Marta Rodriguez is well acquainted with the reek of trash. For the past 18 years, a steady stream of roachlike trucks has heaved past her house on Bryant Avenue, bearing the city’s garbage to transfer stations dotted around the South Bronx. Rodriguez knows that the trucks bring vermin, spread bad smells and belch diesel fumes. She’s seen them attract prostitutes who come to service idling drivers.
In the storefront office of Sustainable South Bronx, on Hunts Point Avenue, Rodriguez, a petite mother of two, talks about her nieces and nephews with asthma and the 6-year-old neighbor who was hit and killed by a speeding garbage truck this spring. “You go to other areas, and you see how different it is,” she says. “Here there’s always garbage, garbage, to the point you just don’t pay no mind to it.” But the more Rodriguez, a recently minted community activist, learned about garbage in New York City, the more she did mind. “Manhattan generates 5,000 tons a day of commercial waste, but a few neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens take it,” Rodriguez says. “Eleven thousand trucks pass through this neighborhood every day. Manhattan dumps on the poorer neighborhoods.”
Yet these days, Manhattanites feel dumped on, too. From the entrance of the Vinegar Factory, an industrial site–turned–gourmet shop at 91st Street, just off the FDR, Carol Tweedy points across the street. A narrow asphalt ramp rises there, smack between an Astroturf athletic field and the five-story gym of the Asphalt Green recreation facility. At the end of the ramp is a dock that dates to the 1940s, which used to load 1,200 tons of garbage each day onto barges bound for the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island.
When the landfill closed down a few years ago, the transfer station did, too, but Tweedy, who directs Asphalt Green, still hasn’t forgotten their nauseating smell. “When the garbage trucks ran next door to our center, I had parents pulling their kids out of lessons,” she says. “We’ve been able to expand our neighborhood programs immensely since then.”
Upper East Siders have been told that their respite may be temporary. This fall, the Department of Sanitation is slated to release its plan for how New York City will dispose of its garbage for the next two decades. Reopening–and expanding–the 91st Street station, along with seven others around the five boroughs, is at the heart of the new blueprint.
The prospect of reviving the marine transfer station is encountering staunch resistance from Manhattanites who live near the sites, and they are determined to do whatever they can to make sure that the stations are not reopened. For their part, outer borough residents are preparing to fight any version of the citywide plan that doesn’t reopen all eight of the old waterfront transfer stations–including Manhattan’s. As community groups sharpen their plans of attack, the city’s plan to deal with garbage–to get rid of it at a low cost, in a way that minimizes environmental consequences–hangs in the balance. The plan meant to solve the city’s trash woes may be headed for deadlock.
Deadlock is the last thing New York can afford right now. Besides the environmental strain of thousands of diesel trucks hauling garbage and recyclables on city streets, highways and the George Washington Bridge, the cost of transporting and dumping trash has exploded to record levels–nearly $70 a ton last year. The city has come to depend on a single private contractor, Waste Management, Inc., to process refuse after it leaves the curb. The city’s garbage budget has ballooned to nearly a billion dollars. Vito Turso, deputy commissioner for the Department of Sanitation, calls the arrangement a “fiscal disaster.”
Not long ago, the city ran the show. Garbage trucks took their loads to municipal waterfront transfer stations, and the waste got barged from there to Fresh Kills. The stations handled household waste, which was carted by city trucks, as well as trash that private companies hauled from businesses. But in 1987, in an attempt to appease disgruntled Staten Islanders, the Department of Sanitation raised fees of private haulers, and those truck companies started building cheaper alternatives. Private waste-transfer stations sprouted in the semi-industrial zones of outer-borough neighborhoods, including Red Hook, Hunts Point and Williamsburg. After Fresh Kills closed in 2001, the city shut down its marine transfer stations entirely and began sending 13,000 tons a day of household waste through these private street-side stations–a costly and unpopular solution.
After nearly two decades of wrangling with outraged outer-borough communities, the Department of Sanitation wants to tout its plan as the blueprint for a new, neighborhood-friendly era in municipal waste management. It’s a major victory for the citywide Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods (OWN) and its members–environmental justice groups, including Sustainable South Bronx, that have fought for years for a fairer and healthier solution.
But when the city unveils its plan this fall, it is hardly likely to meet a welcome wagon. Each neighborhood presents its own potential for quagmire. On the Upper East Side, Tony Ard, a snowy-haired former gas industry executive from Indiana, heads the Gracie Point Community Council, a neighborhood group backed by real estate interests, deep pockets and a 3,500-member email list. GPCC has hired a Rubenstein and Associates publicist to handle media queries, as well as a prominent environmental attorney to defend its interests as an environmental review process gets underway. Gracie Pointers say that the new facility would block their waterfront park and esplanade. Stinky barges would idle at the dock. Queuing trucks would block an already congested corner near the FDR. The facility would process 4,200 tons of waste per day–more than triple what the marine transfer station last handled in the 1990s. “We’re talking about hundreds of children playing on the field right next to that constant barrage of noise and stench!” exclaims Tweedy. Adds Ard: “These stations were built at a time when this neighborhood was industrial. This is a completely inappropriate space for a garbage facility.”
