Riverhead's landfill reclamation project including using sand from the landfill — which had been used as daily 'cover' during the landfill's operations — to produce asphalt. Photo: "The Case of the Disappearing Landfill" by NYSDEC environmental engineer Carl Fritz

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

That ancient French phrase is all about Riverhead Town Hall. It would take many columns to cover all the shenanigans of Riverhead’s town hall majority. Where one’s patience, however, really gets the test is the mentality to close things up, to throw transparency out the window, to unnecessarily shut down town hall itself, then deny it was ever closed.

But let’s not digress from the purpose of this column. The next few minutes you spend reading this won’t get enough in about the hapless crew — aka the town board majority — we suffer today. Instead, why not get into some long-term effects of shadow government, and what it has done in Riverhead’s past, and Riverhead’s situation today, and Riverhead’s future?

And what better place than the little budget game the town played with the Riverhead landfill all those years ago, back in the Janoski administration?

You see, town government was growing fast, and Supervisor Joe had a lot to do with that, in a positive way. But as town expenses climbed, taxes had to stay low, or Joe’s reelection would be jeopardized. A quick revenue source to keep taxes down: tipping fees at the town’s landfill. Those fees funded the costs of running the sanitation department. The trick was increasing revenues to a point where they could also support the general fund that pays for town operating costs. Because that means no new taxes — and that, in turn, means reelection to another two-year supervisor’s term. You’re in like Flynn, as the saying goes.

The supervisor — and a select few who knew — decided to bring in garbage for our landfill from out of town. Also, Grumman Corp., the jet-maker, according to reliable sources, made a special dumping deal with the town.

And all this additional solid waste, demolition debris, etc., raised tipping-fee revenue in bundles. At the same time, it added many tons into the landfill — so much more than anyone really knows. Our landfill was a sort of open-season place, and the fees were not bad when you add it up. It was about volume. And most of all, it kept town taxes down.

And all this was under the radar. No discussion that anyone remembers ever took place at any work session, at least not publicly. Sound familiar? Today’s town leadership has moved so far away from discussing real business at their work sessions that we can’t even hear an echo.

Then, still in Joe’s tenure, along comes NY State. The state passed a law requiring all landfills on Long Island to shut down, because they were (and continue to be) threatening to the island’s water supply. The State Department of Environmental Conservation was tasked with enforcing the landfill law, overseeing the closures, and approving alternative plans for solid waste management.

As this state mandate — unfunded, by the way — came crashing down on all Long Island communities, Riverhead officials decided not to simply cap the landfill, as was the standard procedure, but rather pursue a reclamation project. Riverhead’s landfill had a lot of sand that could be used for making asphalt and that could help fund the cost of eliminating the landfill. The buried trash would be unearthed, sorted, screened, recycled where appropriate and disposed of off-site. It would bring in revenue and meet the court-ordered closing. And when it was completed, the landfill site would be a passive-use park, not a capped dumping ground that still poses a threat to groundwater and requires regular monitoring in perpetuity.

The town’s engineers were hyper-enthused about the plan. In fact, so was the State DEC. So much so, in fact that a DEC solid waste expert even published an article about what a great project this was.

And that’s when the hushed, under-the radar, tax-stabilizing arrangement, by then in effect for years, blew up in town hall’s faces.

Whether the reclamation project, or the simple (not really) capping, both had a common first step: garbage had to be removed to a certain level in order to begin. And that’s when the shock set in: Riverhead had so much unexpected landfill content to remove – tons upon tons more – that the town had even quietly rented acres of adjoining property from a private owner to bury the additional garbage.

A subsequent lawsuit between the town and its consulting engineers, resulted in a settlement. It was basically about the direction that the consultants took the town with landfill decisions. They, too, were blindsided by the volume of the outside-sourced waste stream.

The asphalt project actually had a good start, though it was vehemently opposed by the Long Island asphalt producers all the way up to Albany, but that’s another story.

Still, when presented with this cleverly concealed reality, the engineers changed their conclusions, and with all that newly discovered, extra volume, they urged the town to cap. The lawsuit, BTW, was privately settled, again, behind closed doors. But the town’s contracted engineers paid something to the town in settlement.

It’s the tens of millions the landfill issue has cost the town that hurts.

Today, deranged yammering rewrites history and manufactures new “facts” about what happened. There’s talk of how the landfill debacle could have been avoided, fueled by misinformation and falsehoods spread both by some elected officials and those who hide behind fake social media profiles. Some even say that the landfill expenses after the Janoski deal were all avoidable, that the extra costs were about about ancient artifacts and even, incredibly, aliens. What? They would have you believe capping was an easy, inexpensive option.

The reality is, capping would have required the digging up and removing tons of buried trash anyway — especially the trash buried on adjacent rented land. Much would have to be removed and the rest consolidated to a manageable area to be capped and monitored. It’s not like the town could have just thrown a blanket over it. The simplistic utterances about what could have/should have been done demonstrate nothing but the ignorance of the speaker. I won’t speculate on what the talk about artifacts and aliens demonstrates.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an excerpt from a published paper written by DEC environmental engineer Carl Fritz after DEC approved the reclamation project:

“One problem with constructing a cap on the landfill was that the landfill had encroached onto an adjacent property. In order to meet the regulatory capping requirements, the waste landfilled onto the adjacent property line would have to be excavated and moved. In addition, the side slopes would have to be re-graded to meet the DEC closure requirements. The Town agreed to perform a [reclamation] pilot project in that area, since it would have to be moved anyway if the Town eventually capped the landfill. When the pilot project was completed, the Town would come back to the DEC with the results.” (Read the full paper below.)

Capping was a huge, costly endeavor to begin with. Poor as well as abandoned and disappeared record keeping compounded the problem many times over — so did secretive Town Hall antics. Engineers later juggled. Then they paid a settlement.

But we taxpayers are really the ones who’ve been doing the paying, in the form of debt to pay off, borrowed to carry out state-ordered and eventually court-ordered, landfill closures.

Paper authored by NY DEC environmental engineer Carl Fritz, who was the DEC monitor for the Riverhead landfill reclamation project. Source: http://www.jconoverjr.com/riverhead%20landfill.htm (Downloaded in 2006.)

“The Case of the DIsappering Landfill, or To Mine or Not to Mine” by Carl E. Fritz Jr., PE by RiverheadLOCAL on Scribd

Correction: This column was incorrectly published in the “local news” section instead of the “opinion” section when first published.

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Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg