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What happens to waste in Cortland County? New Vision students get a first-hand look


April 24, 2024

What happens to waste in Cortland County? New Vision students get a first-hand look

Most people use the restroom or toss a bit of trash in the garbage and never give it another thought. The opposite is true for students in the New Vision Environmental Science program at OCM BOCES. They learn about the harmful effects of domestic waste that’s improperly treated or disposed, leading to discharges of pollutants into the soil, air and water.

Instructor Chad DeVoe gives the students a “systemic” view of domestic waste on an annual field trip to Cortland County facilities that work hard to manage it in environmentally friendly ways.

Most recently, on April 17, students traveled by bus on a 4½-hour tour to the city of Cortland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Cortland County Planning Department, Cornell Cooperative Extension, the Cortland County Recycling Center, and the Cortland County landfill.

DeVoe explained the connections among these organizations, which were sometimes in plain sight. As the bus rumbled to the landfill, for example, he pointed to a truck carrying organic material from Cortland’s wastewater treatment plant. The landfill takes the treatment plant’s “biosolids,” the material that cannot be broken down. The wastewater treatment plant, in turn, treats leachate from the landfill. Leachate is liquid generated from rainfall and the natural decomposition of waste, all of which flows into a collection system. Some call it “garbage juice.”

Throughout the day, tour guides at each stop explained the science and engineering behind all these processes, which often became complex. Still, students listened attentively.

“I tried to understand as much as I could,” said Elijah VanDee, a senior from McGraw.

Like other students, he chose the BOCES New Vision program because he loves being outdoors, learning about the environment, and mostly being free from sitting at a desk all day.

“Traditional school is not my thing,” VanDee said. “I’m good at it but don’t necessarily like it.”

Elena Pfister, a senior from Cortland, is specifically concerned about environmental issues. Outside of school, she serves on Cortland’s Environmental Advisory Committee. Her motivation is simple.

“It affects me,” she said.

The tour begins

At the Cortland Wastewater Treatment Plant, 39-year Director Bruce Adams set up a display table and slideshow in a cavernous garage filled with towering tanks and equipment. He explained how the plant treats wastewater from about 27,000 residents living in Cortland, Homer, McGraw and Cortlandville.

“Sewage is 99.9% water,” he said. “Our job is to remove as much of that one-tenth percent as possible.”

The tour offered a maze of buildings, pipes, tanks, stairs, basins and a cornucopia of odors, some unpleasant. At the end of the tour, Adams gathered with students at a grassy bank on the Tioughnioga River, where the treated water is quietly discharged and barely noticeable except for a wooden sign screwed to a chainlink fence. He said the discharged water is treated “not to a drinking water standard” but to a state-regulated safe level for recreational waterways.

Planning for the future

Waste is also a big concern for the Cortland County Planning Department. When the students stopped by, Land Use Planner Gina Cassidy shared maps and a “General Municipal Law 239 Report” about a current plan to build a Taco Bell on state Route 13 in Cortlandville. The environmental considerations for this single fast-food restaurant generated a mix of ideas, many from the students: waste disposal, noise and light pollution, stormwater management, aquifer protection, snow removal, traffic flow and more. 

Cassidy encouraged the students to consider municipal planning as a potential career. She was a former writer and English teacher who switched careers because planning involves “puzzles” — using maps, writing, and navigating a maze of government rules to turn projects into reality. In Cortland, for example, each of the 19 municipalities has separate building codes, which the planning department tracks.

“When I was younger, I didn’t even know this existed,” she said of her job.

Planning Director Trisha Hiemstra also talked to students about the “Elevate Cortland Strategic Development Plan.” She and her team are tasked with gathering community input, which will guide government priorities for everything from community services to economic development to infrastructure. 

Large posterboards with colorful post-its were propped along the planning department’s walls, and the students looked at them closely. The post-its offered dozens of ideas for improvements from residents at recent public meetings. Heimstra asked the students about one idea — more bus stops into Cortland from outside the city. Would the students use them? Hands shot up.

“I definitely would,” Marathon senior Blaiyer Williams said. “I need a job.”

Hiemstra invited the students to offer their input for the plan at an upcoming public meeting, but they were one step ahead of her. They surprised her with a pile of letters — a written collection of their thoughts on what the “Elevate Cortland” strategic plan should include. They had many ideas, from filling potholes to getting an outdoor equipment store to providing more recreational opportunities for teenagers “that people can afford and access,” Williams said. 

“This is such a pleasant surprise, honestly,” said Hiemstra, holding the pile of letters. “I don’t think any of you understand how awesome this is.”

Later, students stopped by Cornell Cooperative Extension in the same county office building. 4H Team Leader Becky Ireland-Perry said an extension exists in every county in the state. In Cortland, the focus is on agriculture, which includes free soil samples for gardeners. They also offer services you might not expect, such as parenting classes and budgeting.

Rules of Recycling

After lunch, students stopped by the Cortland County Recycling Center. Quickly, some “takeaways” were provided by tour guide Chris Spadolini, the county’s recycling coordinator:

  • Rules about recycling are established on a county-by-county basis.
  • Cortland is now recycling No. 5 plastics, not just 1 and 2.
  • If you don’t wash out your recyclables, they get thrown out.
  • Glass must be recycled in Cortland. By law, crushed glass is used each night to cap the landfill — another connection among the facilities.
  • Next month, the recycling center is taking clothes and shoes for the first time.

“Now you understand,” DeVoe said later to his students. “Market forces drive recycling, and it changes monthly.”

Landfill Limits

At the landfill, the last stop, students also saw something new — a new methane gas collection system and propane burner that stretches into the sky. Burning the gas would help eliminate odors, explained tour guides Jim Aiken, the county’s solid waste supervisor, and his assistant, Ben Perkins. They noted that all the garbage in Cortland County comes to this landfill, which is viable for another 12 years. What would happen next? It was a question the students pondered, with another landfill or new transfer station among the possibilities.

Fayetteville-Manlius senior Rachel Schlicht said she learned a lot during the field trip and found it interesting, including the wastewater treatment plant “with all the steps and filtrations and how the water is always moving.”

Growing up, her love of nature was initially sparked and strengthened during trips to Cape Cod. She loved the ocean, she said, which led to thinking about “lakes and ponds and creeks and waterways” and all the harmful effects of climate change, including acid rain and erosion.

Later, high school biology and environmental science classes led her on a tour to the OCM BOCES New Vision classroom at Lime Hollow Nature Center in Cortland, where the students learn in an on-site classroom but mostly work and study outdoors. Their projects have included maple sugaring, planting trees to support an American Chestnut restoration project, skidding logs for a new structure at the nature center, and a whole lot more.

“I fell in love with the place,” Schlicht recalled.

Next year, Schlicht plans to study environmental science in college, with Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondacks being one of her top choices.

“I think everyone enjoys this class as much as I do,” she said. “I couldn’t recommend a class more.”