Garbage Wars

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The new millennium is approaching, as are predictions of Biblical-scale natural disasters and global phenomena of a bizarre and extreme nature. In New York City, politicians are promising something nearly as cataclysmic: the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill, the largest garbage dump in the world, a dross heap so vast it is visible from outer space.

The date scheduled for Fresh Kills’ finale is Jan. 1, 2002, which just happens to be the day Mayor Rudolph Giuliani leaves office. Talk about your parting gifts. Before the next mayor moves into Gracie Mansion, the city will have to find a new home for the 13,000 tons of residential trash New Yorkers discard every day.

By then, however, Mayor Giuliani has promised to have the problem wrapped up. Here’s the plan: The city will ship most of the trash far away, probably to Virginia, in big, privately owned barges.

Yet in order to do this, the city must set up several transfer stations–enclosed garbage dumps–in waterfront neighborhoods to provide staging areas where tons of trash can be stored until the boats come to scoop it up. The city’s preliminary plans reveal that the nominees selected for this honor are among the poorest and most environmentally blighted communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

They include residential neighborhoods that are already home to some of the city’s highest levels of pollution: Greenpoint-Williamsburg, Sunset Park, Red Hook and Hunts Point.

And that could be Rudy’s biggest problem.

These communities, along with Southeast Queens, currently house more than half of the city’s 85 private waste transfer stations, sites which have a less than clean record for honest and sanitary operation. Now these neighborhoods, along with a seasoned coalition of environmental and advocacy groups, are vowing to fight against the mayor’s plan with every resource they have. Usually that’s not saying much. But local environmental campaigns have a nasty history of beating City Hall. If communities can re-employ the stalling strategy they used to kill the proposed Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator plan five years ago, they have a good chance to halt this plan.

“This is the real battle,” says Yolanda Garcia, executive director of Nos Quedamos, a Bronx-based community planning group that is part of a coalition of garbage-targeted neighborhoods. “Everybody’s organizing now, spreading the word. We cannot be the sacrificial lambs for the rest of the region.”

The dimensions of this conflict will become a lot clearer this August, when the city will award an as-yet undetermined number of 20-year contracts–each expected to exceed $100 million a year–for the job. Among the 13 companies applying are some of the biggest names in the trash-hauling world: Browning-Ferris Industries, Waste Management and USA Waste.

Even if the companies are able to muscle past local opposition, they still must surmount huge logistical problems presented by the city’s outdated rail, waterway and road infrastructure, which will be pressed into service to bear the Fresh Kills burden. Four years before the new system’s slated starting date, the administration is relying on the multinational waste management companies to devise the solutions.

“It’s a very ad hoc process,” says Eric Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The administration knows where it wants to end up, but it doesn’t quite know how to get there.”

Or whether they’ll get there at all. In fact, many are beginning to question whether the city truly intends to shut down Fresh Kills by 2002, if ever.

“I’m skeptical of whether they will close Fresh Kills at all,” says Barbara Warren, director of the New York Toxics Project and a Staten Island resident who has battled to get the big dump closed.

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To understand the city’s current garbage crisis, it is important to know its origins. For years, the city has recognized that Fresh Kills is rapidly filling up and needs to be replaced. In 1992, the Dinkins administration, led by Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel–whom the Village Voice dubbed “The Garbage Broker”–concocted a scheme to burn the landfill’s waste in eight incinerators, including a massive one in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The issue united diverse constituencies that had been divided by race, income and mutual distrust: Latinos and the Hasidim in Williamsburg, Polish immigrants, Irish and Italians in Greenpoint, African Americans and West Indians in Central Brooklyn. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, whose Grand Street co-op was located a mere 500 yards from the Navy Yard site across the East River, also became a fervent opponent. “It would be hard to find a more detested and less popular proposal in New York City over the last 20 years than the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator,” says Goldstein.

The opponents of the plan weren’t merely multicultural, they were methodical. After an initial defeat, they sold the City Council on passing a law forcing the city to create a sweeping, costly and time-consuming environmental impact statement. The EIS strategy had two objectives: to delay the project beyond the political careers of its sponsors and to raise the costs to an untenable level. On both scores they succeeded.

