After a several year hiatus, the county’s Green Committee, a subcommittee of the county legislature devoted to environmental issues, was reinstated May 23 with legislators Michael Eachus, Barry Cheney, Myrna Kemnitz and Leigh Benton, and Commissioner of Planning, David Church.
Its first incarnation was in 2007 as a Green Building Study Committee, which metamorphosed into the Energy and Conservation Committee in 2010, said Chairman Barry Cheney at the first meeting. In 2013 the members stopped meeting because “they just didn’t call for meetings anymore,” said Eachus, one of the legislators who had been pushing for it to come back.
Counting the accomplishments of the previous subcommittee, legislators said it was instrumental in requiring a LEED-certified architect to work on any new county buildings (LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), creating an anti-idling policy, and the Children’s Earth and Water Festival, which took place on June 4 this year.
In the first meeting Eachus, said he hoped it would be a “clearinghouse” for environmental issues and that more legislators and commissioners would be a part of it.
“There were more participants at the legislative level and at the commissioners level [last time]. I think that’s one of the reasons we were successful,” he said in a phone interview after the meeting. “We actually had more information right there at the tip of our fingers.”
Some ideas for projects were cutting down on the use of paper within county government, looking at the efficiency of the government center and other buildings the county owns, and assessing the benefits of single stream recycling.
Legislator Myrna Kemnitz suggested looking into upgrading a water filtration plant in her district that is unable to filter out salt that is leaking into the Ramapo River. The county gets good bond rates through U.S. Department of Energy for efficiency upgrades, and she wondered if the filtration plant met the criteria.
Another issue the county is facing is recycling its electronics. Both the county and several municipalities have lost their electronics recycling vendors, which means they are not able to accept things like televisions or computer screens.
“And you know what happens, people start dumping them on the side of the road,” Eachus warned at the meeting.
Cheney said he thought the county was putting out a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a new vendor, but in the meantime pointed to a county-wide list of recycling places called “Recyclopedia” compiled by Dirt Magazine that is available on the website for Sustainable Warwick, a citizen group that works on environmental issues among other things.
Almost in conjunction with the new subcommittee, the County hired a recycling coordinator on May 31, filling a position that had been vacant for over two decades.
Ermin Siljkovic, the new coordinator, graduated high school in Goshen in 1999 and now lives in Campbell Hall. He has a master’s in urban affairs and public policy from CUNY’s Hunter College and a bachelor of science in administrative studies with a minor in business from St. John’s University in New York. He worked in New York City for eight years as a subcontractor for the City’s Department of Sanitation doing recycling outreach in Manhattan for GrowNYC.
“His background, experience and enthusiasm make him a perfect fit for this important position,” said County Executive Steven Neuhaus in a statement. “Ermin has previously developed a variety of new and innovative programs and I know Orange County will benefit from his expertise.”
He will report to Peter Hammond, deputy commissioner of Environmental Facilities and Services, which is under the Department of Public Works.
Siljkovic will be developing outreach programs to “elevate the knowledge level associated with recycling and reuse” as one of his first priorities, Hammond said. He will also be working on a comprehensive recycling and materials recovery plan, said the county executive’s office in a release.
Church said he hoped the new coordinator would work with the Orange County Water Authority (OCWA), a quasi-governmental organization that sends educators into schools to teach children about water conservation.
OCWA Conservation Educator MaryLynne Malone, said recycling would fit naturally into their week-long program because waste and water issues go hand in hand.
The new coordinator will also be responding to comments the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) made on the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) it prepared in 2010. The County hired Cornerstone Engineering and Land Surveying, LLP out of Middletown to create the plan, but since the DEC returned the plan with comments in 2012, nothing was ever done. The DEC currently lists Orange County as “in review phase” on their website for their SWMP.
Cheney said the estimated cost to pay an outside firm to respond to the DEC’s comments would be something like $80,000 to $100,000, which is why it has been “put on the back burner.”
Getting recycling contractors to follow the rules is another issue that the new coordinator will need to address. Eachus said at the meeting he has tracked IWS trucks that have picked up both recycling and waste, and dumped it all at the county’s transfer station.
“Certainly compliance is an issue,” Cheney said.
The new coordinator will also save taxpayers money in the long run, said Elizabeth Knight Moss, a member of Sustainable Warwick who has been researching the county’s waste management practices for several years.
She became interested in the issue when she moved to Warwick almost three years ago and saw piles of usable items being put out on the roadside as trash. Through a Freedom of Information request, she found out that the Village of Warwick alone collected 60 tons of trash during one spring cleanup, costing taxpayers almost $7,000.
When she researched what was happening to all that stuff, she found much of it was ending up in a landfill in Pennsylvania.
In the 2010 draft of the county’s solid waste management plan, it said the county’s plan had not been updated since 1995, and the county “has relied upon landfilling as the primary means of disposal.”
“That’s a waste of money,” Knight Moss said in a phone interview. “If we can reduce what goes into the waste stream, it costs less money to haul it some place, it costs less money to maintain the trucks, and [pay] the drivers to haul it there.”
“Even if you don’t care about the environment, care about the money.”
Sustainable Warwick does outreach in schools to educate children about recycling and preventing waste from being created. Knight Moss, along with her husband Roger Moss, have been working on waste diversion as another way to prevent excess from going to the landfill.
She found only one reuse center in the county, the ReStore operated by Habitat for Humanity in Newburgh that takes usable but unwanted items and resells them at a large discount. “That’s a long way to drive,” said Knight Moss, who lives in Warwick.
She is working on getting another reuse center in a barn outside Warwick so there is an easy way to get rid of usable but unwanted stuff responsibly.
After working with the county for two years to get a recycling coordinator, she said it feels “satisfying” to know they finally have one.
The county was ahead of its time in the 1980’s when it had a recycling coordinator, said Michael Edelstein, the chairman of Orange Environment who worked with the former recycling coordinator, Steve Praser. He said they were working towards zero waste, a revolutionary concept at the time, and that the previous coordinator had made significant progress in finding markets for recycled material, a key to a successful recycling program.
They were so successful, the county had no need for a 34-acre landfill it got a permit for in 1988, and the permit for the $52 million landfill expired in 1994 after never being used.
When the recycling coordinator position was cut, a lot of that progress was lost, Edelstein said, and Orange County fell behind other counties in the region when it came to recycling.
Knight Moss said before the new coordinator was hired, Orange County was the only one in the DEC’s Region 3, which includes Dutchess, Putnam, Westchester, Rockland, Ulster, and Sullivan counties, that did not have one.
The county is applying for a 50 percent reimbursement from the state for Siljkovic’s salary, Hammond said, and if the state accepts their application, they may be reimbursed “a few years down the road.”
“I’m really glad they decided to do the right thing and put the money where it needs to go,” Knight Moss said.
“There’s more green in your pocket when you operate in a green way.”
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