Caroll Forbes has spent much of her life swimming and fishing in Jamaica Bay. Up until the pandemic, she made weekly visits to the nearby beaches she’s been familiar with since childhood. And for more than 40 years, she’s plucked flounder and fluke from the bay alongside her children and grandchildren.
But she’s yet to extend her tradition of teaching fishing to her great-grandchildren because in recent years, she’s become concerned about the level of pollutants in the waterways near her Queens home.
Her distress over the current state of the bay motivated Forbes to join a lawsuit, filed by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and the Super Law Group on behalf of residents and the NJ/NY Baykeeper and the Riverkeeper—environmental groups focused on restoration and stewardship of waterways in the New York City area—taking aim at multiple waste-transfer facilities in Queens, alleging the companies are polluting Jamaica Bay in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
The Baykeeper, Riverkeeper, Forbes and another Queens resident, Crystal Ervin, filed a 60-page complaint last week in the U.S. Eastern District of New York Court claiming that American Recycling, Inc. and Royal Waste Services, Inc., along with its subsidiaries, are allowing “stormwater associated with industrial activities” and polluted wastewater, including water that has come into contact with garbage—called leachate—to enter the Jamaica Bay via public storm drains.
“Stormwater runoff is one of the most significant sources of water pollution in the nation—comparable to, if not greater than, contamination from industrial and sewage sources,” the complaint says.
Jamaica Bay is one of the Northeast’s most biodiverse regions, with more than 325 bird species, 100 fish species as well as butterflies, reptiles and small mammals, according to Brooklyn College’s Science and Resilience Institute. Its ecosystem is also in danger, due in part to pollution and the city’s sewage treatment plants, which lead to the release of nitrogen into the bay, which can be damaging to its marshlands and increase algae blooms.
The two waste transfer facilities identified in the lawsuit are located on Douglas Avenue, in a residential area of Queens, adjacent to Detective Keith L. Williams Park and just blocks away from Forbes’ and Ervin’s homes.
Douglas is an unpaved dirt road that allows for large pockets of puddles to accumulate near the sites, which process large amounts of garbage and recycling that are carried in and out of the facility by trucks. Dirt and gravel roads are a major source of pollutants, including dust and sediment, entering streams, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Dominic Susino, the chief financial officer of American Recycling, said in July that he and the neighboring company have offered to pay to pave Douglas Avenue but that the Department of Transportation does not allow private companies to pave city roads.
When asked about the status of paving the road in July, a DOT spokesperson said that the agency “is currently evaluating the roadway reconstruction needs of this area, as conditions cannot be remedied by simple resurfacing.” The spokesperson added that the Department of Environmental Protection had recently improved the infrastructure of drainage and made sanitary sewer repairs there.
The Clean Water Act stipulates that when certain types of industrial companies have stormwater runoff from their facilities, they must obtain permits from the Environmental Protection Agency showing that they are preventing it from polluting waterways.
“Rain’s going to happen, storms are going to happen and some water is going to be discharged,” said Doug McKenna, the regional chief of the EPA’s water compliance branch. The permit governs how the companies “to the best extent possible prevent stormwater from carrying pollutants from their facility to waterways in the United States,” he added.
The complaint alleges that the companies do not have such permits. The EPA did not immediately respond to questions of whether the companies have the permits named in the complaint, but McKenna confirmed that waste transfer facilities would fall under the category of a company that would require such permits. A search for the companies on the EPA’s permit search function returned no results.
Mike Dulong, an attorney with Riverkeeper, said that although he cannot comment on this specific case, for cases like these, the end goal is for the court to implore those companies to stop polluting via hefty penalties and to address past contamination, through, for instance, an environmental benefit payment toward a local group.
Susino, of American Recycling, said he cannot comment in detail on the lawsuit, but offered the following statement: “The attorneys are only beginning to look through and evaluate the case that was filed. American Recycling has always sought to maintain the highest quality environmental compliance and operational efficiency to serve the needs of Queens businesses and its residential communities.”
The owners of Regal Recycling and its subsidiaries did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees the state’s Environmental Conservation Law, confirmed in July that both companies have valid and current permits to operate as solid waste management transfer facilities and as construction and demolition debris handling and recovery facilities. Both companies have previously been subject of enforcement actions but are currently in compliance with DEC regulations, the spokesperson said.
Earlier this summer, the companies were embroiled in a controversial legislative battle during which City Councilmember I. Daneek Miller attempted to pass a bill that critics say would effectively roll back the city’s long-fought Waste Equity Law. The law, which passed in 2018 following nearly 10 years of advocacy, reduced the capacity of waste that such companies could accept unless they agreed to export a majority of the waste by rail. The companies had a plan in place to do that, Susino said, but ran out of time to begin the several-year-long project before the law became effective.
READ MORE: NYC Council Considers Waste Transfer Bill That Would Roll Back Environmental Gains in Queens, Critics Say
Miller’s sponsored bill, Intro. 2349, would allow the two companies named in the suit, which are adjacent to a Long Island Rail Road line, to reinstate their original capacity if they agreed to make the switch to rail exporting within four years. The bill was scheduled for a committee vote in July but was abruptly canceled minutes before the meeting due to a dispute over wording, council staffers told City Limits. Miller’s office did not have an update on the status of the legislation as of last week.
Susino said in July that American Recycling is eager to make the switch to rail transport but would need to be functioning at full capacity to be able to finance the project. As it stands, the building is outdated and not fully enclosed, resulting in dust, putrid odors and noise from trucks that the plaintiffs in the complaint allege create a nuisance that interferes with their ability to use and enjoy their own property.
“Longtime residents of the neighborhood have had to take numerous steps to try and adjust to the many impacts of the Facilities,” the complaint says. “For example, they dare not open their windows, and end up having to pay for extra air conditioners and purifiers during the summer months; they decide against taking their grandchildren to the nearby, otherwise-enjoyable park; they decide against waiting for the bus at the closer yet nausea-inducing smelly bus stop and either walk further to another transportation option, or are required to pay for cars; they no longer host events or guests in their outdoor spaces.”
Susino said in July that the company’s plans to switch to rail transport would also involve funding a full renovation of their facility, which he said would resolve the issues neighbors have complained about. The state-of-the-art building would feature rooftop solar panels, an education room to teach local children about recycling and a more aesthetically pleasing enclosed exterior that would prevent odor and dust from blanketing the neighborhood.
Without approval on restoring their capacity of the waste they can accept, the company cannot afford to do the renovation, he said previously.
But neighbors are looking for relief in the meantime.
“The smell is very, very bad,” lawsuit plaintiff Caroll Forbes told City Limits. “It smells like spoiled food all the time or a dead person, and it’s constant. It’s like you can’t get a break. I can never open the front windows.”
Liz Donovan is a Report for America corps member.