GLENS FALLS — A national environmental advocate took a look at air-quality data available in the Glens Falls region, and said of the top three polluters, the Hudson Falls trash-burning plant would be the easiest to shut down.
Mike Ewall, executive director of the Energy Justice Network, has a lifelong goal of shutting down all trash incinerators, and he worked to convince an audience of a few dozen Monday night that it should be done.
He spoke during a talk held by the Clean Air Action Network, formerly Greater Glens Falls Wants Clean Air, at Crandall Public Library. While the talk was called “How Dangerous is Glens Falls Air?” Ewall spent the majority of the time talking about the Wheelabrator Technologies plant in Hudson Falls and trash incinerators.
Tracy Frisch, organizer of the Clean Air Action Network, read about Ewall’s many credentials, including his work on a local law passed in a town in Albany County that would make it difficult for industries to burn any form of waste. He is also working to shut down the Wheelabrator trash plant in Baltimore. Ewall’s strategy is to work with grassroots organizations and local lawmakers to draft legislation that makes it difficult for something like a trash plant to operate.
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He has also helped many grassroots organizations keep incinerators from building in their towns over the last two decades.
Ewall said his organization turns “Not In My Back Yard” (often called NIMBY) groups into “Not In Anyone’s Back Yard” groups because he targets industries.
Looking at state and federally reported air-quality data from 2014, Ewall determined that the top three polluters in the area are Finch Paper, Lehigh Northeast Cement Co. and Wheelabrator. He called them “the big three” because, according to his data analysis, they produce 90% of the area’s industrial pollution.
Ewall scoffed, as did some in the audience, that an air-monitoring station in Glens Falls is needed because, he said, data already shows there’s a problem.
“We don’t need another study for what is already in our face,” Ewall said.
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He said as far as he knows, no one is campaigning to close down Finch or Lehigh, and argued that the Wheelabrator plant would be “the most winnable” fight because it’s not producing commodities like cement and paper that are still needed.
The trash plant in Hudson Falls began operating in 1991, and Ewall said he felt that because it’s an older facility that it could shut down soon anyway. He said gullible community leaders agree to have these facilities built and then become stuck with “these antiquated polluting machines.”
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He said he takes issue with the idea that trash incinerators are “waste-to-energy” facilities, even though Wheelabrator says it generates enough electricity to power 14,540 homes. Ewall said the energy generated does not take into account the amount of energy needed to create the trash being burned, and is overall not a win.
“I call them trash to toxic ash and toxic air emissions,” he said. “You’re basically air-filling in your lungs.”
Ewall focused on mercury and dioxin emissions from trash plants. Both are emitted, though incinerators are permitted to, as are other industrial sources, at certain levels stipulated in state and federal permits. Mercury exposure can cause brain, immune system and other health problems. Dioxins are toxic and can cause cancer.
Wheelabrator’s facility permit with the state Department of Environmental Conservation states that it has scrubbers and other technologies in place to remove pollutants from the steam that comes out of the company’s Hudson Falls stack. It also uses a powder-activated carbon system to control its mercury emissions.
There was no specific call from the Clean Air Action Network to shut down the Hudson Falls Wheelabrator plant, but Frisch and other committee members collected names and contact information for attendees. They also passed out a newsletter highlighting air pollution concerns in Warren and Washington counties.
Hudson Falls Deputy Mayor Bob Cook said Tuesday that he’s never heard of the Clean Air Action Network, nor has he heard of Ewall or the Energy Justice Network. He was surprised that a group would discuss the Hudson Falls Wheelabrator plant without inviting elected officials or holding the meeting in the village.
“Wheelabrator, who’s the current owner (of the plant), they’ve been good stewards of the property,” Cook said. “They’ve maintained it well. It certainly generates lots of good-paying jobs. They’re taxpayers not only for the village, but the town, the county and the school district. Without some hard evidence that somehow what they’re doing is causing some sort of an environmental issue, I certainly wouldn’t in any way advocate for its closing.”
Cook has taken a tour of the plant, too, and said not everything goes through the incinerator. Wheelabrator separates out ferrous metals, for example, that might otherwise go into a landfill.
Hudson Falls Mayor John Barton had said in a past email to The Post-Star that he had confidence in the current state and federal regulatory agencies to monitor Wheelabrator’s air quality.
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Wheelabrator officials pointed Tuesday to their past comments to The Post-Star.
Jim Connolly, vice president of environmental health and safety for Wheelabrator, had said “waste-to-energy is globally recognized as a form of environmentally responsible sustainable waste management and clean energy generation. The U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and similar regulatory bodies and countries across the globe endorse and invest in waste-to-energy and prefer it over landfilling.”
Michelle Nadeau, a spokesperson for Wheelabrator, had said legislation like what Ewall proposes is “arbitrary, unlike federal and state regulations.”
“Our waste-to-energy facilities reduce by 90 percent the volume of solid waste we manage, dramatically reducing the need for landfilling and associated greenhouse gases while simultaneously recycling metals and generating clean, renewable energy for local communities from post-recycled household waste,” Nadeau had also said.