Neighbors say Perinton landfill violates their constitutional right to 'clean air' 

click to enlarge High Acres landfill looms over a neighborhood in Perinton. Residents claim the dump violates their state constitutional right to "clean air, clean air, and a healthful environment."


High Acres landfill looms over a neighborhood in Perinton. Residents claim the dump violates their state constitutional right to "clean air, clean air, and a healthful environment."

The sour scent of rot hung over Perinton Parkway one early spring day.

The parkway meanders southeast off Route 31F at the edge of town, through an office park, marshlands, athletic fields, and cow pastures. To the north, a residential neighborhood rises in the distance. To the south lies the source of the smell: the  Waste Management’s hulking High Acres landfill.

The dump is a rolling landscape of trash, grassland, and methane-release pipes jutting from the ground.

“There’s two different odors, there’s the gas odors, and then there’s the garbage odors coming from when they open the landfill and are actually dumping, or the trains unloading from New York City,” said Gary McNeil, president of citizen’s group Fresh Air for the Eastside, which formed in 2017 in response to the foul smells from the dump. “That gets a little worse in the summer, you’ll smell a much more pungent waste odor.”

The two sides are no strangers to litigation. Fresh Air for the Eastside has two lawsuits against Waste Management pending in both federal and state courts.

But early this year, Fresh Air escalated its efforts when it filed a parallel lawsuit to press the boundaries of a nebulous new amendment to the state Constitution that gave New Yorkers the right to “clean water, clean air, and a healthful environment.” In its complaint, the group contends the landfill, which has a permitted footprint of 360 acres and a permitted volume of 71.5 million cubic yards, is running afoul of the amendment.
click to enlarge The High Acres landfill is cleared to take in over a million tons of garbage every year. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • The High Acres landfill is cleared to take in over a million tons of garbage every year.
Voters approved the so-called Green Amendment during the 2021 election and it took effect at the start of the year. The latest Fresh Air lawsuit, which was filed in January, is widely believed to be the first in New York to take on the constitutional amendment.

For Fresh Air members, the end goal is to close the portion of the landfill that sits in Perinton and cap it with a clay barrier. The landfill straddles the border between Perinton and Macdeon in Wayne County to the east.

“We felt that the facts and the data we have in this case rises to the level of, it’s so egregious that yet another state case should be brought specifically under this new right to clean air,” said Linda Shaw, an environmental attorney who lives about a mile from the landfill and represents Fresh Air for the Eastside in its federal and state lawsuits. “It’s ongoing, it just hasn’t stopped for four years.”

The latest state lawsuit has received some attention in legal, environmental, and waste industry circles. Some groups believe it will have implications for combating climate change at the state and local levels.

RELATED: Perinton looks to breathe easier with respite from NYC trash

Residents have complained steadily and loudly about the odor problems at High Acres for years. Fresh Air for the Eastside filed its first lawsuit, the federal one, in 2018.

“(Waste Management) is also causing an imminent and substantial endangerment to health or the environment as a result of its past and present handling, storage, treatment, transportation, or disposal of solid waste because of continued odors and landfill gas emissions impacting the community,” read the federal complaint.

The group has voiced its loudest objections over the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash hauled each year to High Acres by train from New York City, something members specifically blame for the odors.

Still, in August, the Perinton Zoning Board of Appeals unanimously approved a five-year special use permit to allow Waste Management to keep operating the landfill.

A few months later, in December, the town and Waste Management signed off on a new host-community agreement that stipulated no more than half of the trash dumped at High Acres annually could come from New York City. In practical terms, it means the amount of trash coming in from downstate per year is capped at 536,000 tons.

The agreement, which contains an eight-point odor reduction plan, also calls for continuous monitoring at three sites in the landfill for hydrogen sulfide — a gas that emits a scent akin to rotten eggs — and a direct bureaucratic process for holding Waste Management accountable for failing to contain odors.

The approvals set the stage for the new state lawsuit, in which Fresh Air asked the court to invalidate the town permits and the host community agreement.
Residents’ odor complaints are still common, according to the lawsuit.

As part of a plan to collect data on how the landfill is affecting its neighbors, Fresh Air launched an app that allows community members to lodge complaints about odors. The group tallied 1,778 complaints over the first half of 2021, according to the lawsuit. For all of 2020 there were 4,604 complaints, some from as far away as the village of Fairport, which sits about four miles west.

“It’s correlated with wind direction, it’s correlated with weather,” Shaw said. “You can correlate in the data that, okay, all the people on the west side of the landfill reported today because the wind was blowing in their direction.”

Garrett Treirweller, public affairs director for Waste Management’s Upstate New York and New England market, said in a statement that the company is currently reviewing the new state lawsuit.

“Waste Management is committed to addressing any open issues and to bring these cases to a satisfactory conclusion for all interested parties,” the statement read.

For Perinton Supervisor Ciaran Hanna, the town’s relationship with Waste Management is one of pros and cons.

Because of High Acres, Waste Management pays the town up to $1 million in royalties each year and additional payments. The town has also developed a “tech team” that regularly meets with Waste Management, and the town’s administration now holds monthly meetings with the company.
click to enlarge A Waste Management truck collects recyclables in a Perinton neighborhood near the High Acres landfill. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • A Waste Management truck collects recyclables in a Perinton neighborhood near the High Acres landfill.
Ultimately, Hanna said, the town has little recourse against the landfill since the dump is permitted to operate by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We’re not the regulatory body, we can’t shut them down,” Hanna said. “The only thing that we can do is try to do the best for our residents to make sure that these odor events are few and far between, or non-existent.”
McNeil called that assertion “a lie.”

“In order to operate the landfill, Waste Management not only needs the permits from the state, but the permits for land use from the town,” McNeil said.

When asked if he had the power to simply halt operations at the landfill’s Perinton side, Hanna paused to contemplate before providing an answer.

“I’ve lived here for well over 20 years, I see the benefit the landfill brings, and I’ve seen the problems it brings,” Hanna said. “It’s a hard question, I would have to say, I will stand by our (Zoning Board of Appeals) and the research they did, and they felt it was appropriate to issue the permit. Ultimately, I guess the answer would be no.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].
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