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In the Catskills, One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Business Model

As New York cracks down on climate change, green energy projects are encroaching on the state’s most rural landscapes.

A proposal by Hughes Energy Group to build an organics recycling facility in the Catskills has inflamed local resistance.
Don’t Trash the Catskills
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What attracted Kris Seto and Joseph Imhauser to the Catskills was the region’s peacefulness, tranquility, and unspoiled beauty. But not long after moving to the area, the two found themselves at the forefront of a battle between residents and an industrial developer.

With the race on to develop alternatives to fossil fuels and meet New York State’s goal of 70 percent renewable energy by 2030, rural areas with lax zoning regulations, if any, are facing a flood of applications for green energy projects—a practice some residents describe as predatory.

An organics recycling facility in the Roxbury hamlet of Grand Gorge is the latest in a series of energy proposals for the Hudson Valley and Catskills, including several hotly contested solar farms and a hydroelectric project for the Ashokan Reservoir (the latter was withdrawn following public blowback). The developer, Hughes Energy Group, is proposing a facility that would process up to 176,400 tons of municipal waste per year, using a novel autoclave method to turn trash into a biogenic fiber—a process which its creator, Wilson Bio-Chemical, claims can divert up to 90 percent of trash from landfills.

The facility would be on the border of Greene and Delaware counties, nestled between the communities of Roxbury and Prattsville, neither of which have zoning regulations.

Credit: Don’t Trash the Catskills
A rendering of the proposed plant generated using Hughes Energy’s specifications as outlined in their proposal to the DEC.

“There are goods and bads,” says Greg Cross, town supervisor of Prattsville, which must approve Hughes’ proposed use of the town’s wastewater treatment plant. “It’s a matter of which one tips the scale. Do people want to trade tranquility and peace and quiet for a factory with some upsides?”

For residents like Seto and Imhauser, the answer is a resounding no.

Trash, Trash, and More Trash

The US ranks number one in the world for per-capita waste, producing 12 percent of the world’s trash despite accounting for only 4 percent of its population. It is also the only developed country where municipal waste generation outpaces recycling.

In 2018, New York generated 18.2 million tons of municipal waste, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Thirty-nine percent of that ended up in landfills, 28 percent was exported out of the state, and 16 percent was incinerated. Only 17 percent was recycled. The state is home to 25 landfills, 10 combustion facilities, and about 150 anaerobic digestion sites, according to the DEC. New York has about 213 million tons of landfill capacity remaining, which DEC estimates will last approximately 20 years. The Northeast is expected to run out of landfill capacity within eight years.

New York’s landfills accounted for 58 percent of the state’s methane emissions in 2014. Landfills are the third-largest source of methane nationwide. Methane has more than 80 times as much warming power as carbon dioxide and accounts for about half of the 1 degree Celsius rise in global average temperature since the pre-industrial era. Reducing methane emissions is considered the single most effective strategy to reduce global warming.

The US recently signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce global methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Despite the reduction of greenhouse gases compared to a landfill, the plant will still generate 600 pounds of methane, 900 pounds of Hazardous Air Pollutants, 18,887 tons of carbon dioxide, and 1.4 tons of nitrous oxide per year, according to the application. By comparison, every ton of food waste that decomposes produces about 143 pounds of methane. These emissions include what the plant itself will generate and does not include emissions from trucks going to and from the facility; however, DEC will be considering “other potential emissions” as part of the state Environmental Quality Review.

Credit: EPA

Waste will be trucked into the facility from a 50 mile radius from the Hudson Valley, Southern Tier, and Capital District, according to the application. Nearby Greene County is not planning on sending waste to the facility, County Administrator Shaun Groden says. Rather, the county will offer composting services at its transfer stations, prompted by New York’s new Food Donation and Food Scraps Recycling Law, which takes effect next year.

“Catskill solid waste station will activate first as a pilot,” Groden says. “We’ll work out kinks, and then move to all other locations. But I would assume by summer, all locations will go live.” 

Waste that cannot be composted will continue to be sent to Seneca Meadows in Waterloo, one the nation’s largest landfills. The facility, which processes two million tons of waste per year, is permitted to operate until 2025, but Groden believes its lifespan will be extended. “It is our understanding that Seneca will be given an extension or allowed to increase air space well beyond 2025,” he says.

