EPA Official Confirms: Brooklyn Superfund Cleanups Will Proceed

Cleanup at three Brooklyn superfund sites will continue as planned, a Public Information Official working with the EPA told NYER last week. The work to remediate the Gowanus Canal, Newtown Creek, and the lead-contaminated Red Hook Ballfields will move forward, despite any actions by the new Trump administration.

In recent weeks, controversy and confusion has swirled after the Trump’s transition team ordered a freeze on all EPA grants and subcontracts. According to ProPublica, the move could “affect a significant part of the agency’s budget allocations and even threaten to disrupt core operations ranging from toxic cleanups to water quality testing.”

There has been a flurry of information leaking from sources within the EPA—most unable to be officially confirmed—but an EPA employee aware of the freeze spoke with ProPublica and stated that:

“…he had never seen anything like it in nearly a decade with the agency. Hiring freezes happened, he said, but freezes on grants and contracts seemed extraordinary. The employee said the freeze appeared to be nationwide, and as of Monday night it was not clear for how long it would be in place.”

However, Elias Rodriguez, the EPA officer assigned to the Brooklyn projects, told NYER that “the EPA fully intends to continue to provide information to the public. A fresh look at public affairs and communications processes is common practice for any new administration, and a short pause in activities allows for this assessment.”

In general, Superfund cleanups are primarily funded not by the government but by “responsible parties” that contributed to the pollution.

As of press time, Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s nominee to head the EPA, had been confirmed by the Senate Committee. Republicans suspended the Environment and Public Works Committee’s rules to approve the cabinet pick despite a Democratic boycott.

Red Hook Cleanup

EPA official taking soil samples in Red Hook Park in March 2015. Photo via EPA.

In 2015, the EPA closed multiple baseball fields in Red Hook after high levels of lead were found in the soil. The contamination was caused by a former smelting and refining facility that was once sited at the corner of Hicks and Lorraine, directly atop ball field #7. The factory operated from the 1920s through the late 1930s.

The fields impacted include Ball Fields 5, 6, 7 and 8 and Soccer Field 7.

The cleanup, performed by the New York City Parks Department and overseen by the EPA, is slated to begin this fall and cost approximately $105 million.

Gowanus Cleanup

The Gowanus Canal was named a Superfund site in 2011. Cleanup is in progress, beginning with debris removal late last year, and is expected to continue until at least 2022.

 Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek competes with the Gowanus Canal for the title of the most polluted body of water in New York City. It was named a Superfund site in 2010, but studies are still ongoing; feasible cleanup recommendations are expected by 2019.


Get a New Perspective on the Brooklyn Waterfront: Take a Boat Tour!

The Brooklyn shoreline—much like the rest of the borough itself—is constantly changing and ever-evolving. But the waterfront holds on to its history, too, and fascinating clues to our maritime past can easily be found with the right guide and the proper perspective.

Take a tour aboard the Kingston!

Now you can get both thanks to a series of boat tours hosted by Turnstile Tours and Classic Harbor Line.

Step aboard the Kingston, a 1920s mini-style yacht, and take a narrated two-hour cruise narrated exploring the Brooklyn waterfront past and present.

The tours, which take place on Saturdays through mid-October, will also feature special guest speakers, including Sarah Crean and Emily Manley, editors here at New York Environment Report!

Not only will you learn about Brooklyn’s historical role as an industrial powerhouse and its modern-day resurgence, but you’ll also hear how those factors play a part in the ecological health, history, and future of our favorite borough.

Be sure to join us on September 19 or October 10th!

Visit Turnstile Tours to purchase tickets and learn more about the tours.

General admission is $54 per person, with discounts for children under 15.

Use discount code NYER10 for 10% off any ticket price!

Tour Routes:

The historic Brooklyn waterfront. Image via Brooklyn Waterfront History

Boat tour routes may include the following sites:

  • The Brooklyn Navy Yard, a former Naval shipyard now home to more than 330 creative and manufacturing businesses
  • Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges
  • Red Hook and Erie Basin, where we will share stories of residents and waterfront businesses in this historically working-class neighborhood
  • Governors Island – from military base to parkland
  • The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
  • Hear stories of the diverse range of businesses and entrepreneurs inside growing industrial and creative clusters along the waterfront
  • See other emerging uses for the borough’s waterfront, including the development of new green spaces and infrastructure that have reconnected neighborhoods with the city’s waterways and play an important role in protecting the shoreline and maintaining the health of the harbor.