Rick Leland, the group’s legal counsel, says that the group’s position is that “no residential neighborhood should have to accommodate this type of facility.” He has spent the summer scheduling meetings all over Manhattan to make East 91st Street’s objections clear to city and state officials. Leland notes that the community he’s representing includes poor people as well as wealthy ones, a fact he hopes the state’s environmental review process will consider. “There are the Stanley Isaacs Houses, facilities for seniors and people of color, and, of course, Asphalt Green,” he ticks off. And then he moves on to a second list: the numerous clearances the city will need to get to reopen the site. “There are city zoning regulations. The city EIS [environmental impact statement] process may or may not represent an opportunity for litigation. There is the state environmental quality review process. There is the process of getting permits for marine construction.” He doesn’t mention it, but the city’s overall plan also needs to be approved by the City Council and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Each permit presents an opportunity to shut down the process entirely.
Gracie Point residents aren’t the only Manhattanites gearing up to fight the mayor’s plan. Across town, Manhattan’s leading environmental justice group sees the Bronx’s gain as another long-suffering community’s loss. In Harlem, next door to a waste-water treatment plant that already churns torrents of New York City sewage, the Department of Sanitation wants to retrofit a station on the Hudson River at 135th Street to handle roughly 4,000 tons of waste per day. Cecil Corbin-Mark, the program director at West Harlem Environmental Action, has spent the summer mobilizing 45 community organizations, 13 churches, state and local politicians, and a 3,300-person mailing list to protest. Corbin-Mark is looking for legal counsel as well. “We already have the lion’s share of Manhattan’s scourge,” he says. “We have the diesel bus depots. A quarter of the kids in this neighborhood have asthma.” He points out that a reopened waste facility will be right next door to a state park, a proposed city park, public housing and schools. “This neighborhood should not have to handle another facility of this type,” he says. “And we are confident that the state will recognize it.”
Even as it prepares to release its plan this fall, the Department of Sanitation seems to recognize it will be a hard sell. Vito Turso wants to reassure OWN members that when the Solid Waste Management Plan is released this fall, all eight transfer stations will still be slated for reopening. “But,” he admits elliptically, “there’s no telling where the permitting process
will lead.” He concludes with a grim smile: “The environmental review process will certainly be interesting.”
All the opposition puts OWN activists in a hard place. Every day that the new plan stalls is another day filled with trucks, stench and vermin. But Elena Conte, Solid Waste Coordinator for Sustainable South Bronx, says that the outer boroughs won’t accept a plan that doesn’t include trash facilities in Manhattan. She says that OWN has two issues they consider non-negotiable: “The plan must make Manhattan deal with Manhattan’s waste, and it must lead to a way to shut down commercial land-based transfer stations. If the plan doesn’t do these things, we will mobilize all our efforts to block it.” Like the Manhattan groups, OWN is poised to challenge the city’s coming environmental impact statement–in OWN’s case, they’d contest the EIS if the document does not effectively support the plan to reopen the Manhattan waste transfer stations. Challenging state permits is a possibility down the line, says Conte. Of the tons and tons of garbage New York throws out, she declares, “We’ll take our share, but we won’t settle for a plan where we take more.”
OWN has already lined up a core group of five City Council members representing members’ neigborhoods–including David Yassky and Diana Reyna in Brooklyn and the Bronx’s José Serrano–who will have to figure out how to sell other members on the mayor’s plan. That includes Council Speaker Gifford Miller, whose district includes the 91st Street site.
So far, communication between the embattled camps has been scarce. There are a few alternative ideas floating around: Some environmental justice groups talk about pushing to open another Manhattan transfer station in the meatpacking district, at Gansevoort Street. Others have suggested including a new garbage facility as part of the World Trade Center redevelopment site. Corbin-Mark, in particular, stresses the need to find places in lower Manhattan to deal with commercial waste. “Commercial waste is a large part of what started all this,” he says, “and 70 percent of the city’s commercial waste is generated below 59th Street.”
Indeed, the prospect of dealing with trash from businesses poses the messiest problem of all. Even if the city avoids a showdown between neighborhoods and reopens the marine transfer stations swiftly, commercial transfer stations may continue to plague Hunts Point and other neighborhoods. Current plans propose building facilities with the capacity to take commercial waste but don’t yet specify a mechanism that would make commercial haulers use them. In order to get private haulers to use the new transfer stations the city would need to establish private franchise agreements to regulate where commercial haulers dump–a long and potentially contentious process, likely to be unpopular with private sector carting interests. Alternatively, the Department of Sanitation (DOS) could try to entice private haulers by making its prices cheaper than the private stations’–even while investing between $50 and $100 million to retrofit each of its new facilities.
The bottom line for neighborhoods is that the city has no obligation to shut down the commercial transfer stations. The city’s own recent commercial waste study, released earlier this year, asserts that commercial haulers don’t adversely impact the neighborhoods they’re in.
Even if they end up keeping commercial transfer stations as neighbors, the Hunts Point activists say there’s a deep benefit to getting Manhattan back in the game–and face to face with its own garbage. Says Conte, “Right now, only poor people deal with trash. If the stations were equitably distributed, everyone would have an incentive to push for better systems of dealing with waste.” Rodriguez agrees. “What if, instead of just shutting us down, the Manhattanites used their resources working to make the DOS not use diesel fumes, or to recycle even more effectively, or to make better laws for commercial waste?” she asks. “We’d all work together, and we might get somewhere.” •
Tess Taylor is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.