Thursday, September 19, 2019

Synagro and Waste Management withdraw Slate Belt Heat Recovery Center land development plan after board motion is made to deny it

At last night's Board of Supervisors meeting, Synagro's program manager Jim Hecht, Counsel Mike Brennan and Counsel Elizabeth Witmer spent a half hour mealy mouthing the supervisors, as they attempted to explain why they should be granted an 18-month extension and the board should take no further action on this evening.

Let's rewind - on September 9, Synagro refused to allow an extension of the deadline that was September 30, 2019, so the planning commission had to vote on a recommendation to the board.  They voted 4-0 to recommend rejection of the plan.  Synagro was asked by the planners to grant a 90-day extension, but Synagri claimed they could not do this without consulting Synagro management.

On Tuesday, September 17, Synagro reportedly contacted Plainfield Township, and offered an 18-month extension of the plan.

Solicitor Backenstoe explained that the board had only two options at Thursday's meeting, to accept Synagro's extension/negotiate a shorter version (eg 6 months, etc), or deny the plan.  Accepting the plan with conditions was not possible because the planning commission and Synagro had not reached mutually acceptable conditions.

Then Synagro started its song and dance, claiming that it was blindsided by the planning commission on September 9 when it required at least a 90 day extension in order to work on major deficiencies.  Jim Hecht claimed he did not have authorization to make longer than a 60-day extension.  Mr. Hecht suggested that board Chairman Heard poll the township's experts to see how many line items had been resolved over the course of the reviews, suggesting that if it was a high number that Synagro should be granted additional time to address remaining items.  Mr. Heard did not fall for this trick, and we'll see where this ends up below.

In typical Jim Hecht self-contradictory form, he stated that he felt Synagro could resolve remaining issues in 1 month (there is no way in hell this could be done), but was requesting 18 months.  Yeah - this makes sense.  All that could happen in one month is a slim chance that DEP will issue a permit that Synagro and Waste Management could weaponize against the township.  DEP hasn't issued a response to the public comments made at the November 2018 hearing, but it does feel like they may be on the brink of something.

Chairman Heard asked Mr. Hecht point blank "will you agree to do an environmental impact statement?" which he never got an answer to, again in typical Jim Hecht form.  The best he received was a mealy-mouthed "Well, that is something we are willing to look at."  Not "Yes, that is why we need 18 months," but rather "we're willing to take a look and we think we can be ready in a month..."  An EIS would take several months.
Synagro made its bed by ignoring the most significant deficiencies in its application
It caught up to them on September 19

After speaking in circles with Mr. Hecht, Counsel Brennan took over, mealy mouthing his way through an argument that Synagro has worked with the planning commission, blah blah blah, and we thought we had addressed the major outstanding issues (two variances, a SALDO issue, and lack of an EIS).  "We submitted an Environmental Package and a Hydrogeological Package."  It is true that Synagro submitted collections of pages with those titles, but they did not contain an EIS or a hydrogeological study.  This was just more scraped from the walls of a crock of shit.

At this point, Robert Lynn, engineer for the township requested the microphone, and addressed Mr. Hecht's line item survey challenge.  Mr. Lynn pointed out that while several individual line items have been addressed, many remain in addition to the ones that Synagro has not addressed (the EIS, variances, and SALDO).  Mr. Lynn pointed out that of the sticking points, there has been little progress for months.

Chairman Heard questioned Synagro about why it had not gone to the Zoning Hearing Board for variances.  The mealy mouthed reply he received was that Synagro wanted to resolve its violations (which it has steadfastly denied exist) through design changes.  This is just nonsense.  If Synagro has picked up the phone and asked the Zoning Officer, he would have told them at each step that they have resolved either variance.  Mr. Heard stated that in 12 years he has never seen an applicant not go and get variances.  This resulted in Mr. Hecht mumbling that he was just now realizing that Synagro might have to go the Zoning Hearing Board.  He didn't state that they would (they could/should have submitted an application in the intervening time since September 9, if they were acting in good faith - which they are not).  Mr. Heard added that while this is a permitted use, he sees this proposal as very negative for development the Slate Belt - people want Starbucks, not sludge plants and trucks hauling odorus waste through town.

Counsel Witmer said something at some point that was of no consequence.  It was not as daft as usual for her, but there is a saying about fool me once, fool me twice.  It is doubtful many listened to what she said.  Basically she held to the "we don't believe these variances or EIS are required, but hey we tried to work things out (our way, not yours)" storyline.

At this point, board member Jane Mellert spoke.  She stated that she had been to all the review meetings.  She itemized that there had been nine 30-day extensions and two 60-day extensions since the reviews began.  Now Synagro is here suddenly asking for an 18-month extension, and you never went for your variances. (Mr. Heard also made these points).  You came into the September 9 planning meeting unprepared to agree to a reasonable extension to address major issues - why is that?  It was obvious where the vote was headed after Mr. Heard and Ms. Mellert had spoken.