Hudson River Fish Count Nets Aquatic Critters at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Catch, count, identify, release: that was the refrain last weekend on a rocky Hudson River beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Beneath the hulking shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, and despite the rumble and shake of endless trains clattering above, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Steve Stanne expertly led a group of volunteers and curious bystanders in the art of the Great Hudson River Estuary Fish Count.

Hidden Below the Surface

Now in its fourth year, the fish count is a one-day event each summer during which naturalists at multiple sites along the Hudson catch fish to show visitors the variety of fascinating creatures usually hidden below the river’s surface. This year 17 sites, from Saratoga to Brooklyn, were sampled.

More than 200 fish species call the Hudson estuary and its watershed home, and over the past three years, volunteers have recorded at least 37 of them during the count.

This year at the Brooklyn site, volunteers took the seine nets out a handful of times. They counted, identified, and documented everything pulled in, and then returned all the creatures to the river. At the end of the event, the tally included hundreds of Atlantic silversides, plus striped bass, bluefish, porgy, a lady crab and a blue crab, comb jellies, and even a lined seahorse!

According to Stanne, this year’s fish count netted a total of 33 species across all sites, “the highest number recorded on any of the four Great Hudson River Estuary Fish Counts to date.” Two of the species found in Brooklyn—the porgy and the lined seahorse—were new to the count list completely.

Photos from the Great Hudson River Estuary Fish Count

The DEC's Steve Stanne and a volunteer take the seine net out into the Hudson.
The DEC’s Steve Stanne and a volunteer take the seine net out into the Hudson. Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER.
Clearwater's Key to Common Hudson River Fishes: our guide for the afternoon.
Clearwater’s Key to Common Hudson River Fishes: our guide for the afternoon. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER.
Pulling the seine net on shore.
Pulling the seine net on shore. Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER.
Catch, count, identify, release!
Catch, count, identify, release! Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER
The first seining net pulled in nearly a hundred Atlantic silversides.
The first seining net pulled in nearly a hundred Atlantic silversides. Photo credit: Emily Manley / NYER.
Close-up of an Atlantic silverside.
Close-up of an Atlantic silverside. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER.
Our first mystery fish of the day turns out to be a scup, otherwise known as a porgy.
Our first mystery fish of the day turns out to be a scup, otherwise known as a porgy. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER
A male ladycrab (yep, that's right) also found its way into our net.
A male ladycrab (yep, that’s right) also found its way into our net. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER
Steve Sanne and volunteers take the net out again, this time with help from a curious onlooker.
Steve Stanne and volunteers take the net out again, this time with help from a curious onlooker. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER
What did we find this time?
What did we find this time? Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER
A striped bass!
A striped bass! Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER
A striped bass and bluefish, held up for closer inspection.
A striped bass and bluefish, held up for closer inspection. Photo credit: Emily Manley/NYER.
The one we've all been waiting for: a lined seahorse!
The one we’ve all been waiting for: a lined seahorse! Photo credit: NYSDEC

Taking a Moment to Contemplate the Great Prairie of Long Island

Native prairie grassland once covered 40,000 acres of central Nassau County on Long Island. The grassland, home to scores of plant, bird and butterfly species, has been described as “the only true prairie east of the Allegheny Mountains.”

Due to commercial development, only a few acres of Long Island’s prairie—known as the Hempstead Plains—remain today.

This is a soothing, late summer glimpse of what the prairie might have looked like:

[KGVID width=”568″ height=”320″]http://www.nyenvironmentreport.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/IMG_06541.mov[/KGVID]

You can visit this beautiful meadow, modeled on the Hempstead Plains, at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. The meadow is in the Garden’s recently expanded Native Flora Garden.

Brooklyn, as is sometimes forgotten, is part of Long Island.

wilflowers bbg 1
Native wildflowers at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Photo: Sarah Crean

Visit the Long Island Prairie

wildflowers bbg 2Even better, you can visit an existing section of the Hempstead Plains on the campus of Nassau Community College. There you can explore some of the last remnants of the Long Island prairie, which apparently developed south of a terminal moraine left behind by the last Ice Age.

The site is “highly ecologically and historically significant,” says the non-profit that is restoring the area.

“The Hempstead Plains supports populations of federally endangered and globally rare plants among its 250 different kinds of vegetation as well as several plant species that are now considered rare in New York State.

