On September 8, 2014, I went with a friend to check on conditions at the Orange County Landfill and the Cheechunk Canal, just as we have done several times in the past. And as we expected, leaching and sloughing have worsened since our last visit.
The Orange County Landfill opened in 1974, taking in the county’s municipal garbage and more until it closed in 1993. The 75 acre landfill is situated on top of the county’s largest aquifer, and right in between the old Wallkill River channel, and the Cheechunk, where we have made all of our observations.
The Canal was built in the early 1800s to drain the upper Wallkill River Valley and thereby create thousands of acres of rich farmland. The black dirt region still depends on the Cheechunk for drainage.
In 1992 black dirt farmer and landfill neighbor, John Pahucki gave my students from Middletown High School and me our first tour along the Cheechunk.
“You see them banks down here? Well in spring of course, the river gets higher. You get the spring thaw, snow, although we haven’t had it for the last couple of years. But you don’t see that on the other side do you? If you look back there farther, on the other side where the trucks were, both banks are equal on both sides. But not around here, not at the landfill. If you go past the landfill it’s okay, but here it has been pushed out.”
“There’s a little road on the other side, and that is what they contend is doing all of this pushing. How many vehicles have you seen go by on that road since we have been here? That’s what you’ll find, one a day, but they are blaming the heavy equipment. There’s no bulldozers here. They have a problem. The road is cracking.”
We crossed the Canal to get close to the landfill for a better look.
“You see them trees being pushed right out, and if you look, it’s coming right from the landfill. Look between them trees. Look at how it is being pushed out. It narrows right up. Take a picture of that tree. See how it’s leaning back? They’re leaning back. I tried to explain to you, if you just think about it. If this tree were being washed out, the roots, the tree would fall in. Why is it leaning back? Because the dirt underneath it is being pushed out.”
Our next recorded visit was in the summer of 2010. Unfortunately, most of John Pahucki’s assessments had proven accurate. The channel had become further pinched off. It appeared that the clay banks were being pushed outward, the shelf sloughing toward the river. Trees were bent over the wrong way. Monitoring wells were bent too. Leachate was seeping out of the banks.
We returned again in the spring of 2012, before the vegetation grew thick, so that we could observe the landfill from the other side of the canal. There was continued evidence of sloughing and leaching.
We noted that the side of the river opposite the landfill had been clear cut, a controversial effort made on behalf of black dirt farmers to open up the clogged channel, increase the drainage, and thereby end the frequent floods that plague the region. Opponents fear that such actions could further destabilize the landfill.
Our most recent visit to the Canal this week made it clear that the problems where the landfill meets the Cheechunk are rapidly mounting. The laws of nature are followed without fail. Gravity continues to pull the heavy mass of garbage towards the river. Water continues to run its way over and through the clay and garbage, loosening and pushing; eroding and leaching.
The laws of New York and the United States, however, have not been adhered to as closely. Both our county and state governments have been well aware for many years of the dangers posed by the landfill to this stretch of the Cheechunk as well as to nearly everything both up and down stream; from the black dirt farms of Pine Island all the way to Wallkill and New Paltz, then Kingston and the Hudson. The State DEC and the County DPW know that dangerously high levels of highly toxic chemicals like ammonia and manganese have shown up in recent leachate samples.* And they know that it will only get worse if something isn’t done.
Our government’s reluctance to face the problem squarely is almost understandable. Who wants to ask the public for exorbitant amounts of money to repair old mistakes that they would rather forget? But this enormous pile of garbage, red bag, and toxic waste is as much a part of our crumbling infrastructure as our tunnels and bridges. We put it there. We neglect it at our peril.