The effort was spearheaded by a coalition of environmentalists and activists, held together by the New York Public Interest Research Group. “We slowly squeezed the life out of the project,” says former NYPIRG organizer Martin Brennan, dubbing it the “anaconda strategy.”

First, they intervened in the permitting process, challenging technical aspects of the incinerator’s operations. Another lawsuit succeeded in having the incinerator’s ash classified as toxic waste, raising the cost of landfilling the by-products. The price tag went up. More and more politicians turned against it, and the municipal incineration strategy was killed for good in 1996 when state lawmakers passed a bill explicitly prohibiting it.

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Brooklyn’s victory, it turned out, was Staten Island’s warning call. Fresh Kills, named after the creek that cuts into the borough’s Jerseyside shore, opened in 1948, first as a temporary waste station, later as a permanent science-fiction monstrosity that rose to 500 feet in height. In the 1990s, the 2,100 acre landfill–never properly designed or permitted–has been declared a major health hazard in several environmental studies.

As of 1993, Staten Islanders had not only assembled an army of anti-dump activists, they had created a full-scale political movement, culminating in an as-yet unrealized push for secession from the city–a move fueled, in part, by rage over Fresh Kills.

Indeed, many of the anti-incinerator activists also played a behind-the-scenes role in the Fresh Kills closure. Larry Shapiro, an attorney with NYPIRG, worked with local elected officials in Staten Island on the issue, ensuring that any legislation to close Fresh Kills would also include a provision banning incineration.

For obvious reasons, Republican politicians have seized on the Fresh Kills issue. Staten Island is the city’s most conservative borough and home to the city’s sole GOP dynasty, led by Borough President Guy Molinari. Giuliani probably would not have been elected mayor in 1993 were it not for the strong voter turnout in Staten Island, and Governor Pataki’s strongest downstate electoral support came from the borough. So from the beginning of their terms, Giuliani and Pataki have both stumped against the dump.

In May 1996, Giuliani, Pataki and Guy Molinari broke out the champagne bottles before the cameras, announcing that Fresh Kills would be phased out and permanently closed by 2002. They didn’t say how they intended to do it.

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The decision to shut down Fresh Kills was a shocker to waste watchers citywide. There was no advance planning or any type of study undertaken beforehand. In appearances before the City Council in 1995 and 1996, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty had never even hinted that a closure of Fresh Kills was on the horizon. Nor did the matter come up three months before the announcement when the administration completed its Solid Waste Management Plan, a document most noteworthy for its recycling timetables.

Over the next few months, a strategy began to take shape. Giuliani adopted a three-phase plan: First he would convene a public task force to discuss alternatives; then he would incorporate their general suggestions into a set of options. Last, and most important, he planned to send out a fill-in-the-blanks request for contract proposals, allowing big garbage companies to respond with highly detailed blueprints for the entire post-Fresh Kills system.In effect, he had privatized garbage planning.

The Fresh Kills Task Force, which included agency officials, Molinari and his then-Congresswoman daughter Susan, as well as two environmentalists (Barbara Warren and James Tripp of the Environmental Defense Fund were added after protests) released its report last year. In it, the panel recommended that each borough produce its own waste management strategy. When the boroughs each presented a plan to the city in the spring of 1997, they criticized the city’s reliance on marine exporting and the administration’s backroom planning tactics. The counterproposals were a hodgepodge of solutions relating to stepped-up recycling efforts, reductions in the waste stream, such as limits on junk mail, and a call to cut the use of existing waste transfer stations.

The Giuliani administration, however, would have none of it. It seems like the mayor had his own ideas from the start–creating a massive new waste export system that would ship most of the trash by sea, and at least one-third by land in trains and trucks. “The administration heard what we had to say and ignored most of it,” Warren says.

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The key document of the city’s new policy is the request for proposals sent out to garbage companies–and it painted a very clear picture about what kind of system the administration favored. In a half-inch-thick document released last June, the city explicitly solicits only those proposals for shipping garbage out of the city via barge.

Although city officials refuse to divulge details about the 13 proposals they have gotten back, City Limits has reviewed some of them, and they confirm that neighborhood-based waste transfer stations will be at the core of the new garbage infrastructure. For the most part they target Brooklyn and the Bronx. Late last year, an environmental aide to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden told the weekly Brooklyn Paper that the mayor’s office will really only consider sites in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Plans for Staten Island transfer stations, the staffer complained, were nowhere in any of the plans he had perused.