It represents one of the most rapidly vanishing habitats in the world, along with scores of birds, butterflies, and other animals that are vanishing with it.”

-Friends of Hempstead Plains

Check out this beautiful slide show of the Hempstead Plains.

A Green Roof Grows on Barclays Center

The long-promised green roof atop Brooklyn’s Barclays Center is finally taking root. More than a decade in the making, it looked at one point as if the green roof had been removed from the plan altogether.

But construction to install the greenery began this past May, and now representatives from Forest City Ratner say the entire job should be completed by the end of July.

Absorbing Water and Sound

Last fall and winter, construction workers built a steel platform atop the arena’s existing roof in order to support the weight of the plant installation.

Now, sedum—a drought-resistant, flowering plant that requires little in the way of maintenance—is being installed panel by panel, using three large cranes. When completed, the green roof will cover more than three acres of surface area.

The roof is designed to absorb rainwater during storms, putting less stress on the city’s aging sewer system and hopefully reducing combined sewer overflows. According to representatives from Barclays, the plants will also help to absorb sound coming from inside the building.

There’s also an aesthetic aspect. Many feel the verdant green roof sets off the harsh rusted exterior of the arena—and throughout the season, the sedum will change colors from green to yellow to red.

Not Everybody’s Sold

The roof, not unlike Atlantic Yards, does have its fair share of critics.

Some are frustrated at the lack of access; the original plan pitched to the community included the green roof as a lush oasis accessible to the public. The new structure is completely off-limits.

Others feel that the entire installation nothing more than thinly veiled greenwashing. Lloyd Alter at Treehugger writes:

But the biggest issue is that it’s not being installed on the actual roof. They are building a giant 130,000 square foot steel superstructure that spans the whole existing roof with an air gap of between four and ten feet, installed by three cranes over a period of six months. They are essentially building a bridge to hold up a “flocked” pattern of sedum trays. The carbon footprint and embodied energy of so much steel far outweighs the environmental benefits of any green roof, let alone this one. The whole thing, from start to finish is a multimillion dollar environmental negative.

What’s your take?

Pictures of the New Green Roof at Barclays Center

Recently, Architect’s Newspaper got an extensive tour of the green roof installation. Here are a few photos from their visit:

The green roof with Downtown Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan beyond. Photo credit: Chris Ryan / AN.
Sedum panels arriving by crane. Photo credit: Chris Ryan / AN.
Blooming sedum. Photo credit: Chris Ryan / AN.
Ladybug enjoying its new home. Photo credit: Chris Ryan / AN.
Workers installing panels one by one. Photo credit: Chris Ryan / AN.
View of the green roof from above. Photo credit: Tom Kaminski / WCBS Chopper 880

5 Things to See in Green-Wood Cemetery Right Now

Looks like we made it: spring is finally (finally!) here. Birds are chirping, buds are exploding, and the air is so thick with pollen it feels a little like walking through a sandstorm.

Wait, what? No matter though, now is time to get outside and enjoy it, because we all know summer will be here soon.

But where to go? Well, you could choose one of the 1,700+ New York City parks scattered across the five boroughs, or you could choose another, less traditional patch of green: perhaps something like Green-Wood Cemetery.

Measuring in at 478 acres, and dotted with more than 8,000 trees, Green-Wood feels remarkably wild in places, especially when you venture past the more popular spots near the front gates. And while it is certainly a place for remembrance and reflection, it can also be a haven for discovery and appreciaton of nature, too.

So, grab your bike or hop the train and head out to Green-Wood this weekend. If you’re lucky, here are five things you might see:

  1. Birds!

    It’s prime migration season, so the park is covered with palm warblers, kinglets, black and white warblers, hermit thrushes, and your usual robins and sparrows. Don’t forget to look up, too—Green-Wood is home to several red-tailed hawks.

    A hermit thrush (left) and a palm warbler (right) in Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo credit: NYER.
    A hawk soars above trees in bloom. Photo credit: NYER.

    A great egret hunts for its supper. Photo credit: NYER.
  2. Blooms!

    Plenty that have already burst, and plenty that are still waiting.

    Blooms and buds in Green-Wood. Photo credit: NYER.

    Hot pink. Photo credit: NYER.
  3. Bees!

    Head down to Dell Waters, a smudge of a pond located in one of the more forgotten areas of the cemetery. The waters are murky, and the grounds a bit wild, but parked on the banks are a set of buzzing beehives. This is the cemetery’s first attempt at beekeeping—a project that they hope will assist with pollination on-grounds while also supporting the city’s pollinator population overall. And big, sweet bonus: they hope the bees will produce a supply of honey, too!

