The Bronx is Breathing

This story was updated on February 25th to include more information on what types of waste move through the South Bronx. It was also updated on March 2nd to more accurately explain the potential impact of waste cap legislation currently under review by the City Council.

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As the de Blasio administration strives to make greater social and economic equality its legacy, the neighborhoods that handle some of the city’s most toxic materials are demanding a different sort of equity.

On February 13th, scores of South Bronx and North Brooklyn residents assembled at City Hall to hear discussion of a bill aimed at addressing the relentless movement of the city’s waste through their neighborhoods.

“We’ve had to live with this for decades; we’re going to be living with this for decades more. Our children have had to grow up like this,” observed Kellie Terry, Executive Director of The Point Community Development Corporation, based in the South Bronx.

The bill, which would cap the proportion of the city’s waste processed in any one neighborhood, is the “first tangible, real attempt to address…the clustering and the over-concentration [of waste infrastructure] in a handful of environmentally overburdened communities of color,” said Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

Eighty percent of the city’s waste handling capacity, the Council reports, is located in just three neighborhoods—the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens. The proposed legislation would also cut the amount of waste processed by transfer stations in those three areas by almost 20 percent.

The severity of the over-concentration of trash processing in low income communities and communities of color is “not just,” said Terry in an interview outside a waste facility in the South Bronx. Trucks rumbled by continuously as we spoke. “It flies in the face of all of our principles as a society, and especially of this current administration.”

Almost one-third of New York City’s trash is handled at waste transfer stations in the South Bronx, and then trucked or sent by rail to landfills across the region.

The relentless truck traffic, along with the presence of the waste transfer facilities themselves, has exacted a steep price from South Bronx residents.

A 2014 study by the state Comptroller found that the Bronx has the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate “by far” among all counties in New York State: 43.5 deaths per million residents in the Bronx, as opposed to the state average of 13.1 deaths per million.

Exposure to exhaust fumes is a known risk factor for asthma, the study noted.

The de Blasio administration does not support the proposed legislation, Intro 495. City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents sections of the South Bronx including Mott Haven, has not taken a position. The Speaker’s colleague in the South Bronx, Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, is a sponsor of the bill.

Establishing a Limit on Waste

Every day, an average 21,000 tons of residential and commercial trash must pass through—and out of—New York City. Seventy percent of that daily trash volume is typically processed for long-distance shipment in just three neighborhoods: the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.

The Council hearing was led by Brooklyn Member and Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso, who told the crowd that he had been born and raised on the south side of Williamsburg. The question of waste equity, he said, is the issue that is “most near and dear to my community.”

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Antonio Reynoso is the current Chair of the New York City Council’s Committee on Sanitation & Solid Waste Management, and Co-Chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus.

Reynoso referred to “a tale of two cities,” the phrase invoked by the Mayor to describe the inequities of life in contemporary New York City. “There’s no better place to look at that than North Brooklyn, the South Bronx, and Southeast Queens when it comes to how we handle trash,” Reynoso said.

Intro 495, which is sponsored by Council Member Reynoso and his colleague Steve Levin, also from North Brooklyn, seeks to do two things: first to cap, and then eventually reduce by 18 percent, the amount of waste that can be processed in the city’s three most over-burdened neighborhoods.

The legislation will also limit the amount of waste that can be handled in any of New York’s 51 community districts to five percent of the city’s total permitted capacity.

The legislation is “about bare bones principles of equity, bare bones principle of fair share,” said Kellie Terry. “This [the waste industry] will still be here [in the South Bronx], but it will be just a little less,” she added.

Concerns About Emergency Capacity

Kathryn Garcia, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Sanitation, told the City Council in testimony at last Friday’s hearing that the neighborhood waste processing limits mandated by Council Member Reynoso’s legislation could create dangerous logistical challenges for the City, especially during extreme weather and other emergency situations.

But, Commissioner Garcia said, the administration was prepared to immediately start negotiations with the city’s 39 privately-run waste transfer stations regarding “voluntary reductions.”

On a day-to-day basis, the city’s waste transfer stations typically use about half of their total permitted waste capacity. This is not always the case though. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the need for waste transfer capacity soared because so much debris had to be trucked out of the city.

Action Carting, which is based in the South Bronx and delivers waste to transfer stations, told lawmakers at the hearing that the company operated at capacity for 30 days straight after Sandy.

Intro 495 would eliminate the excess capacity of transfer stations in the three most overburdened areas, and then cut that capacity further, shaving off 18 percent of what is currently being processed.

The bill does give Commissioner Garcia the ability to override neighborhood waste caps in the event of an emergency like Sandy.

But, she argued, if capacity reductions are mandated, waste transfer stations will scale back operations and they may not be able to respond as quickly as necessary. Losing all excess capacity, along with 18 percent more, in neighborhoods like the South Bronx would place real limits on the DSNY’s operational flexibility, Garcia maintained.

