AES ash landfill grows under careful watch

Gwen Chamberlain
The hill behind the farm buildings is the landfill where AES disposes of ash and lime from its combustion process and air pollution prevention systems. The highest elevation, now about 704 feet above sea level, could reach 756.2 feet above sea level according to approved plans.

State regulations require officials from AES to keep Town of Torrey authorities informed if there are ever pollution problems at the coal-fired power plant’s growing flyash landfill.

If water samples taken from the landfill’s monitoring wells repeatedly indicate levels of pollutants exceeding the ranges permitted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the town of Torrey must be notified.

And, if there is ever such a problem, there are specific steps outlined in the state regulations the company is required to follow for continuing to operate the landfill, says the plant’s environmental engineer Jim Hastings.

But in nearly 30 years of operating the landfill, the company has not had to notify local authorities of a problem. In fact, says one of the engineers responsible for the landfill, there has only been one instance of elevated readings from one of the monitoring wells.

Jim Daigler, an independent engineer who has been working on the landfill’s design and layout for several years, says there have never been elevated levels of heavy metals found in routine sampling. “If there were something, there would be immediate action,” he said.

Tim Chambers, AES operations manager, says if elevated levels of pollutants were ever detected in the retention pond that collects groundwater runoff from the landfill, AES would pump the water from the pond and take it to a sewage treatment plant to be treated.

Water in the pond is tested periodically by an independent accredited laboratory. Once the water is determined to be within the limits set by the DEC’s permit, a valve can be opened to release a batch of water into a drain which leads to the Keuka Outlet. Chambers says water is released from the pond about six times annually.

Jim Hastings, an environmental engineer with AES, says the only elevated reading that has ever been detected in the periodic sampling was one instance of one deep well showing an elevated level of boron, but the reading went down in follow-up testing. He said there has never been any detectible mercury in the landfill.

Hastings, Chambers and Daigler spent nearly two hours with the Torrey Town Board and interested residents March 10 to present information and answer questions about the landfill and power plant.

One of the reasons the three men met with local officials is because they have heard of concerns about the height of the landfill.

One of the DEC permits that’s required for continuing to operate the landfill is under review for renewal, and the renewal process is in the public comment phase.

The landfill, located on the Swarthout Road, west of the AES plant, is approved by the DEC for the disposal of fly ash, bottom ash, water/wastewater sludge and mill rejects.

In addition to the ash, the company disposes of lime from the power plant’s air pollution control systems in the landfill.

The company owns about 45 acres at the landfill site, where ash has been placed on about 30 acres. The landfill operates under two permits: One regulating the operation of a solid waste landfill and one regulating stormwater runoff, the permit under review.

The first ash was placed on the landfill site in 1979 over a 2 ft. thick soil liner along with a leachate collection system.

Chambers said over the years, AES has spent $800,000 operating the landfill.

Daigler said the highest point of the landfill is about 704 feet above sea level. The current DEC permit will allow the landfill to reach a height of 756.2 feet above sea level.

“The general idea is you have to try to optimize the ground you are covering and that manifests itself in height,” said Daigler, who used a series of illustrations to show plans for expanding the landfill.

The ash that is disposed on the site is moist when it’s trucked to the landfill, which keeps it from being blown from the landfill. With the addition of lime, used in the power plant’s pollution control systems, the ash hardens.

As necessary, soil is placed over the ash. In the spring and summer, grass is cultivated in the soil.

Beneath the pile of ash and lime are layers of soils and a barrier to prevent integration with the earth below.

In addition to the ash from the local power plant, ash is being hauled to the landfill from another AES facility in Pennsylvania, a situation that the men said is temporary while the company secures permits meeting new regulations in Pennsylvania.

Typically, in Pennsylvania, the ash is disposed in coal mines.

Although activity is not often noted on the landfill site, Chambers says workers from City Hill Construction are on site every day.

He says he has an arrangement with a local farmer, allowing the farmer to let his cattle graze on a portion of the AES property. In exchange, Chambers has asked the farmer to contact him immediately if he notices anything unusual, such as blowing ash, from the landfill.

The men said the company is seeking beneficial alternatives to disposing the flyash in the landfill. Chambers said some of the material has been used as flowable fill in a major Syracuse area construction project, and there may be similar options in the future.

The landfill is still in the first of three phases of development, and the man said the site is likely to be used for many years.

Chambers encouraged all the people in the audience to contact him directly if they have concerns about the landfill. “Please call me first. The only way I can take care of a problem is if I know about it,” he said.