A note from the author:
One of the comments I have received on this story is that it doesn’t give real space to the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who live in close proximity to waste transfer stations today. For instance, neighborhoods in the Newtown Creek area currently host 19 separate waste transfer stations. Residents in Newtown Creek note that every marine barge used by the City to move trash will eliminate up to 28 tractor trailer trucks from the roads. My article also does not clarify that local reaction to new/re-built Marine and Rail Waste Transfer Stations has varied by neighborhood. I think these are fair points, and they add important context to this story.
While residents of the Upper East Side continue to fight the opening of a rebuilt Marine Transfer Station that would handle some of the island’s waste, the true cost of New York City’s trash output steadily grows.
Is the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station the beginning of a new paradigm, in which the collective burden of processing our waste is handled more equitably and sustainably, or is it a “hollow symbol” of a city strategy that doesn’t address the underlying problem of too much trash?
No matter your view of the transfer station, though, one thing is clear: New York City’s day-to-day approach to trash – shipping most of it elsewhere – is not fundamentally sustainable.
“We’re not where we need to be,” agreed City Council Member Antonio Reynoso, referring to the city’s long-term approach to waste. But Reynoso, who represents North Brooklyn and chairs the Council’s Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, maintained that the new transfer station would make the existing system “more efficient.”
Reynoso said the City was moving in the right direction by shifting from trucks to barges, and establishing transfer stations in every borough. “We want to give every community the best [transfer] facility we possibly can,” he added.
20,000 Tons Per Day
New York City generates 10,000 tons of residential waste and a comparable amount or greater of commercial waste every day.
Manhattan’s residential waste is trucked daily by the city’s Department of Sanitation to an incineration plant in Newark, which converts trash into energy.
The island’s commercial waste is taken by private carters, both directly to New Jersey, and to waste transfer stations in the other boroughs for shipment to out-of-state landfills.
While converting Manhattan’s residential trash to energy is arguably better than burying it, there are real costs associated with the practice.
Kim Gaddy, a Newark resident and community organizer with Clean Water Action, described being on the receiving end of Manhattan’s garbage as “a nightmare.” “We have been fighting the Covanta [the plant’s operators] facility for 20 years,” she said.
Gaddy said that Covanta has finally agreed to install new filtration technology for the plant’s boilers after a long campaign by local residents. Elevated child asthma rates in Newark are due to emissions from the Covanta plant and others like it, she said, and compounded by trucks delivering trash from New York City.
A Better Plan?
The hard-fought Solid Waste Management Plan of 2006 was supposed to address some of the most egregious irrationalities of New York City’s waste management system, especially the way in which trash is moved and consolidated within the city.
The plan may also provide some indirect relief for residents of Newark by re-routing some of Manhattan’s residential trash flow to other locations.
After the 2000 closure of the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island, the city had no place to take its trash aside from other locales throughout the U.S. The city’s residential waste – excluding Manhattan’s – and much of its commercial waste is delivered by truck to waste transfer stations, which are concentrated in a handful of New York City neighborhoods, particularly the area around Newtown Creek in Brooklyn and Queens, and the South Bronx.
There, trash is transferred to tractor-trailers and taken to landfills in upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other states. And it’s not cheap. New York City taxpayers spend over $330 million annually in landfill costs.
Trucking the trash out of New York City every day, and the out-of-state landfills themselves, also impose costs on the broader natural environment.
And there are local public health costs. Almost two-thirds of the city’s waste transfer stations are located in the Newtown Creek area and the South Bronx, say environmental justice advocates. Both areas have higher than average hospitalization and death rates linked to air pollution.
Establishing a More Equitable System
The basic philosophy behind the Solid Waste Management Plan is to establish a more equitable -and less impactful- waste processing system, with infrastructure in every borough. Not surprisingly, communities targeted for new and/or upgraded waste infrastructure facilities are responding with bitter opposition.
Opponents to the 91st St Marine Transfer Station say that, besides taking DSNY trucks off the road, the station will not contribute to a more environmentally sustainable waste management system in New York City.
“It [the transfer station] harms residents,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, who represents the area.
“Instead of being located in an industrial area, it is being placed…between an Olympic training ground serving 30,000 children from all five boroughs and a public housing development with 1,173 units, and within feet of 6 schools and 22,056 residents.”
Opponents like Kallos argue that the City should be focused on reducing the actual waste stream, and not on large capital projects.
The City is clearly trying to do both. The Department of Sanitation is continuing the Bloomberg administration’s late-term efforts to expand what is recycled in the five boroughs. The City is introducing organics recycling to a growing number of neighborhoods.
Could this really make a dent in the long run? Yes, says the City. Compostable organics – food, yard waste, etc. – make up more than 30 percent of New York’s residential solid waste stream.
