The section of Route 31 extending from Brockport to Albion traverses relatively flat land, with occasional dips and rises.
But the topography changes at the Murray-Albion town line. There, on the near horizon at the back of a farmer's field, a hill rises to just above the tree tops. But this is not a natural hill; it's a landfill. The Orleans Sanitary Landfill has been closed since 1993, approximately the same time its owner declared bankruptcy.
For Albion residents and government officials, the site has been an on and off source of controversy. And right now, with a proposal to build a new landfill on the site, the controversy is definitely on.
In 2003, the Albion Town Board rejected Waste Management's request for a local permit to build a new landfill at the site. The company pursued the expansion for several years, actually receiving a state permit to open and operate the proposed landfill. The permit is valid through November 2013.
The public and local officials were strongly opposed, however, and after state courts upheld the Town Board's denial, many residents hoped that would be the last attempt to open a new landfill in Albion.
Enter Richard Penfold, former owner of a landfill and a waste-hauling business in the Buffalo area. Penfold wants to open a new landfill on unused portions of the 204-acre site of the Orleans Sanitary Landfill. To do that, he needs four out of the five Albion Town Board members to vote to overturn a town law banning new landfills as well as expansions of existing ones. But in public comments, at least one town board member, as well as town Supervisor Dennis Stirk, said they don't support overturning the ban.
Penfold is trying to get town officials to discuss a host community agreement. Typically, the agreements specify operating conditions for the landfill while providing substantial payments to the local government, in some cases enough to eliminate property taxes.
Penfold has spent $67,000 paying back and current taxes for the Orleans Sanitary Landfill. He also has an agreement with the current owner giving him the option to purchase the site as long as he keeps paying the taxes. He says an operating landfill would be a benefit for Albion by providing jobs and revenue.
"You have to get past the point that landfills are pollution centers," Penfold says. "They're not pollution centers. In all the [communities] that have them, they're actually income centers."
In October, Penfold began pitching his proposal to the Albion community. Since then, opponents have mobilized. Anti-landfill signs dot front yards along Route 31, and the anti-landfill citizens group, Stop Polluting Orleans County, is pressuring town officials to keep the ban. The organization formed in the 1980's and has been a consistent presence in the town since.
The Town Board's 2003 rejection of Waste Management's proposed landfill was the result of a political long-game by Albion residents.
Kim Remley, chair of SPOC, served on the town Republican committee in the mid1990's. It was at those committee meetings that she first heard talk about Waste Management's plans for a new landfill, so she and other committee members began organizing primaries against pro-landfill Town Board members. They won a majority of seats on the board and in 1996, the Town Board moved to block the Waste Management proposal. (Eventually, the town adopted zoning laws prohibiting landfills.)
Waste Management sued, though town officials settled the matter by promising to give a fair review of the company's local permit application. When the board rejected the company's application, Waste Management sued again, but the town prevailed in court.
Many residents still object to the idea of an active landfill in Albion, SPOC's Remley says.
Traffic was always a big concern. When Albion Central School District officials analyzed the previous Waste Management expansion proposal, they concluded that hundreds of landfill-bound trucks would have driven past the district's campus on Route 31 each day. (Penfold says he's open to negotiating the daily solid waste intake with the town.)
Remley says that she and other residents are also concerned that the landfill could take in Marcellus Shale cuttings. The state doesn't bar landfills from accepting the cuttings, which are considered industrial non-hazardous waste. On his website, Penfold says the landfill won't take the cuttings.
The landfill is also positioned next to the Erie Canal, and opponents say that an operational landfill conflicts with state and local efforts to emphasize the canal as a recreational and historic asset.
The Orleans Sanitary Landfill has another complication, which Penfold stresses as part of his pitch. It's what's known as an orphan: a landfill with no one to take care of it.
Until 2009, Orleans Sanitary Landfill was being maintained through a dedicated post-closure fund. But the fund ran out of money and maintenance of the landfill has languished. That means that leachate, which typically would be hauled off-site on a regular basis, has built up for several years. The liquid could eventually begin leaking out of the landfill. In an extreme case, it might burst out of the landfill's side. (The DEC does periodic visual inspections of the site.)
The landfill's status highlights a bigger issue: the state and federal governments do not have funding to maintain orphan landfills, unless the landfill contains hazardous waste or is contaminating water supplies.
Penfold frames his proposal as a way to take care of the maintenance. If the town lets him open his landfill, he'll assume the maintenance of the existing landfill and, he says, turn a liability into an asset.
Some county officials have proposed another idea: they say the leachate from both the Albion landfill and the neighboring McKenna landfill — a state Superfund site — could be
piped to the Village of Albion's wastewater treatment plant. The state is looking into the idea, says Don Allport, an at-large Orleans County legislator.
Remley says reopening the landfill shouldn't be the community's only option. State officials ought to be prepared to step in to care for orphan landfills, she says, before they become environmental and public-health problems.
SPOC's current focus is making sure the Town Board preserves the existing ban. But Remley says it's clear that Albion residents have to be careful about who they elect to future town boards. And she says she'll always ask about a candidate's position on landfills in the town before anything else.