At the same time, respond advocates, the City is also gaining capacity through the construction of a network of marine transfer stations.

2 to 3 Trash Trucks per Minute

On a typical day, nearly 6,000 tons of trash is hauled in and out of the South Bronx, requiring about 1,400 diesel truck trips.

This means two to three truck trips every minute in the course of a typical eight to 10 hour business day.

Nine waste transfer stations operate in the area, mainly in Hunts Point and Mott Haven. According to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the stations have permits authorizing them to collectively handle twice their typical volume, nearly 12,000 tons of waste, daily.

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The South Bronx hosts a range of waste facilities. Photo credit: Sarah Crean / NYER.

The South Bronx hosts other waste-related facilities, including a scrap metal recycling plant, and sites which collect fill (concrete, dirt, brick and asphalt).

According to NYLPI, about 2,000 of the 6,400 tons handled in the South Bronx on an average day in 2013 was residential. Residential trash is ultimately shipped by rail out of the Bronx via the Harlem River Yard, which is privately managed. The rest of the trash processed in the South Bronx is commercial waste, including construction and demolition debris.

[The Harlem River Yard is also the future site of a Fresh Direct distribution center, which has attracted strong community opposition because of concerns about more truck traffic.]

“Boxed In”

And while the South Bronx has numerous expressways running through it, there is no direct access from those highways to some of the South Bronx’s most important industrial areas. Trucks must travel on local streets to get from the Bruckner Expressway to the Hunts Point Peninsula, for instance.

In addition to waste transfer stations, Hunts Point is also home to the city’s wholesale food markets. The markets generate enormous truck traffic, an estimated 15,000 trips daily, according to the City. To get to their destination, trucks must drive around and through the Point’s community of 12,000 residents.

I joined Angela Tovar, Director of Policy and Research for Sustainable South Bronx, for a walk through Hunts Point. I was surprised by the tightness that began to build in my chest after a couple hours on local streets. When I listened to the audio recording of my interview with Tovar later, I could hear both of us coughing.

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Angela Tovar speaks at a rally to support Intro 495. Photo credit: @TeamstersJC16

We watched as trucks passed schools, playgrounds and churches. The neighborhood’s multiple truck routes have created a situation in which residents are literally “boxed in,” said Tovar.

The traffic in and around Hunts Point is truly daunting. Trucks entering the area are coming from both the Bruckner and Sheridan expressways. “Any street is fair game,” said Tovar.

Bruckner Boulevard, which runs under the expressway, feels like a canyon of truck traffic. Crossing eight lanes of traffic at Hunts Point Avenue and Bruckner Boulevard to reach the busy #6 subway stop there, said Tovar, reminded her of the game of Frogger.

Cumulative Impact

Because of much of the area’s industrial zoning, and because of its status as a Significant Maritime Industrial Area, the South Bronx has long hosted a wide range of industrial and noxious uses.

“It’s the cumulative impact of all these other polluting industries that cause ultimately the disproportionate impact that is really abusive and oppressive to our communities,” said Kellie Terry.

The range of industrial activity is mind-boggling. In addition to the waste industry, the Hunts Point markets, and various factories, the South Bronx also has a wastewater treatment facility and four power plants in the vicinity.

Further complicating matters is the fact that some of the South Bronx’s manufacturing/industrial zones have been rezoned for mixed and residential uses. New residential construction is now closer than ever to industrial activity. A similar situation exists in North Brooklyn, which also struggles with waste-related truck traffic and air quality issues.

The South Bronx’s public health issues linked to air quality have been well documented in a variety of studies conducted by the City, State, and even Congress.

A 2009 NYU-Wagner Graduate School study reported that “rates of death from asthma are about three times higher in the Bronx than the national average. Hospitalization rates are about five times higher.”

The NYU study, funded through a Congressional appropriation, also found a “strong association between asthma hospitalization rates, poverty, the percentage of Hispanic residents, and the number of industrial facilities in the Bronx.”

As Kellie Terry noted, the South Bronx is grappling with social issues that “make our environmental impacts sometimes impossible to address.”

“We’re worried about poor educational situations, we’re worried about disproportionately high incarceration rates, we’re worried about police brutality, we’re worried about everything, all the time,” Terry said, as trucks roared by.

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Kellie Terry, Executive Director of the Point CDC. Photo credit: Adi Talwar/City Limits.

“This [the question of waste infrastructure] is one aspect of the fight,” she continued.

“You also have to fight all those other fights. That’s what it means to be within a community like this and to work towards resiliency. It’s not just environmental resiliency. But it’s also social resiliency.”

Collecting Data at the Ground Level

Part of finding public policy solutions that will truly address the concerns of South Bronx residents is collecting the best data possible.

The most recent neighborhood-level air quality data available from the City is from 2009-2010. More data is forthcoming says the City.