But even the 91st Street transfer station’s opponents concede that no matter how much the waste stream is reduced by recycling and other strategies, the city will still need to cope with solid waste – the question is where and how.
How Do You Measure Positive Impact?
How much of an impact will the new Marine Transfer Station have if local opposition is unsuccessful and it opens, as planned, in 2016?
Four of Manhattan’s 12 Community Districts will send their waste to the new facility, which will sit on the site of a former transfer station that closed in 1999.
Using the City’s estimates, the transfer station could eliminate 13,000 or more DSNY round-trip truck journeys to Newark every year, leading to significant air quality benefits.
The 91st Street station is permitted to receive up to 720 tons of residential trash daily, but Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the Department of Sanitation, said the City is projecting that the facility will receive 550 to 600 tons of residential waste per day.
This would require around fifty daily truck trips into the transfer station, Mager said. But the City also estimates that, at maximum use, between 100 and 500 trucks could enter the facility every day, via an entrance ramp at 91st Street and York Avenue.
Commercial carters are also supposed to use the station eventually, contributing to what could become 24-hour truck traffic moving through the neighborhood.
The entrance ramp, which will run between the Asphalt Green sports complex and its soccer field, will bring trucks over the FDR to the marine transfer station.
Residential trash will be barged from the station to the New York Container Terminal on Staten Island, and then shipped by rail to two “waste to energy” incineration facilities in Chester, Pennsylvania and Niagara Falls, New York. The facilities are also operated by Covanta, which has a 20-year contract with the City.
Residents in both Chester and Niagara Falls are organizing to fight the shipment of New York City’s trash into their cities.
Back on the Upper East Side, opponents to the 91st Street station maintain that it will not receive enough of Manhattan’s trash to justify the daily physical impact it will have on one neighborhood.
Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, who was heavily involved in the City’s creation and adoption of the Solid Waste Management Plan, responded that, “this transfer station was always supposed to handle the East Side wasteshed (i.e., the districts that always used this station for decades), as other marine transfer stations are only supposed to handle their respective local wastesheds.”
According to the City, Manhattan’s other eight community districts will continue to send their residential trash directly to the incineration facility in Newark, which opponents cite as a fundamental injustice. Why burden the Upper East Side with a transfer facility, when most neighborhoods will not have to live with one, they ask.
The Solid Waste Management Plan also proposes a marine transfer station at West 59th Street, which would handle commercial waste, along with a Gansevoort Street facility that would receive recyclables.
Belinda Mager said that both facilities were slated for completion. An additional marine transfer station for commercial waste, at West 135th Street, was dropped from the City’s plan.
Will the 91st Street Station Give Some Relief to Newtown Creek and the South Bronx?
The Upper East Side transfer station is also permitted to receive up to 780 tons of commercial waste daily. It is not yet known how many private haulers, who pick up waste from Manhattan’s businesses, will use the facility.
The 91st Street facility will not accept construction-related waste, a significant part of the city’s commercial waste stream. Manhattan’s construction waste, which is currently trucked to New Jersey and transfer stations in the outer boroughs, will eventually go to the marine transfer station on West 59th Street.
If the 91st Street station does begin to see real use by private haulers, and proposed marine transfer stations in other parts of the city come on-line, communities like the South Bronx will feel the difference, argues Bautista.
“The sum total of all the marine transfer stations’ commercial waste capacity equals thousands of tons – which will reduce the need for this capacity at land-based waste transfer stations,” he said.
“It’s our hope and advocacy goal that opening the marine transfer stations will actually obviate the need for so much land-based transfer station capacity… Which is why we need every single marine transfer station to open, to maximize economies of scale.”
And, supporters of the City’s plan point out, if recycling rates increase as the marine transfer stations come on-line, the need for land-based stations will be reduced even further.
Dara Hunt, an Upper East Side resident and volunteer member of Pledge 2 Protect, a coalition formed to fight the 91st Street transfer station, questions whether commercial carters will use the facility in large numbers. She and other opponents also doubt the City will even open the marine transfer station at West 59th Street.
Hunt argued that the 91st Street station will raise Manhattan’s waste costs, but will not have the desired effect of closing land-based waste transfer stations in other neighborhoods.
“It’s not just about this neighborhood – it’s about city priorities…the logic of this,” said Hunt. She described the marine transfer station as a “hollow political symbol.”
But a symbol of what exactly? “It’s all about ‘alleged’ environmental justice,” she responded. “It’s an eye for an eye. It’s payback.”
The fight over the Upper East Side marine transfer station has pitted environmental justice organizations from minority and low-income neighborhoods in the boroughs against residents of one of the city’s wealthiest -and whitest- Manhattan communities.
