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Hudson Falls trash plant

The Hudson Falls trash plant stands along the Hudson River in Hudson Falls in October 2010. A new report lists the plant as one of the worst in the country for certain toxic emissions.

It was surprising to see a report that characterized our local community as one of those places playing host to the sort of pollution-spewing plant that more affluent communities keep out.

A report from the New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center in New York City found that 79% of municipal solid waste incinerators nationwide are located in low-income communities and communities of color. That group includes Wheelabrator’s trash-burning plant in Hudson Falls, where the poverty rate is about 20%.

The report also lists the local plant as one of the worst in the country for lead, mercury and carbon monoxide emissions. The state Department of Environmental Conservation in 2011 listed the Hudson Falls plant as the top emitter of lead among the 10 trash-burning plants in the state.

We understand the plant has been operating within limits allowed under state and federal laws. We understand and are not reassured.

First, our air is not only being polluted by the trash-burning plant but also by the Lehigh Cement plant, which also emits mercury.

Second, because something is allowable doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It was allowable, when GE was doing it in the 1970s, to dump tons of PCBs in the Hudson River.

Third, no one is measuring the cumulative effect of breathing in the polluted air day and night for months and years. No one is talking about the effect on children who grow up in neighborhoods close to the plant.

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No one is doing the sort of comparative studies, such as examining cancer clusters, of the residents surrounding the plant that could give us an indication of how it is affecting our health.

We do know lead is damaging to children’s development — so damaging that no level of exposure is considered safe. The state Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment in The Post-Star‘s recent story on the report, but the state should take a more active role in overseeing the plant and this region’s air quality. We have mentioned before that having air monitoring stations in Stillwater and Wilmington, as the state does, is wholly inadequate when it comes to measuring the air in the Glens Falls region, where there is the greatest need.

It’s too easy for a company like Wheelabrator to claim its operation is safe by saying it meets minimum state standards. That ignores the real-life situation of families in neighborhoods that are not only near the trash plant but also the cement plant and Finch Paper.

Both lead and mercury can build up in the body over years, so a “safe” exposure level may not be safe at all, given prolonged exposure.

The Hudson Falls incinerator is 28 years old, and the average life expectancy of incinerators is 31 years. It is time to consider alternatives.

Over the long term, clean air advocates urge communities to use strategies such as composting, reuse and recycling to cut down on the amount of trash they generate. Most of us do some of these things already, but we can do more without any great investment of time or money. These strategies seem insignificant individually, but collectively they can reduce the amount of trash we generate, making it easier deal with in a cleaner way.

Probably, one simple answer doesn’t exist. The first step is to recognize that we have a problem, as this latest report makes clear. We don’t know how much mercury and lead and other toxins are in the air around here, but we should know. We deserve to know. If you live in the area affected by the trash plant’s emissions, which stretches out in a 3-mile radius around it, and you’re breathing, then this report should be a wake-up call.

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Local editorials represent the opinion of The Post-Star's editorial board, which consists of Editor Ken Tingley, Projects Editor Will Doolittle, Publisher/Controller/Operations Director Brian Corcoran and citizen representatives Connie Bosse, Barb Sealy and Jean Aurilio.

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