Mr. Heard again spoke, and made clear that an EIS would help the township assess the impacts the project will have on the community, including neighbors.  The landfill has been an issue, and now you are going to add another potentially problematic business on the same site - this merits a study.

Mr. Heard made a motion to reject the application.  Before there was a second, Mr. Brennan's hand shot up and he yelled out "can we have a 5-minute break?"  The audience groaned, there was some confusion, and eventually Solicitor Backenstoe explained that the either the board should follow through with a second and then discussion and possibly take a break, or Mr. Heard retract his motion and a break be taken per Synagro's request.  Mr. Heard retracted his motion as a courtesy, and Synagro and Waste Management huddled in conversation.  At the end of the break, it was announced that Synagro and Waste Management were withdrawing their application.  Note that the Applicant technically is Grand Central (Waste Management) and the Operator is Synagro.  Also note that if Mr. Heard had not retracted his motion, after it was seconded - which it likely would have been by Ms. Mellert - the application could have been withdrawn then, prior to a vote.
Pardon the interruption

This caught many by surprise, but the lawyers in the room suspected it.  For the township, it will save the expense of defending an appeal in court - pocket change for the Applicant but several tens of thousands of dollars potentially for the township. While a rejection could be appealed, withdrawing avoids the bad press of a rejection.  Let's face it, Synagro doesn't need any more bad press.  As Mr. Backenstoe pointed out, Synagro and Waste Management could turn around and file a new application tomorrow, starting the entire process over again.  Mr. Hecht was seen looking annoyed as he shoved some items into his carrying bag - but he had no one to be upset with except himself.

It is unknown what will happen to the four DEP permit applications.  It is hard to understand how they can work on permits for a project that does not exist, but this is the DEP and they appear to "want" this kind of project.

Courtesy of the floor
Tracy Carluccio pointed out that Synagro is gaming the system, by pulling its application and being able to file another one.  It is causing the township a great expense.  She said the Riverkeeper Network will remain committed to protecting groundwater and the high quality creeks that the basin feeds with the groundwater.  If this proposal comes back, the RiverKeeper Network will be too.

Howard Klein pointed out that Synagro was not able to get a simple additional 30-day time extension on September 9 supposedly because they could not contact management, but on this evening within 5 minutes they received approval to withdrawal their application.  Mr. Klein stated that the board must be sure that the township is in attendance at all DEP meetings, and he had heard that they were excluded from an important one on May 23, 2019.  The Municipalities Planning Code must be changed so companies with very deep pockets like Synagro and Waste Management can't bleed towns dry of cash by dragging out applications; if Synagro/Waste Management want to file a new application, they should reimburse the township for the $200,000 it spent defending itself against this plan.

Don Moore pointed out the details of what happened on May 23, and displayed two agendas for back to back meetings that Tom Pullar of Synagro's engineer EarthRes had crafted with Roger Bellas of the DEP, that excluded the township from a discussion of deficiencies of sedimentation basin #2.  Mr. Pullar had previously told the township that they would be participating in this meeting.  Mr. Pullar stared at the floor as Mr. Moore pointed out the deception that had taken place.  Mr. Moore also stated that this project is not economic development - real economic development would be for Waste Management to return the township's trail when the landfill closes, which would allow the township trail to travel through Grand Central Woods and connect with Wind Gap and Pen Argyl.  Trails - especially through trails - are known to increase adjacent property values.

Elisa Robles presented the board with a petition signed by over 1000 citizens, objecting to the project.

Tom Carlo pointed out that this project was said to be all Green Knights and Synagro when it began, and no questions could be asked of Waste Management.  It has become clear that Waste Management is the Applicant and more questions should be asked of Waste Management if this project returns.  Sludge is not safe for application to land - it contains 350+ known pollutants, 60+ hazardous.

Sheri Acevedo of Northampton County Parks encouraged the township to be vigilant and uphold its ordinances, including requiring an EIS for a project with such potential impacts.  The township also must not let applicants file new materials a few days before meetings - if there is a 21-day rule it must be enforced uniformly.

Rachel Rosenfeld of the Sierra Club congratulated the township on the recent passage of its Appalachian Trail Ordinance, which implements various protections of the Appalachian Trail corridor and throughout the township.  Ms. Rosenfeld stated that the Sierra Club seeks to assist communities in protecting its citizens from degraded natural resources, especially high quality waters - as are present at the proposed Synagro site.

David Flyte reminded everyone that Synagro/Waste Management owes at least $21,000 in land development review fees.

Several speakers thanked the planning commission members for the outstanding effort they put into reviewing Synagro's application, over the course of 2 years and 10 months in total.

Synagro and Waste Management will be back with another try at this - they are way too greedy to let this opportunity go, no matter how insane their proposal is.

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