by Sam Pratt
The following article appears in the current issue of Our Town: The Columbia County Quarterly, and will appear here in four installments over the next two weeks. Link to the second installment: Part II
Arguably, the last real act of investigative journalism in Columbia County was committed 23 years ago.
In the summer of ’88, headlines in the Register-Star ran from the banal (Frozen Drinks are Popular at Area Bars) to the sordid (Grandinetti Suspect in Threat Against Chief’s Niece, Nephew).
But the steamiest topic that season was solid waste.
Trash talk had erupted all over the region, from Milan and Red Hook, to Stockport and Taghkanic. Garbage disposal was at the center of the controversy du jour, and nowhere was it hotter or more fetid than in Claverack.
For months, intrepid reporter Daniel Bellow doggedly covered the contested closing of the Snydertown Road dump. What began as a small, unlined town facility, had become the County’s landfill of last resort. Neighbors groused about the constant truck traffic and the risk of chemicals leaching into their wells, along with the peculiar absence of wildlife in nearby wetlands and streams. The dump was set to close in July by order of the State, but soon the County Board of Supervisors’ newly-elected Democratic leadership, headed by Chatham Supervisor Fran Blake, became embroiled in a bitter legal dispute with Claverack Super John Hess.
Hess and Claverack Town Attorney Allen Miller expected the State consent order to be upheld. Blake and BOS Attorney Carl Whitbeck insisted the Snydertown dump be kept open to prevent a “culture shock” for the County—code for the millions in fees it might cost to ship the trash elsewhere. Meanwhile, Tim Schools of the H.K.S. Hunt Club filed a private lawsuit against the County. And Dr. Jeff Monkash, heading up Concerned Citizens Against the Dump, called for scrutiny of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, likening the DEC staff to “cockroaches in a dark kitchen, who scatter when the light is turned on.”
Unlike many reporters today, Bellow understood his job demanded more than merely transcribing each round of “he said/she said” arguments. (Lately, one often gets only “he said.”) First he filed Freedom of Information Law requests for data officials wanted suppressed.
Then he got up from his desk at The Register-Star to do some actual legwork.
Tramping around the dump, Bellow found paint cans poking out of the earth, oily pools of water, and a frothy oozing “orange foam.” Following the sludge downhill, he observed polluted water breaking through berms, which the County’s engineer had said were adequate to prevent the spread of leachates.
“The Claverack dump is bursting with garbage,” Bellow reported, “and leachate visibly runs out the bottom like coffee through grounds. Two miles away, and 200 feet lower in elevation, is the Churchtown Reservoir, serving the City of Hudson, fed by streams that originate near the dump.”
“Uncontrolled leachate is clearly visible,” he elaborated in another article. “Red and blue, it gushes out the bottom of the mountain of garbage there, feeding the stream that runs along the bottom of the pile, running into the swamp at the edge of the dump.” Worried that his investigative work might fall victim to political interference or a publisher’s whim, Bellow filed one key report on a weekend afternoon, after much of the paper’s staff had gone home.
“All hell broke loose with that one, and Fran Blake had some choice words for me,” Bellow recalled recently.
Finally, after several court rulings and reversals, the dump was shut down and capped. Today, Monkash still wonders what might be seeping from the site into the water table, and the entrance is marked only by an improbable, peeling sign which reads: Town of Claverack Animal and Bird Sanctuary. County Public Works Commissioner Richard Brady soon moved on, as did Bellow, to the more professional climes of the then locally-owned Berkshire Eagle.
In his short time here, Bellow demonstrated the unique power of the press to hold public officials accountable. His work both clarified and amplified legitimate public concerns. There have been a few other bright spots since then: Jill Hazelton exposed scandals in the Hudson Police Department in the now-defunct Independent; she moved on after her car was firebombed by a buddy of Chief Jimmy Dolan. And Register reporter Sean Springer filed a series of valuably candid reports of County Supervisors’ shenanigans, leading soon thereafter to his reluctant resignation. Such journalistic acts have a tendency to hasten both the enactment of reforms and the departure of the journalist.
Our nation’s founders recognized that democracy depends on “an informed populace.” They understood the so-called Fourth Estate to be a crucial, independent check-and-balance on all three branches of our government. A quarter-century after the Snydertown dump debacle, such sustained, courageous, on-the-scene reporting has become an endangered species, fast approaching extinction.
But when the press fails to exercise its full rights under the Constitution, the fourlegged chair of our democratic system tends to go all wobbly.
Next Up: Part II of Missing Ink will look at the results of a survey of 400+ area residents’ views on our local media.