For Hughes Energy Group Chief Executive Officer Dane McSpedon, organics recycling—where organic material such as food and yard waste is repurposed into biofuel or other products—is a promising alternative to landfills. 

“By recycling organics that are destined for landfill, we eliminate the production of new methane in the atmosphere,” he says. “By using our fiber for the production of paper, we reduce the amount of trees that are cut down in order to produce paper. The forest is one of the largest and most significant carbon sinks on the planet.”

The Application

Hughes, a Yonkers-based company, submitted its application to the DEC in January. The facility also requires approval from the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and the towns of Roxbury and Prattsville. In a declaration issued in September, the DEC said the project “has the potential for at least one significant adverse environmental impact,” citing its potential to negatively affect traffic, noise, odor, and water resources in the area.

Former US Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck is urging DEC to reject the project. “This is a terrible idea,” she says. “DEC should reject it and the company should stop wasting people’s time. It’s not a solution that’s good for the environment.”

In accordance with state regulations, Hughes has created a closure plan for the facility and is required to maintain $241,000 as financial assurance in the form of a trust fund, surety bond, or a letter of credit to cover the cost of closing the facility should it have to close unexpectedly. The company is also proposing a community advisory committee that will provide feedback on the operations.

The Technology

Organics recycling is a relatively new technology. The plant would use a Wilson System, which was invented in 1998 by UK-based engineer Tom Wilson, who won the Queens Innovation Award for it. Wilson Bio-Chemical has installed the system five times in the UK and Ireland, according to McSpedon. The Grand Gorge facility would be its debut in the US.

Here’s how it works: Batches of about 22 tons of unsorted municipal waste are put into a container called an autoclave, which uses high pressure and temperatures to treat the material. Organic material is heated to 320 degrees for 40 minutes, and then sorted using an automated process. Once dried, the fiber is pelletized and sold.

Enck calls the process “highly unusual. Autoclaving is usually used when someone wants to reuse medical equipment,” she says.

McSpedon disagrees. He notes that autoclaves were first used for organic recycling as far back as the 1940s in Alabama. “Many other companies use autoclaves for organics material recycling,” he says.

Credit: Wilson Bio-Chemical
A Wilson Bio-Chemical autoclave.

In June, Georgia Pacific opened an organics recycling center in Oregon that uses autoclaves operating a different system to turn organic waste into fiber. The fiber is then used to make paper for Georgia Pacific. The facility can process 100,000 tons of municipal waste per year, making it smaller than the operation proposed for Grand Gorge.

The Catskills proposal is not Hughes’s first attempt to build an organics recycling facility in New York. The company also expressed interest in building a facility in Rockland County in 2018, but the plans have not materialized. According to a company document, Hughes Energy responded to a Request for Expressions of Interest issued by Rockland County. “This process is ongoing and Rockland County has not yet issued a formal request for proposal for companies to respond to. Hughes Energy is actively pursuing locations in addition to the Roxbury location.”

Hughes is looking at alternatives in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, California, and other sites in New York, McSpedon says.

The Site

Hughes is proposing to build a seven-story building to recycle municipal waste. The site is a short drive from the second oldest fossil forest in the world in Gilboa, within five miles of two state forests, and less than a half-mile from the Schoharie Reservoir, which supplies about 16 percent of New York City’s drinking water.

“There’s not a lot of places like this left in this country, sadly, especially in New York,” Imhauser says. “To see an industrial plant of this size and scale trying to come in and build on a place that’s never had a building…it’s really disheartening. Most people are here because of how unique and pristine this land is, whether they’re a tourist or have been living here for 50 years. That is the pull here.”

Despite the environmental sensitivity of the area, the site was selected in part due to its proximity to the existing Greene-del Sanitation and Recycling station, according to Hughes. “The project selected this location for several reasons including the parcel availability, existing permitted transfer station and regional demand for waste management options,” according to the company. “The New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), along with decreasing landfill capacity and increasing disposal costs have created an environment of increased demand for alternative waste management options.”

But Imhauser thinks it has more to do with the lack of zoning regulations. “[Hughes] is very well aware they have chosen a location between two particular towns that don’t have any zoning or permit restrictions to build this thing. To build it in an industrial site in Troy or Albany, they would have to deal with more regulations than what they have to deal with here, even though we’re on the border of one of the most important forest preserves on the east coast.”