    Green-Wood Cemetery’s first foray into beekeeping. Photo credit: NYER.

    Happy bees. Photo credit: NYER.
  4. Solar panels!

    Just to the east of Dell Waters is a slightly larger pond called Crescent Water. Smack in the middle of the water is a solar installation (along with another larger panel on the shore). The panels generate energy for the pumping system that keeps the water from becoming stagnant. Crescent Water is a naturally-fed, glacial pond, but seems to need a bit of circulation support.

    Solar panels in Crescent Water. Photo credit: NYER.
  5. (Not-so-wild) Wildlife!

    Ok, so, it’s no National Geographic safari, but who doesn’t love stumbling across one of these guys? Just keep an eye out for the large holes that mark the entrance to their dens.

    A groundhog enjoying the last few hours of sunlight in Green-Wood. Photo credit: NYER.

Green-Wood has an active events calendar, too, full of tree walks and trolley tours. Check out their website for directions and details.

What’s your favorite non-traditional park?

One Weird Way to Celebrate Earth Day: Swim the Gowanus Canal

File this one under Do Not Try At Home.

Clean-water activist and serial swimmer Christopher Swain plans to celebrate Earth Day this year by dipping himself in the sludgy waters of the Gowanus Canal—and then swimming 1.8 miles.

Swathed in a bright yellow drysuit and “exposure protection gear,” Swain will enter the canal near the Flushing Tunnel and proceed to swim the entire length, all the way to New York Harbor. Along the route, he’ll encounter industrial waste, fuel slicks, sewage, trash, possibly even gonorrhea—and that’s if things go according to plan.

It is thought that Swain will be the first person in history to attempt this feat. Here’s hoping he’s also the first person to complete it, unharmed.

Um, Why?

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Photo credit: Missy S./Creative Commons.

The purpose of this act is not to freak you out, or encourage anyone else to take a dip (definitely not that). Swain claims he’s actually trying to call attention to the slow federal cleanup of the canal, and advocate for an eventual swimmable waterway.

“It isn’t meant to be a stunt, it’s just meant to be a swimmer imagining a day when everybody can swim it,” Swain told the Daily News. “I don’t think big changes happen unless someone is willing to put themselves on the line.”

This isn’t the first time Swain has taken a swim to raise awareness about threatened waterways. Since 1996, the native New Yorker has also swum the entire lengths of the Columbia, Hudson, Mohawk, Charles, and Mystic Rivers, as well as Lake Champlain, and large sections of the Atlantic coastline of the United States.

The EPA has taken this occasion to remind us that swimming in the canal is not advised:

You Can Watch

For those of you eager to see Swain do his thing, here are the details:

When: Earth Day, April 22, 2015, 12:30 p.m.

Where: Whole Foods Market, 214 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (Park vehicles in WFM lot. Park bikes in racks near store entrance. Gather in Park/Walkway along the Canal, at the outer edge of the WFM parking lot.)

From Oils Come Spoils: Greenpoint Eco-Fund Gives Local Projects a Boost

Trendy Greenpoint, Brooklyn, home to one of the nation’s largest recorded oil spills, is finally seeing some compensation for that decades-long ecological disaster.

As part of the legal settlement with ExxonMobil in 2011, a $19.5 million fund was created to support “environmentally beneficial projects.” Last year, local groups were invited to submit proposals for Greenpoint-based initiatives that focused on environmental areas of concern: think water quality, open space, reduction of pollution, and air quality.

The proposals were put to a vote among Greenpoint residents, and the top six were recently chosen to receive a total of $11 million from the fund.

Here are the big winners in order of votes received:

Greenpoint Environmental Education Center: $5 million 

Funds will be used to remodel the existing Greenpoint library branch in order to achieve LEED silver status, build an environmental education center on the second floor, and construct an outdoor classroom on the roof. Read the proposal.

Greening Greenpoint: $1.9 million

This three-year-project will plant 500 new street and park trees throughout the neighborhood and train up to 10 high school students as tree stewards through an urban forestry paid internship program. Read the proposal.

Intertidal Wetlands: $130,000

Funds will be used to assess shoreline sites and eroded bulkheads along Newtown Creek for opportunities to establish new and expand existing salt marsh habitats. Read the proposal.