The race and class dimensions to the dispute have been further complicated by the fact that two public housing developments – Stanley Isaacs and Holmes Towers – are in close proximity to the Upper East Side marine transfer station. Some residents of these developments have also joined the fight against the facility, as has the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, a local settlement house.
NYCHA residents have asked that the City consider moving the location of the entrance ramp to the facility – a “reasonable request,” said Council Member Reynoso.
How fair is it to compare the future impact of the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station on the local community to what has been experienced by residents of North Brooklyn, for example?
First, there is the question of scale.
According to the City, the 91st Street facility will handle an average of 1,200 to 1,500 tons of residential and commercial trash per day. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on the other hand, has a capacity of more than 20,000 tons per day.
There’s also a qualitative difference between land-based transfer stations in the outer boroughs and what is being built at 91st Street, says Eric Goldstein, New York City Environment Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“What the City is constructing here [on the Upper East Side] is a modern, state of the art, fully enclosed facility,” Goldtsein explained. “They have promised to employ every possible technique to mitigate impacts.”
“It’s likely to be the best-operated transfer station in the city. There’s been a lot of focus on 91st Street, but not on the [other] facilities concentrated in a handful of communities,” he added.
Hunt maintained that after the station is operational, no other high-density residential neighborhood in New York City would be as close to a waste transfer station as the Upper East Side.
Bautista challenged Hunt to “tell the 125,000 residents of North Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 (that handles 40% of the city’s waste) and the 50,000 residents of the South Bronx (handling 25% of the city’s waste) that their communities are not highly/densely populated.”
“And while some of those [North Brooklyn] transfer stations aren’t in residential neighborhoods, the trucks that use those stations travel through dense residential neighborhood every day,” Mager added.
Bautista and opponents to the 91st Street station do agree on one thing: the core impact of waste transfer stations comes from truck pollution. While the city’s DSNY trucks operate on low sulfur diesel, commercial fleets are not yet held to the same pollution control standards. Mager said the City was committed to working with commercial carters on this issue.
Speaking about neighborhoods like the South Bronx, Bautista said, “One doesn’t have to live immediately next to a transfer station to feel its impacts – in fact, the worst impacts are living next to the truck routes where thousands of these diesel trucks rumble daily.”
The argument that the 91st Street transfer station doesn’t substantially shift the waste transfer burden away from other communities in New York City, begs an obvious question: why not increase Manhattan’s waste transfer capacity further then, especially for commercial carters?
Opponents to the transfer station appear unwilling, however, to endorse more transfer capacity in Manhattan in order to create “economies of scale,” as Eddie Bautista has proposed.
They are interested in “alternatives” to new waste transfer infrastructure, such as requiring commercial carters to use cleaner, less-polluting fuels, as the Department of Sanitation now does. And they also argue – as the environmental justice community has – that commercial carter pick-up routes should be coordinated more “rationally” so that truck miles can be reduced.
While shortening commercial pick-up routes would help reduce pollution levels throughout the city, it is unclear that residents living close to existing transfer stations would be likely to benefit as the trucks must still enter their communities.
At a fundamental level, opponents to the 91st Street transfer station simply reject much of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, which was hailed by environmental justice advocates when it was adopted, and has taken years to move forward.
“The SWMP was an admirable plan with well-intentioned goals,” Kelly Nimmo-Guenther, president of Pledge 2 Protect, stated. But, she said, key aspects of the plan are now “outdated and dangerous”.
At a minimum, Pledge 2 Protect is asking the City to reconsider building marine transfer stations at East 91st Street in Manhattan and in Southwest Brooklyn. The stations do not belong in residential neighborhoods, Nimmo-Guenther said.
But, what is really needed, is a new approach to waste management citywide, the group says.
Dara Hunt pointed to a recent Citizens Budget Commission study which suggests that residential garbage should become a metered utility, as water has. This, she said, would force New York City residents to change their waste disposal behavior.
“Ultimately, our City must rely on a sustainable plan that disposes of our trash smartly and greenly,” Council Member Kallos added.
“That means reducing, reusing, recycling and innovating to ensure that all New Yorkers are safe and protected. Instead of recycling at 15%, we can recycle at 75% to match other major cities such as Los Angeles.”
The City is standing hard by its position that action must be taken now to begin to relieve “historically overburdened neighborhoods.” The 91st Street transfer station is a “critical component” of its waste plan, said Mager. “As a whole, it will take hundreds of trucks off the roads.”
In the meantime, one-hundred or more DSNY trucks make the journey from Manhattan to Newark every day, rain or shine. No matter how Manhattan’s waste is taken away, it is impossible to escape it. As Eric Goldstein of the NRDC noted, some of the waste returns to Manhattan in the form of air pollution. It is emitted by Newark’s incinerator and floats back across the Hudson.
Photo credit: Sarah Crean