Recognizing the need to start local lobbying efforts, one company has been very open about its intentions. American Marine Rail (AMR), a New Jersey-based company, recently held a public hearing in the South Bronx to explain its plans for a massive transfer station in the Hunts Point section. “Sooner or later, everybody’s going to have to talk to people about this,” says Robert Jones, a principal with AMR. “We think it’s better to do it now rather than later.”

According to company officials, AMR wants to develop a five-acre marine transfer station near the Oak Point Freight Yard, just a few blocks away from the city’s poorest residential neighborhoods. Refuse would be transported to the site via barge, put into containers and moved to rail cars, which would carry it out to an unspecified landfill. The facility could handle as much as 5,000 tons of trash a day, or nearly 40 percent of the city’s entire residential output, according to AMR.

The plan would rob local residents of the right to develop their own turf the way they see fit. The Point, a community development corporation, has been trying to transform 11 acres of nearby waterfront property into a beach club called La Playita. “We have a grand plan to use that space,” says Paul Libson, the organization’s associate director. “There’s not a hell of a lot of waterfront property available in New York City, much less the Bronx, and we have no public access right now.”

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But designs for the Bronx are less ambitious than what private-sector garbage entrepreneurs have in mind for Brooklyn, where the entire waterfront from the Queens border to Bay Ridge is an underdeveloped dumping ground-in-waiting. Indeed, no less than five sites have been targeted for marine transfer stations by private companies, according to Borough President Golden.

Currently, the city uses eight marine transfer stations, but they are small, designed for barges to travel short distances on the relatively placid waterways of the New York Harbor and the East River. If the city’s going to export the waste outside its borders, it will need a larger fleet for more treacherous waters. In other words, there must be a large marine transfer station with the size and capacity to unload barges coming from within the city and re-load the waste onto mega-barges.

Sources say USA Waste has proposed turning Red Hook’s Erie Basin into this mother of all transfer stations. The site is the former New York Shipyard, surrounded by a 2,500-foot breakwater, at the foot of Columbia Street. The surrounding area has witnessed a minor renaissance in recent years; piers have been refurbished and leased to private businesses. Erie Basin is located only a few blocks from Red Hook Houses, a public housing project with some 8,000 residents.

Unlike the existing marine stations, Erie Basin is deep enough for ocean-going barges and has the infrastructure suited for a large-scale operation. Two other sites in Red Hook are also being eyed, according to local press accounts.

Browning-Ferris Industries–a company that earned Giuliani plaudits for helping bust the mob-controlled commercial carting business–is also considering space along the Brooklyn waterfront, at the 65th Street Rail Yard in Bay Ridge. The advantages of that site are numerous: acres of open space, access to railroad lines plenty of potential barge berths.

But this area, too, is near a major housing development–Bay Ridge Towers, a politically active co-op that defeated a heliport planned for the area. Bay Ridge is also part of the Staten Island congressional district that just elected Vito Fossella, who played a pivotal role in closing Fresh Kills.

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It’s not as if there’s a shortage of other ideas for developing the water’s edge. In fact, most of the communities on the short list for these new marine operations are either in the process of wrapping up or have already completed comprehensive plans for improving their waterfronts. Most of them have advocated “mixed-use”–a combination of open space, recreation, manufacturing and housing.

In Sunset Park, where at least one massive marine transfer station has been proposed, planners and residents met for a weekend-long conference in early December to defiantly discuss various non-putrescent proposals.

There was talk of boosting manufacturing through new rail lines and a hub port, creating parkland, establishing a high school. There was no support for a marine transfer station. “We want public access, parks and recreation,” says Gene Moore, district manager of the local community board. “No one wants a waste transfer station.”

The heavily residential neighborhood already bears the mark of one of the worst urban planning atrocities of the 20th century. In the 1940s, planning city powerhouse Robert Moses bulled through the Gowanus Expressway, which split the neighborhood in half and effectively killed the Third Avenue corridor, the main commercial street for the neighborhood’s then-thriving Scandinavian population.

