“My wife and I put in every cent we could scrape together to buy this house,” recalls Lou Sones, who’s lived in Red Hook, Brooklyn, since October 1997. “Not even a month later, they announced the city’s plans.” The big news: The Giuliani administration was considering Red Hook’s beloved waterfront as the site of an enormous trash-processing facility that would help replace Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill.
This December, Sones and his neighbors’ worst fears were confirmed: The city announced its intention to put one of the behemoths on a parcel of land in Red Hook owned by corporate trash giant Waste Management, Inc. The company has submitted a plan to use the site for a facility that would load up barges with trash to be shipped to Pennsylvania, Virginia or conceivably anywhere else Waste Management owns a dump. The facility could handle up to 12,000 tons of trash a day–almost as much household garbage as all of New York City produces.
The chair of Red Hook Groups Against Garbage Sites (GAGS), Sones is a slight David next to the waste industry Goliaths vying for a piece of the action when Fresh Kills closes in 2002. He’s an actor and bartender; his wife Pat is a film location manager. They moved to the semi-industrial neighborhood of just 11,000 people–most of whom live in the massive Red Hook Houses–for its affordable housing and a bonus view of the Statue of Liberty.
Red Hook is cut off from the rest of the city by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and New York Harbor. But Sones and other GAGS members are hardly isolated in their alarm about the city’s garbage plans. With the city negotiating in secret with the nation’s largest garbage haulers, waterfront communities in Brooklyn have been living scared, in a void of information.
After being promised that it would not be the site of a waste transfer station, Bay Ridge is now bracing for a possible 6,000-ton-a-day facility at 65th Street. In April, rumors shot through Cobble Hill that the Port Authority would lease its nearby piers to Waste Management as a backup site for Red Hook. Meanwhile, Williamsburg residents are worried that the city’s provisional effort to phase out Fresh Kills–in which private haulers are packing up to 4,400 tons a day of trash at existing commercial sites, then trucking it out of town–will become permanent if the Department of Sanitation (DOS) can’t work out a long-term plan before the 2002 deadline.
It would be easy enough for these beleaguered communities to just let poor little Red Hook take its trashing. But instead, just the opposite is happening. Unsure of their own fates and distrustful of the city from past betrayals, the neighborhoods have banded together. Attorney Joanne Seminara Lehu, a member of Bay Ridge Against Garbage Sites, remarks that the city’s “lack of openness and its failure to include communities in its planning have forced people into an ‘us against them’ attitude.”
Two coalitions–Boroughs Allied for Recycling and Garbage Equity (BARGE) and the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN)–have pulled the western Brooklyn waterfront together into a collective force. “When we started BARGE’ Sones says, “we realized every neighborhood had to stick together to defeat the city’s plan, because otherwise it would screw somebody. The glue that keeps us together is that there are solutions that are fair to everybody.” Remarks Eddie Bautista, an OWN organizer who has been working to cement the neighborhoods’ ties, “The city doesn’t count on impacted communities watching each others’ backs.”
In addition to filing lawsuits, the coalitions have been drumming up support .for a proposal that could make new garbage facilities unnecessary. The city owns eight marine transfer stations, plants where residential garbage is moved from city trucks onto barges that then take it to Fresh Kills. Under the city’s proposed plans, the barges from those stations will take their trash to facilities like the Waste Management Red Hook plant, where it will be reloaded onto jumbo barges for out-of-town shipment.
GAGS and BARGE argue that the marine transfer stations should instead be retrofitted with new equipment that would allow garbage to be containerized and loaded directly onto an ocean-going barge. “MTSs are equitably distributed already around the city,” says Sones. “They’re not like dropping a bomb in a neighborhood.”
But from the start, the city has resisted retrofitting. DOS explicitly ruled out using the existing stations in its requests for proposals to handle the Fresh Kills trash. No surprise there. Because it alters city property, any reconfiguration plan would have to go through a contentious public review process. Keeping the marine transfer stations as they are would also preserve Sanitation union jobs.
The official DOS position, however, is that converting the stations would reduce their capacity by 25 percent or more, making retrofitting a poor investment. But neighborhood advocates point out that even with reduced capacity, each existing transfer station can process as much as 4,800 tons of waste per day–enough to clean up the entire tri-state area.
The neighborhoods fighting City Hall have found a more receptive audience to play to: some of the trash companies that have come to town to cash in on the largest privatization effort in the city’s history. The post-Fresh Kills contracts will potentially channel $6 billion to corporate players over a period of 20 years.
A few firms that have been locked out of the city’s bidding now see an opening, and they’re singing the neighborhoods’ tune: Retrofitting, they agree, is the best way to go. Touting a proprietary technology that shrink-wraps garbage into one-ton bundles that can be shipped out directly from the marine transfer stations, a representative from ECDC Environmental–a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Allied Waste–made a presentation to Brooklyn’s Solid Waste Advisory Board in March, having already caught the attention of Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari last fall.
Molinari’s political legacy depends on closing Fresh Kills on time, and he knows the biggest obstacle is a fight from Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. “The real cause for concern is the city’s refusal to look at modernizing the city’s eight existing marine transfer stations,” he told City Limits in February, adding that community opponents “would probably drop their lawsuits if the MTSs were retrofitted.”
From Molinari the shrink-wrap concept found its way to new Sanitation Commissioner Kevin Farrell, a Staten Island ally who was appointed in March. The city is now exploring retrofitting at least a few of the existing stations, and Sanitation has agreed to a six-month test of Allied’s process. A Fort Lauderdale company is now on the scene with a proposal to retrofit with containers that would shuttle from the marine transfer stations to a container port somewhere in the region.
BARGE and GAGS may have attracted corporate friends, but the profit motive is also working against them. The $35 billion-a-year solid waste industry has been salivating over New York ever since then-U.S. prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani broke up mob-controlled garbage disposal. Under the Fresh Kills phase-out plan, the biggest companies are already cleaning up: WMI has a two-year, $133 million contract to truck waste out of town at $58 a ton.
“There is gold in garbage,” notes GAGS member John McGettrick. “There is no incentive for or interest in reducing waste. The more garbage they move, the more the carting industry gets paid.” That’s why the Red Hook neighbors aren’t just worried about handling the city’s household trash; they fear that WMI will bring in garbage to process from outside the city as well.
The Red Hook plant won’t be the only new mega-station being built in New York. It’s expected that the Bronx’s garbage will be handled at a new station in the Harlem River Yards, processing up to 10,500 tons a day; Staten Island will take care of its own trash at a facility that could manage 2,880 tons, Yet the Bronx currently produces just 1,900 tons a day, Staten Island 1,200. Even if all the garbage from Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn goes to Red Hook–a noxious load to begin with–that still leaves room for 2,000 tons of out-of-town trash.
Citing a federal court ruling that invalidated New Jersey’s efforts to regulate the flow of garbage, DOS claims that it will not be able to prevent the private contractors from doing whatever they want within the new facilities’ permitted uses–including processing trash from out of town. Because construction costs will likely be reflected in the dumping fees the companies charge, the city, fumes BARGE member John McCrory, “is subsidizing the expansion of the garbage industry in a way that will make New York City the garbage processing center for the entire region.”
Sones is resigned that GAGS is his neighborhood’s last line of defense, but he insists the fight is much bigger than Red Hook–that it’s as big, in fact, as all of New York City. “We want to have control of the waste stream,” he says, “not have the city locked into a private company’s 20-year-plan when a better technology could come along tomorrow.” The more questions they raise, he says, “the more the city has to answer.”
Additional reporting by Alyssa Katz.