Greenpoint Eco-Schools: $1.4 million

Led by the National Wildlife Federation, this project aims to develop and implement environmental education programs for 1,800 students in four Greenpoint schools (PS 31, PS 34, PS 110, and MS 126). Read the proposal.

Curb Your Litter: $569,000

This project will reduce the amount of litter in Greenpoint by addressing structural deficiencies and behavioral patterns. Funds will go towards new trash receptacles, clean-up days, and the training of community stewards  Read the proposal.

West Street Watershed Stormwater: $1.9 million

Led by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, this project will address sewage overflow issues by constructing bioswales and “greenstreets” to capture and treat more than 6 million gallons of storm runoff annually. Read the proposal.

Applicants that did not receive a grant in this round of funding will be offered one-on-one assistance or the purpose of enhancing their proposals’ competitiveness for the next round of funding. The full remaining balance of the Fund—roughly $5.5 million—will be distributed this year.

Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future

At one point in history, Coney Island was an actual island, separated from the rest of Brooklyn by Coney Island Creek.

That changed in the 50s and 60s, when the waterway was filled with debris from the construction of the Verrazano Bridge and stopped up by the Shore Parkway. Today, Coney Island Creek dead-ends mid-peninsula at Shell Road, but the creek is anything but lifeless.

In his November Camera Obscura column over at Curbed, Nathan Kensinger explored this unique waterway, which has evolved over the years from a raw-sewage pit known to locals as Stink Creek and Perfume Bay into “one of the most beautiful spots in New York,” thanks to a range of recovery and restoration efforts.

Swans in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

Like any body of water in the New York area, Coney Island Creek is decidedly mixed-use: Kensinger describes a waterway that is simultaneously used for recreation, sustenance, religious ceremony, and, increasingly, shelter for the homeless.

“Educational, spiritual, environmental, cultural—there’s a lot going on there,” said Charles Denson, the director of the Coney Island History Project.

Baptisms in the shadow of the Verrazano. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger.

But the future of Coney Island Creek is now in limbo. During Hurricane Sandy, the creek was the main source of inundation into surrounding neighborhoods; to reduce damage from future storms, the City has proposed creating a tidal barrier and wetlands at the mouth of the creek.

And, as always, the specter of development looms. Kensinger writes:

At the end of the creek, where public waterfront access is severely limited, several new construction projects are being planned on large swaths of open land along the shoreline. These include a storage warehouse that is replacing the former headquarters of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, and recently announced plans to sell the development rights for a 17-acre remediated National Grid brownfield

The ship graveyard in Coney Island Creek. Photo credit: Nathan Kensinger

Read more at Curbed: Coney Island’s Untamed Creek, Caught Between Past & Future.

North Brooklyn: Fighting for Fairness in NYC’s Trash War

Last week, Council Members Steve Levin and Antonio Reynoso, both from North Brooklyn, introduced legislation that could have a major impact on how New York City handles its trash in the future. If passed, Intro 495 would place a limit on the amount of waste processed by any single community district, and would ultimately reduce the volume of waste currently handled by the city’s most overburdened neighborhoods.

The legislation speaks to the fact that two areas of the city—North Brooklyn (Williamsburg and Greenpoint) and the South Bronx—house over half of the city’s waste transfer stations. And that proportion climbs even higher if you include recycling facilities and other types of waste infrastructure.

The ongoing public health impact of concentrating so much waste-related activity in a few areas has yet to be adequately addressed, residents and local officials say.

Every day, thousands of trucks barrel through a handful of communities, unloading trash from all corners of the city. The trucks are operated both by the City and private carting companies. They collect waste from households, public facilities like schools, private businesses, and building rehab and demolition sites.

The movement of waste never ceases. Truck traffic is one of the most dominant, and arguably destructive, rhythms of life in New York.

Council Member Levin described the current situation in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx as, “generations in the making…it’s fundamentally unfair. It goes against what we think of ourselves as a city.”

A Decentralized System with Concentrated Effects

A line of DSNY trucks in Greenpoint. Photo credit: Mary Sue Connolly / Creative Commons.

New York City residents and businesses produce more than 20,000 tons of solid waste every day. Our waste is hauled out of the city by the truckload to incineration plants and landfills in several states.

Truck traffic is one of the most dominant, and arguably destructive, rhythms of life in New York.

While some of the city’s waste goes from our homes and businesses to its final destination in one truck trip, most of it is loaded onto larger trucks at waste transfer stations first, before being taken out of the city.

