CORTLAND — A poll Cortland County Legislator Charles Sudbrink hoped would sway his colleagues to support a deal to import incinerator ash to cover the county landfill was funded by the company such a deal would benefit.
It was a biased and leading survey, too, says an expert in statistical research methods.
Covanta Energy Corp. funded the survey of 300 people suggesting support for the deal, which would see the county import 4,500 to 5,000 tons of incinerator ash each year, a corporate spokesman said Wednesday. It was conducted by a Buffalo firm, sent to Covanta Energy — which runs the Jamesville trash incinerator on behalf of the Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency — and made its way to Cortland County lawmakers.
“That facility has been under-capacity over time,” said James Regan, communications director for the Morristown, N.J.-based Covanta. “Any increase would be a benefit to not only OCRRA, but the county.”
Sudbrink (R-Cincinnatus, Freetown, Taylor and Willet) said he was approached last spring by Wladis Law Firm of Syracuse about what it would take to adopt an ash-for-trash plan, which was withdrawn from consideration last year after an earlier ash-for-cover proposal was defeated in the Legislature.
Lawyers from the law firm did not return calls, and Kathleen Carroll, Covanta’s Onondaga business manager, said Wladis was not involved. Kristen Lawton, spokeswoman for Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency, said Tuesday her agency had no role in the poll.
Sudbrink said he had all but given up on accepting ash when Wladis lawyers asked what it would take to persuade legislators to agree to a deal.
“Maybe an independent poll or something,” Sudbrink recalled. “It was my suggestion, but I wanted to OK the questions because I didn’t want to bias it. I was actually trying to do the right thing.”
However, the findings are based on biased and leading questions, said Debbie Warnock, a sociology professor at SUNY Cortland who trained in advanced quantitative research methods at the University of Washington.
“I am especially concerned about the second half of the survey, and, in particular, Questions 8-10, which ask respondents whether they find supporter or opponent arguments to be more convincing regarding the “Ash for Trash” proposal,” Warnock said after reviewing the poll. “For each of these questions, the supporter statements are longer and more detailed, including statistics or citing the support of the EPA. The opponent statements are comparatively brief and do not include specific supporting evidence.
“Asking which of these is more convincing when the statements are so unbalanced primes respondents to agree that the supporter statements are more convincing,” she said.
The report was conducted April 15-17 by Barry Zeplowitz & Associates of Buffalo, a political and marketing research firm. It was faxed to its recipient Oct. 17 from Covanta Onondaga, which runs the 40-megawatt waste-to-energy facility, and from there delivered to the county.
“The survey was to get a real feel if the whole county was against ash-for-trash or if it was just the 25 people who stormed the Legislature,” said Carrol, who spoke last week at a 90-minute, heckling-filled Legislature meeting at which the ash-for-cover deal was pulled from consideration.
Zeplowitz said respondents were selected randomly from Cortland County’s registered voters, and balanced to reflect each community’s population. He said results had a margin of error of 5.7 percentage points.
“Unsurprisingly, once respondents have been primed to find the supporter arguments to be more convincing, the support for the proposal increases from the original support question, Question 7,” Warnock said. “Due to the leading and biased question wording of Questions 8-10, the responses to Question 11 are dubious.”
The earlier questions focus more on burning trash to generate electricity and air emissions than they do on disposal of ash.
While support for waste-to-energy topped 80 percent in three questions, support fell below 60 percent once the idea of Cortland taking the ash was introduced.
“There’s been a lot of misinformation about ash,” said Regan of Covanta. “People opposed to things tend to be vocal in nature. That may or may not be a result of misinformation.”
Better the emissions, the worse the ash
The poll was revealed to lawmakers in party caucuses — non-public planning sessions — just before the Legislature meeting at which the ash-for-cover deal was to be approved.
The questions undercut the data, said toxicologist Alison King of Solon, an ash opponent at one of the caucuses. “Who paid for this? Who developed the questions?” King asked. “This is a very nonpublic manner for a legislature to proceed.”
She said the poll results were better off sent to the Solid Waste Committee, which Sudbrink chairs, where they could be vetted in public.
A number of the questions were skewed or inaccurate, King said. In particular, opponents of ash-for-trash have not claimed the ash would increase cancer rates, as the poll suggests.
No specific data prove or disprove a connection between ash and cancer, she said. “There are known toxins. We don’t know what the health risks really are. It needs study.”
And while the poll suggests air emissions are well-regulated and relatively clean, “the better they control the emissions, the more toxic the ash is,” King said.
Eroding public trust
Not that any of those concerns necessarily swayed lawmakers. Legislator Sandy Price (D-Harford, Virgil) said Tuesday she would have voted against ash-for-cover, anyhow, based solely on the wording of the proposed agreement.
“I asked who commissioned it. I didn’t get an answer,” Price said. More important to her was a phrase that would suggest a later ash-for-trash deal was predicated on the ash-for-cover plan, and a clause that identified the ash as municipal solid waste instead of alternative daily cover or a beneficial use determinant.
“Those two things were bothersome to me,” Price said.
In retrospect, Sudbrink said, they are bothersome. “That’s a terrible oversight; I should have caught it,” he said. “I don’t know why it was worded as solid waste.”
Either way, the wording and the poll point to a lack of transparency, King said. “This is the kind of shenanigan that erodes public trust.”