NRDC New York City Environment Director Eric Goldstein, who sits on the Climate Action Council’s waste advisory panel, also says it’s a “terrible location” for a waste facility. “To call this a sustainable project or environmentally friendly is truly a misnomer. This project is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Hughes is proposing to grade the site so that the roofline is no more than 30 feet above the ground, and use berms and trees to minimize the visual impact. Still, the sheer size of the facility raises concerns for residents, according to Cross, the Prattsville supervisor. “The building itself will stand out like a sore thumb. By their own admission, they intend to be a good neighbor, but that remains to be seen at this point.”

Wastewater from the facility would be routed to the Prattsville Wastewater Treatment Plant and then discharged into the Schoharie Creek. “They are proposing 5,600 gallons a day,” Cross says. “Our current flows, plus that if approved, would still put our plant at about 50 percent capacity.”

Questions remain about what exactly will be in the wastewater, and whether it will have to be pretreated before going to the treatment plant, Cross says. In response to public comments, Hughes says that leachate, or liquid containing remnants of the garbage, is unlikely. “Any liquids in the waste are removed through the autoclave and drying process and do not become part of the wastewater stream that is discharged to the sanitary sewer,” according to a company statement. “The facility wastewater is generated from cleaning and maintenance of the steam generating equipment and is primary dissolved solids.” 

Local Opposition

Hughes Energy held two informational meetings over the summer, which drew strong opposition from the community. A grassroots coalition called Don’t Trash the Catskills was born, which has been working alongside environmental advocacy groups Catskill Mountainkeeper and Riverkeeper to get the word out. An online petition against the project has garnered 1,800 signatures.

“There were a lot of critical comments made against the project, from traffic to the idea of 175,000 tons of garbage being brought through town,” Cross says. “The upside is, the proposal to reduce landfill dumping by 80 to 90 percent is huge. But that tradeoff doesn’t add up for the locals.”

Seto sees the promises of jobs and tax revenue as Hughes dangling a carrot before the mountaintop communities. “I feel like they’re targeting an economically disadvantaged area,” he says. “There’s such a need for jobs, such a need for stability—we’re especially susceptible to predatory development.”

The project is anticipated to create 200 construction jobs, 50 permanent full-time jobs, and generate $700,000 in taxes, according to Hughes. It also has some environmental perks. By diverting waste from landfills, the facility would offset about 500,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, McSpedon says.

Hughes estimates that 42 tractor trailers will visit the plant each day, or four to five per hour. The trucks will arrive at the facility from the northeast using Route 23 through the towns of Windham and Prattsville; from the northwest on Route 23 through Stamford; from the southeast using a combination of Routes 28, 42, and 23A, which pass through Phoenicia, Lexington, and Hunter; and from the southwest on Route 30 through Roxbury.

Several of the mountaintop roads listed in the application, including Routes 17, 23, and 42, were severely damaged in the Christmas Day storm in 2020. A section of Route 42 was closed for months for repairs. Local residents such as Imhauser and Seto question whether these already battered roads can handle the additional traffic.

Credit: Hughes Energy
A map of the proposed truck routes from the DEC application.

The area is home to popular tourist attractions like Hunter and Windham mountains and Kaaterskill Falls, which draws over 200,000 visitors per year. Congestion and illegal parking on 23A in the summer months caused such a safety concern that the town of Hunter created an impound lot at town hall. The traffic impact study indicates that the additional traffic is within the capacity of the proposed routes, according to Hughes.

A great concern for Enck is where the final product will end up. “It’s wildly irresponsible to propose this project and not say where the end product is going,” she says. “If the goal is to burn it, that means significant air pollution…They’re basically attempting to create a landfill in the sky.”

Hughes plans to send the fiber to upstate paper mills, McSpedon says. “Using our fiber displaces the need to use virgin wood pulp to produce paper, thus adding another significant benefit for carbon offsets.” But the project website does not mention using the pellets to make paper, instead describing the product as “carbon-reducing biofuels,” “an alternative to fossil fuels,” and “feedstock for renewable power and fuel production.”

Hughes’s application indicates that the product will be sold out of state. McSpedon did not respond to additional questions about where the product will wind up.

Seto remains skeptical. “It’s a very contractionary project,” he says. “They get a whole lot of money, we get their pollution.”