The OCRRA trash incinerator, located at 5801 Rock Cut Road in Jamesville, is being questioned by the DACC for its possible relation to high rates of breast cancer in surrounding areas. (photo by Lauren Young)
On July 9, Dennis Payne, chair of the DeWitt Advisory Conservation Commission (DACC), gave a presentation to the DeWitt Town Board to voice concerns of the Covanta trash-burning incinerator in Jamesville and its possible relation to high instances of breast cancer in surrounding areas.
Within his presentation, Payne offered several recommendations to the board, such as requesting a more frequent monitoring program to achieve real-time pollution information, the possibility of field testing pollutant concentrations and public exposure, and asking the board to communicate with the county executive and legislature, as well as state legislators, to respond to the DACC’s comments and concerns.
According to Payne, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) representative Matt Polge is still in the process of reviewing the terms of Covanta’s request to modify its permit at the incinerator. The DEC representatives, said Payne, assured they would be “transparent” through the process and have a multiple-step process for any change that takes place at the incinerator site.
Concerns about the incinerator from the DACC were first addressed at a meeting on May 2, where they welcomed DEC representatives Matt Polge and Kevin Kelly to discuss the high rate of breast cancer incidents in Jamesville and its possible relation to the Covanta incinerator, located at 5801 Rock Cut Road in Jamesville.
Gordon Heisler, member of DACC and the tree committee, presented Polge and Kelly with two maps indicating how the trash incinerator may be related to high incidents of breast cancer in the Jamesville area, with research based on weather data collected from an onsite tower, the breast cancer registry from the state department of health, predicted emissions emitted from the incinerator stack and where the greatest impacts of it are in surrounding area codes.
The waste-to-energy plant, which began commercial operation in February 1995, controls the waste flow in Onondaga County and the greater Syracuse region — processing up to 990 tons per day of municipal solid waste and generating up to 39.5 megawatts of renewable energy sold to National Grid.
According to Heisler, while the 1988 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which permitted the incinerator to be built, concluded that its emissions would not pose a threat to public health, the DACC believes that cancer incidences in recent years justifies a renewed study.
Between 2005 and 2009, the state cancer registry showed that over a five-year period, there were 61 breast cancer diagnoses in residents of the 13078 zip code — 50 percent higher than the expected incidence.
This has been an ongoing concern raised by the DACC, as Dennis Payne, chair of the DACC, said on their May 2 meeting that the board has been “foes of the existence of the facility since its location was chosen in the late 1980s.”
“We knew we weren’t going to prove that cancer rates in Jamesville was directly related to the incinerator [at the May 2 meeting], but we knew it could be related to that,” said Payne.
“[The DEC representatives] are handcuffed themselves by state policy,” said Supervisor Ed Michalenko, a vocal opponent of the incinerator. “[The DEC’s] policy number one preference for solid waste disposal is incineration.”
The incinerator, he said, was originally why he began working in politics.
“This incinerator is one of the few machines or buildings in this community that actually puts out a poison every day and no one seems to know about it,” said former Onondaga County legislator Vicki Baker as she added how “the Town of DeWitt has always been at the forefront of waste reduction.”
The incinerator was approved for a 20-year contract by the Syracuse Common Council in March 2015, two days after rejecting it, and evolved into a near-$100 million project back in 1990 after refinancing and increasing debt, said Michalenko.
“It was the largest public works project ever undertaken by Onondaga County,” he said.
“I have several friends from LaFayette who have gotten cancer, and a few of them have passed away,” said board member Karin Rigney. “The studies that [the DACC] has is very powerful — I think that, the first thing to do is to bring [forward] indisputable evidence. The idea of offsite monitoring, I think, is a very important piece.”
According to board member Kerry Mannion, a green tax — which refers to shifting taxes to reduce environmental damages — could be employed, but higher taxes are a concern.
“The word that keeps coming back from the county [legislature] is that they don’t want to increase taxes,” said Mannion. But demonstrated support from the community may sway that decision.
“I think in general we probably have support of maybe over 60 percent of the community to impose a green fee to guarantee they won’t increase what’s burning over there. It might even be able to decrease how much they’re burning,” said Mannion. “The green fee idea is a way to limit what’s being burned there and to slowly diminish over the next five or ten years of what’s being burned there…if you properly market a green fee, I think over 60 percent of the community would be on board with having to pay $50 or $60 a household a year.”
Michalenko said he will format comments from the DACC into a letter, with a motion entertained by board member Sam Young and seconded by board member Karen Doctor.
The next Town of DeWitt board meeting will be held on August 13 at 7:00 pm at the DeWitt Town Hall.
Jason Emerson is editor of the Cazenovia Republican and Eagle Bulletin newspapers.