then distribute the rich soils back to farmers, nurseries and home gardeners. The idea needs county-level resources, oversight and management to become a reality.
This unified approach will also foster recovery of wood, bricks, electronics, and metals across the spectrum of materials. Some stuff will ultimately need disposal in a landfill, or some other treatment method, but as the climate crisis disrupts supply chains, local food and materials management will be crucial. Our top elected county officials are needed to coordinate county resources, for dealing with trash disposal in materials management. Since the RRA’s contract with the county expires in 2025, this is an ideal time for a smooth transition to a better system.