Pat Clark's OpEd: Landfill’s record should kill expansion plan

The Times-TribuneMarch 24, 2019

We are taught that rainbows and wild geese should not be chased. Circles cannot be squared. Windmills are not to be tilted at, nor pipes to be dreamed of.

But can a group of concerned citizens stop a mega-landfill from expanding and cementing a region’s reputation as the dumping ground of the northeast?

In 2014, the Keystone Sanitary Landfill proposed to triple in size — adding more than 100 million tons of garbage over the next 40 to 50 years. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection uses a harms-benefits analysis concerning landfill expansion proposals. To obtain an expansion permit, a landfill must prove that benefits of the project clearly outweigh known and potential harms.

Our area has accepted more than its fair share of garbage, much of it from out of state; instinctual questions about safety, prudence and need for such an expansion arise and intuition does not carry the day in the harms-benefits analysis. Facts are needed and a record must be established.

At the time of application, Keystone pointed to its stellar compliance history, lack of violations and self-proclaimed “state of the art” status. Ignoring the notion that a landfill being state of the art today is the equivalent of having the fastest dial-up internet in town, the landfill’s compliance file at DEP, to that point, was thin.

Knowing the violation history was virtually nonexistent, Friends of Lackawanna began by analyzing the process DEP used to regulate the landfill. And after a lengthy review, the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board agreed that the DEP had not done its job.
The board found that DEP’S process with the landfill was a “heads I win, tails you lose” loop, always favoring the landfill, stating that “the biggest deficiency with the Department’s review [of Keystone’s compliance history] was that it relied almost entirely on recorded violations, yet the department almost never records any violations at Keystone, even if they undeniably occurred.” That “essentially guarantees that the permittee will pass the formal compliance history review with flying colors.”

That dereliction of duty is how a landfill morphs from a small, neighborhood dump to defining the aesthetic landscape of a region. In 1990, Keystone could accept an average of 2,000 tons of waste per day. In 1991, it increased to 3,500. In 1998, it increased again to 4,750. And from 2012 on, it is up to 7,250 tons daily.

Having established that the oversight process was broken, we attempted to prove there are actual harms associated with this landfill. We looked through records, read reports and requested health data. We have established a record that is anything but flawless. The everfattening record includes:

■ State-confirmed ongoing contamination of groundwater at the landfill for more than 15 years.
■ Landfill citations from DEP for leaking, spilling and improperly storing leachate.
■ The landfill discharged leachate into the sewer system, according to the Environmental Hearing Board.
■ Keystone’s data show property values nearest the landfill have decreased relative to property values farther from the site.
■ DEP confirms that surrounding neighborhoods have been increasingly impacted by pungent odors.
■ A state Department of Health consultation shows toxic chemicals, known to cause adverse health effects, were found during ambient air testing. That can impact our most-sensitive populations: children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with respiratory problems.
■ DEP has not “consistently exercised vigorous oversight of the landfill consistent with its regulatory and constitutional responsibilities with just as much concern about the rights of the landfill’s neighbors as the rights of the landfill,” the Environmental Hearing Board reported.

The community at large has supported our mission at every turn. Our network of members continues to grow after five years, including standing-room capacity at public hearings and informational sessions. Our elected public officials — U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright; Pennsylvania Sen. John Blake and state Rep. Kyle Mullins — all support our position and oppose this expansion. Our active online petition opposing the expansion has soared past our signature goal of 5,000.

Over the five years, we have moved from a nonexistent record to one filled with undeniable harms. We have shifted from a community accepting the status quo to one fighting for a better future. We have shifted from instincts to indisputable evidence.

With what it now knows, if DEP allows this expansion it will ignore the record, the community, our elected representatives, the known and potential harms and its constitutional duty as a trustee of our natural resources. Friends of Lackawanna has made our case. All the DEP needs to do in order to deny this expansion is read the file.