The costs of such a system are extensive: millions of dollars in landfill and trucking fees paid by the City and its taxpayers; carbon emissions generated by hundreds of thousands of truck trips; and long-term environmental contamination created by landfills, to name a few.

This story takes a look at the two communities most on the frontline of the city’s waste management system: North Brooklyn and the South Bronx. Since the 1990s, residents from these two neighborhoods have been fighting for a more equitable and sustainable citywide solid waste policy.

Their efforts were essential to the creation of the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan in 2006, which has the long-term objective of making each borough responsible for processing its own waste. The Plan also shifts waste transport away from long-haul trucking, toward a barge and rail-based system.

The most publicized debate about the City’s Solid Waste Management Plan centers around the construction of a marine transfer station on the Upper East Side, at East 91st Street. In an earlier article, we explored some of the key objections that Upper East Side residents have raised about the station, and the City’s plan overall.

The community representatives we spoke with in North Brooklyn and the South Bronx are highly supportive of the City’s plan, and see it as part of a much larger process to fundamentally shift how New York City handles its trash.

North Brooklyn: the epicenter of waste handling

Trash trucks roll down Metropolitan Avenue, in front of P.S. 132. Photo credit: Sarah Crean via NYER.

In early September, Eric Bruzaitis, a North Brooklyn resident for almost two decades, took me on a three-hour walking tour of waste transfer stations throughout his neighborhood.

Bruzaitis is a member of his local community board. He is also a member of OUTRAGE (Organization United for Trash Reduction & Garbage Equity), which is beginning its third study of the impact of truck traffic on North Brooklyn. Its last study in 2009 found that trucks passed key intersections in North Brooklyn at a rate of two, and in some cases three, per minute.

The group estimated that 5,000 trucks move through the neighborhood every day.

We met in front of P.S. 132, which sits on Metropolitan Avenue, one of Greenpoint’s major truck routes. School had just let out and trucks thundered by as children played in the schoolyard. I could barely hear Eric over the sound of the trucks as he explained that what we were experiencing was a largely unseen part of the city’s waste stream.

“Metropolitan Avenue is a highway of trash-related trucks,” observed Laura Hofmann, a life-long resident of North Brooklyn. “We’re literally [being] pummelled.”

The scale of the waste that North Brooklyn handles on a daily basis is hard to over-emphasize.

In 2011, North Brooklyn handled an estimated one million tons of non-putrescible waste.

In 2011, this single area of Brooklyn received more than a third of New York City’s putrescible and non-putrescible waste—almost 7,000 tons every day, according to a Department of Sanitation breakdown. Putrescible waste contains organic material, such as food, which is capable of decomposing. This is what comes out of our homes and businesses on a daily basis.

North Brooklyn plays a particularly important role in handling non-putrescible waste, such as construction and demolition debris. More than half of the city’s non-putrescible waste was processed in North Brooklyn in 2011, which is noteworthy considering the number of construction projects taking place all over New York.

In 2011, North Brooklyn handled an estimated one million tons of non-putrescible waste, using Department of Sanitation data.

The area is home to 15 private waste transfer stations, which accept waste from private haulers and the City’s Department of Sanitation. All of the waste transfer stations in New York City are currently privately operated, confirmed Gavin Kearney, the Environmental Justice program director at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

Those transfer stations also bring related businesses with them: scrap yards, towing companies, gas stations, and truck repair and washing facilities. These ancillary businesses are “part of the waste industry that people don’t think about,” Bruzaitis said, and each one leaves an environmental footprint.

Struggling to Breathe

Greenpoint waterfront. Photo credit: Jim / Creative Commons.

The most obvious public health impact of the relentless truck traffic is diminished air quality, an issue that Williamsburg and Greenpoint residents have been raising for two decades. In 2009, community volunteers used hand-held monitors to monitor air quality at three intersections with heavy truck traffic.

The analysis, coordinated by OUTRAGE, found that particulate counts at the three intersections jumped 355 percent during days in which truck traffic is present (Monday through Saturday). More troubling, the group found that levels of finer-airborne particles (.5 micron in measurement) rose over one-thousand percent during the workweek.

While the City has upgraded its DSNY trucks to minimize emissions, private companies are not yet held to the same standards.

