Trash Backlash: The Battle For The Future Of 2 Pennsylvania Towns

Aug 4, 2016
Originally published on August 4, 2016 5:00 pm

Each day, 520 trucks with more than 7,000 tons of garbage trundle through the potholed streets of Dunmore and Throop, Pa. The two small towns, just outside Scranton, are home to the Keystone Sanitary Landfill. The trash, however, comes from all over — just about half arrives from out of state.

Keystone Sanitary recently requested a 40-plus-year extension of its permit, which is slated for another eight years, but local activists are pushing back.

According to Pat Clark, co-founder of Friends of Lackawanna and opponent of the proposal, the towns should not tie their futures to trash.

"We have made our bed 50 and 100 years ago, from coal on forward, so now we are so desperate for any kind of financial revenue that we'll take anything," Clark said.

Keystone Sanitary employs 150 people and, according to a report filed with the Department of Environmental Protection, spends about $8 million locally per year.

"We've supported their municipal finances significantly," said Al Magnotta, spokesman for Keystone Sanitary. "We believe it spins off a lot of business to the local economy that wouldn't exist if it ceased to be there."

Indeed, $4 million of Throop's annual $6 million budget comes from landfill host fees. Dunmore, which was on the brink of insolvency in 2011, recently renegotiated its deal with the landfill. With the expansion, it'll earn more and more over the next 50 years — a total of nearly $200 million.

Friends of Lackawanna also expressed concerns over the local environmental impact of the 750-acre landfill, including the dangers of air pollution and leachate — basically trash juice — leaking into the groundwater. The Pennsylvania DEP, which is reviewing the expansion plans and has final say over the proposal, keeps a close eye on landfill safety.

"Our waste facilities are state of the art," said Ken Reisinger, Pennsylvania DEP's deputy secretary of waste. "They are double lined, leachate collection systems. We have odor control systems, litter control."

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., whose districts include both Dunmore and Throop, have both spoken out against the expansion plans. Casey also introduced to Congress the Trash Reduction And Sensible Handling (TRASH) bill, which would slow interstate waste imports.

Five of the seven members of the Dunmore Borough Council oppose the expansion, but they have wavered in their support. For the struggling area, the money is hard to turn down.

But just as they did with the coal mining industry, Clark said, the towns will eventually have to survive without the income from the landfill, whether in one decade or five. He believes closing the door on the expansion will open up greater opportunities going forward.

"There is no one in the country better positioned to start dictating and changing policies on waste than Pennsylvania because we take the most," Clark said.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Pennsylvania takes in more garbage than any other state in the country and gets paid well for doing so. That makes it a tempting industry for communities in need of an income stream. Reporter Eleanor Klibanoff from WPSU's Keystone Crossroads reports that one community is fighting back, saying it doesn't want its local economy tied to trash.

ELEANOR KLIBANOFF, BYLINE: Northeastern Pennsylvania is known for lush, green mountains. But just outside the city of Scranton, there are a few mountains that look a little different from the others.

MICHELE DEMPSEY: See the sort of messy piles up at the top? That's the top. That's where the active face is. That is where they're putting garbage.

KLIBANOFF: Michele Dempsey is describing the 750-acre Keystone Sanitary Landfill. Each day, 520 trucks trundle through the potholed streets of town, bringing more than 7,000 tons of garbage, about half of it from out of state. Keystone Sanitary recently requested a 40-plus-year expansion. Dempsey is the founder of a group that's protesting that proposal.

When properly maintained, landfills mostly lead to nuisance issues - smells, seagulls, truck traffic. But Dempsey's group is concerned about the threat of bigger problems like air pollution or leachate, basically trash juice leaking into the ground water. Ken Reisinger at the Department of Environmental Protection says the agency watches Pennsylvania's landfills very closely.

KEN REISINGER: Our waste facilities are state of the art. They're double-lined leachate collection systems. We have odor control, litter control.

KLIBANOFF: The state DEP gets final say on the expansion. Al Magnotta, spokesman for Keystone Sanitary, says the real value of the landfill can be seen in the budgets of Dunmore and Throop, the two towns that host it.

AL MAGNOTTA: We've supported their municipal finances significantly.

KLIBANOFF: Significantly - in the tiny borough of Throop, $4 million of the town's annual $6 million budget comes from landfill host fees. Dunmore, which was on the brink of insolvency in 2011, recently renegotiated its deal with the landfill. With the expansion, it'll earn more and more over the next 50 years.

MAGNOTTA: We provide a lot of employment to the area. We believe it spins off a lot of business to the local economy that would not exist if, in fact, it ceased to be there.

KLIBANOFF: Keystone Sanitary employs 150 people and, according to a report filed with the DEP, spends about $8 million locally per year. In essence, it's an industry - something northeastern Pennsylvania hasn't seen much of recently, particularly not one that pays so well.

PAT CLARK: That's almost like an abused person syndrome.

KLIBANOFF: Pat Clark, co-founder of the group that's opposing the expansion, thinks this is deja vu for the region.

CLARK: We have made our bed 50 and 100 years ago by raping the environment - you know, from coal on forward. So now we're so desperate for any kind of financial revenue that we'll take anything.

KLIBANOFF: Clark thinks turning their backs on trash could present a real opportunity for the state.

CLARK: There's no one in the country better positioned to start dictating and changing policies on waste than Pennsylvania because we take the most.

KLIBANOFF: This landfill and the two small towns that host it are the latest example of a dilemma that has plagued Pennsylvania for centuries, a tug of war between environmental concerns and economic needs - from coal to steel to fracking and garbage. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Klibanoff in State College, Pa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.