The Finger Lakes Are Being Poisoned

The Finger Lakes Are Being Poisoned

The birthplace of American feminism is being buried under a mountain of garbage.


The Finger Lakes region was settled just after the Revolutionary War by a person with long dark hair, eyes of startling intensity, and the voice of a man. Jemima Wilkinson, dubbed the Public Universal Friend, was stoned by an angry mob in Philadelphia and went north with a group of followers to an area of deep blue lakes and agricultural land richer than anyone had ever seen. Within a hundred years, the Finger Lakes had become host to the reform Quakers, the Underground Railroad, the abolition movement, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. When Stanton was barred from an abolitionist meeting because she was a woman, she started the women’s rights movement in Seneca Falls.

The young people—especially young women—protesting climate change in the streets might want to highlight the environmental travesty that is Seneca Falls today. New York City’s trash and sewage sludge is hauled here, 314 miles up the New York State Thruway, in giant diesel trucks spewing black exhaust all day long. You can smell this mountain of garbage in towns 30 miles away. Locating the state’s largest trash dump here—a site filled with historical meaning for the women’s movement—is an act of sacrilege, a rape of the landscape, making the Seneca Meadows landfill emblematic of the connection between indifference to women’s rights and the abuse of the earth.

Each day Seneca Meadows receives up to 6,000 tons of garbage, producing massive amounts of methane and up to 100,000 gallons of leachate water. Some of this liquid filth is piped into the Finger Lakes after being fed through a local water-processing plant; some of it is trucked away, but some of it stands in leachate ponds and, thanks to the area’s characteristically heavy rains and snows, ends up in the lakes anyway. The Finger Lakes are all connected to one another and to the Great Lakes by canals, wetlands, and natural waterways. As the lamprey eel and the zebra mussel have demonstrated, it doesn’t take long for a single import to damage the entire ecosystem. Imagine the long-term consequences of the massive assault on this freshwater landscape.

The November election flipped control of the Seneca Falls Town Council after the defeat of two key Democratic members who supported adherence to Local Law 3, which mandates that the landfill be closed by 2025. An advocacy group promoting the victorious Republican challengers received an outsize $60,000 donation from an affiliate of the Texas waste company that owns Seneca Meadows for a public relations blitz that stressed an unaffordable tax increase if the landfill were to close. The reshuffled board now plans to overturn the local law, expand the landfill dramatically, and keep it open for decades to come.

But the problem goes far beyond the handful of voters in Seneca Falls who let this happen. The existence of this and other mega-landfills in the Great Lakes watershed degrades the quality of life throughout the region and inevitably threatens the freshwater reserves of the entire country. Forty years ago, women from New York City came to the Finger Lakes to protest the nuclear arms depot on Seneca Lake. Today that depot is a nature preserve, a sanctuary notable for its unusual herd of white deer. Will nearby Seneca Falls become a mine for plastic? Or will it become a monument to the environmental protest movement?

Before the disposal of garbage can change, what must change is the concept of “clean” and “unclean.” There is a deeply embedded idea that plastic packaging is clean and that it is an agent of preservation, but the opposite is true—far from preserving, it is fast eroding the natural resources of the world, and there is no such thing as throwing it away.

It is as though three different conversations are going on at once and the speakers cannot hear each other. One is about climate change: the rapidly developing destruction of traditional weather patterns, food sources, topography—in other words, life as we know it. Another is about the future of oil production and new energy technologies. The third conversation is barely heard at all, for no one seems to find it very interesting: It is about the mammoth wave of trash that is not just trash, but the trashing of critical global resources like the Great Lakes.

Can great lakes disappear? Sure. Just look at the Aral Sea. Or reread the words of Rachel Carson, as true today as they were 60 years ago: “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings…the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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