The results align with an analysis of public health data conducted by the City in 2011. The City reported that the “rate of respiratory hospitalization among adults attributable to PM2.5 [fine particulate matter]…varies more than seven-fold, with the highest burdens found in sections of the South Bronx, Northern Manhattan and Northern Brooklyn.”

The poor air quality in North Brooklyn is attributable, at least in part, to the kind of waste processed here. A significant proportion of the waste is commercial debris, carried in by private haulers. While the City has upgraded its DSNY trucks to minimize emissions, private companies are not yet held to the same standards.

Bruzaitis said that residents have been talking to the City about establishing additional air quality monitors in North Brooklyn. The City has at least one monitor in every community district. Neighborhood-level information on particulate matter and other pollutants – through 2010 – can be found on the Health Department’s Environmental Public Health Tracking Portal.

Living Alongside the City’s Biggest Waste Cluster

Waste transfer stations also bring associated industries. Photo credit: Sarah Crean via NYER.

To get to North Brooklyn’s transfer stations, trucks bringing waste from other parts of the city exit the BQE and then travel south and east through Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

Eric and I headed east on Maspeth Avenue, passing Cooper Park and the Cooper Park Houses, a public housing development with 1,700 residents. One block beyond the eastern edge of the park is Vandervoort Avenue, where the area’s densest cluster of waste transfer stations—ten along a 1.3 mile stretch—begins.

Industrial and residential uses, like day care centers and schools, are mixed together throughout the area. The Greenpoint Little League field sits on Vandervoort. One waste transfer station we passed, in East Williamsburg, sat across the street from a residential building. In other cases, housing could be found a couple of blocks away, or as much as a quarter-mile, from the transfer stations.

[One of the overall dynamics in North Brooklyn is the fact that residential and industrial uses are steadily moving closer together. Ten years ago, large sections of the industrial waterfront were rezoned for housing. Housing developers are also obtaining zoning variances in designated industrial areas.]

The day I visited, the truck traffic seemed relentless. Dust and grit blew through the air as trucks drove by; I could practically feel it between my teeth. And despite requirements that the trucks be covered, loose trash could still be seen blowing in the streets.

The sound was deafening at times. Because the volume of traffic on Vandervoort is so high, Bruzaitis said that the City had recently made Morgan Avenue, one block west, an official truck route as well. The addition of yet another truck route received mixed reactions from residents, Bruzaitis noted.

“Rats running around on the edges of trucks…a lot of them are dirty, leaky…oderous. Dirty diapers, tampons, [trash] aerolyzing. This is what people are being exposed to,” said Hofmann.

Regulating the City’s Waste Hubs

One of the most surprising things about my visits to both North Brooklyn and the South Bronx is that some of the waste transfer stations are not fully-enclosed. They have walls but no roof. The stations are required to use misters to wet the trash and control the amount of particulate matter released into the air. In some cases, I saw workers with paper masks hosing down enormous piles of debris in the open air.

[The City regulates waste transfer stations. Several times during my visits to North Brooklyn and the South Bronx I observed that the entrances were open. According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the street-level entrances to transfer stations are supposed to be closed, except when trucks are entering and exiting.]

“At least get them [the stations] covered,” Bruzaitis said. “But even when they’re covered, there’s a whole other host of issues…A facility can only handle so many trucks at a time. They’ll start to queue.”

“It’s easy to blame an entire industry [but] they’re just serving a need…It’s got to go somewhere.”

Bruzaitis talked about the daily challenges of living in a waste hub—like idling trucks and truck traffic on residential streets—that his community is trying to address.

There are established truck routes, Bruzaitis said. “But if the traffic’s bad, and you’re a truck driver that’s on a schedule, guess where you’re going to go.” He explained that OUTRAGE, Community Board 1, and other City agencies are working with the Police Department to bolster existing enforcement efforts. “They [the police] didn’t even know that they could write [tickets] for…an uncovered vehicle, or a truck off-route, or leaking putrescibles,” he said.

“It’s easy to blame an entire industry,” Bruzaitis continued. “[But] they’re [the waste industry] just serving a need…It’s got to go somewhere.”

Nonetheless, Bruzaitis added later, the transfer stations, and the trucks that deliver to them, need to be better regulated, with greater enforcement. A key problem, he said, is that there is not enough enforcement personnel on the ground, either from the City or the State.

“Our problems in North Brooklyn (and other parts of the city) have their solution in a multi-agency enforcement approach,” said Bruzaitis. “My hope is that we may be able to get rules that would allow agencies to write [tickets] across their jurisdiction.”