The garbage plan, residents say, will have as damaging an impact on the area’s current Puerto Rican, Dominican and Mexican populations.

“People don’t think this community is saturated–it is,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park. “We have the Gowanus reconstruction, which is [re-routing] 10,000 cars a day through Sunset Park. There’s already a bus depot here.”

Both the Sunset Park and Bay Ridge proposals would also obliterate ambitious plans to develop a major shipping port from Atlantic Avenue to 65th Street, anchored by a new rail tunnel connecting New Jersey and Brooklyn. “I don’t know how real these [garbage dump] ideas are, but they’re idiotic,” fumes Jerrold Nadler, the Manhattan and Brooklyn congressman who has spearheaded the port plan. “Sixty-fifth Street [in Bay Ridge] is the one rail yard we have that can be used for ship-to-rail purposes. We can’t use it as a marine transfer station.”

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Whatever the opposition, it doesn’t seem likely the Giuliani administration will back down–which means 1998 will mark the beginning of the Second Garbage War. Expect the same groups that led the fight against the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator to regroup for another lengthy insurrection.

There have already been skirmishes. Under pressure from NYPIRG and a newly established umbrella group organized to fight the plan–the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods–the City Council introduced a new bill that called for the city to push harder on non-export waste management alternatives.

Brooklyn Councilman Ken Fisher, a moderate Democrat who has a good relationship with Council Speaker, Peter Valone, has proposed a much tougher counter-measure: a one-year moratorium on the expansion and construction of waste transfer stations. The bill is adamantly opposed by the Giuliani administration, as well as by Guy Molinari, who says it would delay the closure of Fresh Kills.

But Giuliani will have a harder time fighting a recent state Appellate Division decision. In December, the court said the city could no longer ignore a seven-year-old law mandating the strict regulation of waste transfer facilities. The statute also places limits on siting new dumps in overburdened neighborhoods. The ruling could have wider implications and, at press time, advocates were studying it with an eye on future actions.

The city’s reliance on the out-of-state export strategy–at the expense of at-home measures like increased recycling and waste stream reductions–is also likely to evoke opposition from neighboring states. “If New York City is perceived to be relying totally on garbage exporting, that’s not going to sit well with Congress,” NYPIRG’s Shapiro says. “West of the Hudson, there are a lot of people who don’t like New York. Doing things that play into that bias is a political error that will come back to haunt us.”

Virginia, home base of several garbage multinationals, is longing to reap Gotham’s garbage harvest in 2002, but others aren’t so eager. Last year, Governor Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania made it clear he didn’t want to see any city trash inside his borders when he sent an angry letter to fellow Republican George Pataki urging a garbage shipping moratorium.

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Outside forces aside, the fight will be won or lost in the neighborhoods. “I cannot imagine how the city can close Fresh Kills without turning it into a huge issue on local levels,” says Arthur Kell, NYPIRG’s toxic projects coordinator. “It would be miraculous if these changes happened easily.”

In Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, where residents recently blocked a plan for a local mega-mall, public officials and community leaders are considering a class action suit against the city and an appeal to the federal government based on the environmental impact of the proposed stations. Steve Carbo, an aide to South Bronx Congressman Jose Serrano, says a lawsuit on civil rights grounds is a distinct possibility if communities of color are disproportionately burdened with new garbage facilities.

Many of the same tactics used to kill the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator–remember the anaconda strategy–could very well be used again. Any company the city selects for barge-hauling will have to endure the same cumbersome permitting process and the same environmental review that doomed Waste Management, Inc. when it posited its incineration plan.

But can the locals win two in a row? Environmental politics, particularly on the grassroots level, is notoriously fratricidal, vulnerable to all sorts of squabbling. And the administration could attempt to buy off neighborhood support–in the form of new parks, school improvements and other amenities–in order to cleave the coalition.

Even if the city can find enough takers, the fees for using out-of-state landfills could exceed $300 million per year, according to Comptroller Alan Hevesi.

But the greatest peril for neighborhoods is the city’s desperation. Even if the Fresh Kills shut-down is pushed back, the mega-dump will have to be closed sometime in the not-too-distant future.

And the garbage has to go somewhere.