The City maintains that it has “sufficient” staff to carry out enforcement. “Inspections [of the transfer stations] are frequent and thorough; we inspect 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” stated Belinda Mager, a spokeswoman for the Department of Sanitation.

“If observed by an Officer,” Mager said, “trucks observed leaking material receive spillage summonses.” The DSNY also writes tickets to trucks seen idling for more than three minutes.

Bruzaitis said that OUTRAGE has been “working with the enforcement division of DSNY…to schedule an in-depth meeting on the problems specific to North Brooklyn.”

Sharing the Burden

One of the guiding principles of the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan is that “for both commercial waste and DSNY-managed waste—responsibility for the City’s waste management system should be allocated equitably throughout the City, in each of the five boroughs.”

Manhattan is the only borough that currently does not handle any of its own waste.The City, along with environmental justice communities and many environmental groups, argues that sharing the burden of waste infrastructure is part of civic life.

Laura Hofmann said she understood why neighborhoods fight the introduction -or re-opening- of waste infrastructure. “Is it an ideal situation? No, it’s not,” she said. “Every borough has to do their fair share. If we [North Brooklyn] can learn to live with all of this industry and unwanted land uses, so can other communities.”

As part of the SWMP, five marine transfer stations (two in Manhattan, one in Queens, and two in Brooklyn) will be constructed or retrofitted in order to receive some of the trash now going to the city’s densest waste hubs.

The City says that the 91st Street marine transfer station, for example, will be a fully enclosed, state of the art facility. The City is also looking at ways to address truck queuing outside the stations. The significance of these steps is far more apparent after seeing what private transfer stations actually look like.

The core objective of the Plan is to begin to diminish the volume of waste entering communities like North Brooklyn.

An analysis prepared by the New York League of Conservation Voters found that “full implementation of the SWMP is expected to reduce City-collection truck travel by nearly 3 million miles and private long-haul truck travel on city streets by 2.8 million miles.” Every marine barge used will take 48 container trucks off the road, says the City.

Bruzaitis said that the impact of the SWMP will be gradual, but meaningful. He pointed to a line of trucks waiting to exit the BQE at Meeker Avenue.

“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “North Brooklyn is still going to be processing the majority of the city’s waste for the foreseeable future.” He said that the SWMP was designed to “start encouraging companies to go to other locations, making it feasible…[and, by using barges and trains] changing the way that we transport trash within the city.”

The long-term solution for the entire city, Bruzaitis added, “is people have to recycle…compost…and be smart about what they purchase…The infrastructure around trash has to be better. We have to make it easier for people to recycle.”

But achieving that vision cannot happen without addressing inequities in how trash is currently processed, Bruzaitis argued. That means better enforcement and public policy, he said. “A big part of that is full implementation of the SWMP…and getting all five marine transfer stations up and running.”

Addressing historic environmental issues in the midst of gentrification

View of Greenpoint from a rooftop. Photo credit: Angelo Calilap / Creative Commons.

Bruzaitis said that North Brooklyn’s environmental justice issues had to be understood in a broader historical context. Despite the current narrative of rejuvenation and gentrification, Greenpoint and Williamsburg residents are struggling with the results of decades of industrial contamination, in the ground beneath them and in Newtown Creek.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Bruzaitis concluded. “It’s important to me so I fight for it.”

“We had the rezoning in 2004/05 of North Brooklyn…It’s a story of growth and re-birth…that’s been the story,” said Bruzaitis.

“And it is great on some level. [But] you have the problems of people getting priced out, and it’s the same people that have been dealing with environmental problems [inaudible] in this neighborhood for years and years…environmental problems that are now almost impossible to remediate.”

Bruzaitis believes that waste management in North Brooklyn, however, is an environmental issue that can be tackled.

“Like any problem that is overwhelming, it is made up of individual parts…if we can just get [each public agency] to take their piece of the puzzle…ultimately we will come to a better solution.”

“I wouldn’t live anywhere else,” Bruzaitis concluded. “It’s important to me so I fight for it.”

Emily Manley assisted with the editing of this story.


In part II of this article, we visit the South Bronx, which bears the brunt of at least 15 waste transfer stations; along with a wastewater treatment facility, power plants, a recycling facility, wholesale markets that serve the entire city, and a dense highway network.

In addition to advocating for citywide waste management policy improvements, South Bronx residents are tracking air quality and carrying out a variety of pollution mitigation projects.