In collaboration with two other organizations, Sunset Park-based Uprose and HabitatMap, Sustainable South Bronx has launched an air quality monitoring program which utilizes wearable monitors. The monitor then transmits the air quality data to the wearer’s cell phone.

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The AirBeam, a wearable air monitor designed by Brooklyn-based environmental justice nonprofit HabitatMap. Photo credit: AirBeam

The data will help to pinpoint areas where there are higher concentrations of pollutants. Data has been collected by 80 people so far, both high school students and local residents. Tovar said several local schools plan to get involved.

The response from students and community groups has been “overwhelming,” said Tovar. “It’s been great. We really feel that we’ve been able to have this conversation about air quality and what it means,” she said.

After the data is analyzed, maps of the data points will be available at aircasting.org.

One of the most useful aspects of SSBx’s air quality monitoring program is that the data is being collected at ground level.

Both the State and City have air quality monitors in the Bronx. The City has four monitors in Bronx community districts one and two, said Levi Fishman, a spokesman for the City’s Department of Health. The City’s monitors are affixed 10 to 12 feet above ground level, on street or utility poles. The State’s monitoring stations are located on the tops of buildings.

“The pollution that we’re facing is on the ground…The impact is there,” said Tovar. “[We are] directly being impacted by tail pipes and truck idling.”

Collecting data from a multitude of locations—at ground level—will help to develop a more accurate picture of the air quality experienced by South Bronx residents. It may also shed light on why South Bronx hospitalization and death rates from asthma are so extraordinary.

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A smoggy view of Manhattan from the Bronx. Photo credit: Axel Drainville/Creative Commons.

The City’s 2009-2010 data for fine-particulate matter pollution levels, for example, show Midtown and Stuyvesant Town, both in Manhattan, with the highest mean concentrations citywide. But these neighborhoods do not have air quality-related health issues similar in scope to those in the South Bronx.

“Harmful air pollutants are found in all neighborhoods of NYC,” said Levi Fishman. “The health impacts of air quality depend on the number of people with health conditions, like asthma or cardio-vascular disease, that air pollution exacerbates. Outdoor air pollution isn’t the only, or even the major, cause of those conditions,” he argued.

The City’s assertion would seem to be challenged by the 2009 NYU-Wagner School study, which found a “strong association between Bronx zip codes with high asthma rates and those with a large concentration of industrial facilities.”

Clearly more information is needed about what South Bronx residents are actually breathing. The NYU-Wagner School study collected air quality data at ground level, and the study’s authors reported that levels of some pollutants—carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide—were higher than those recorded from the State’s rooftop monitors.

Curbing Emissions

The City has tried to mitigate some of the air quality effects of truck traffic in communities like the South Bronx. It has upgraded its entire DSNY fleet to ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.

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A hybrid electric DSNY garbage truck. Photo credit: ALF Condor.

A City ordinance now requires private waste trucks -which pick up commercial trash- to retrofit over the next five years using the best emissions reduction technologies available.

And the Department of Transportation operates a Clean Trucks program in Hunts Point and Port Morris, which offers rebates to private truck owners who retrofit their trucks to use alternative fuels such as hybrid electric and compressed natural gas, or make other improvements. The program’s funds are currently exhausted.

Environmental justice advocates across the city are trying to tackle the emissions problem by crafting a new approach to the private-sector waste industry.

Through an initiative called Transform Don’t Trash NYC, they are calling for the establishment of a contractual relationship between waste carting companies and the City. This would enable the City to more strictly control truck emissions, organize more efficient pick-up routes, and better enforce health and safety standards for waste industry workers.

DSNY Truck Traffic to be “Greatly Reduced”

In her testimony, Commissioner Garcia said that the City was sensitive to the concerns of South Bronx residents, and other communities, who endure the impact of thousands of diesel trucks on local streets every day.

She pointed out that once the City is able to open all of its Marine Transfer Stations, as outlined in the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan, waste-related truck traffic would be “greatly reduced.” Eighty-eight percent of the city’s residential waste would eventually be shipped out of the city by barge or rail, the Commissioner said.

The SWMP would lead to a reduction of 55 million DSNY vehicle miles travelled annually, Garcia said, along with additional reductions in commercial carter traffic. Air quality benefits will stretch across the region, the City maintains.

Advocates argue that the opening of the marine transfer stations, and the creation of this additional capacity, goes hand in hand with capping the waste handling burden in each community.

“We have to balance what they [DSNY] operationally would like in terms of their comfort zone with the on the ground reality that communities are choking on this stuff,” said Eddie Bautista. “It’s not fair for the department to get all this excess marine transfer station capacity and not reduce the noxious capacity.”

Bautista said that because meaningful voluntary capacity reductions had not materialized since the passage of SWMP, mandating them was consistent with the provisions of the plan. “That’s part of the deal…anything short of an actual reduction in these communities is an undermining of the 2006 SWMP.”

Thinking About the Future

What concerns advocates in particular is the city’s enormous commercial waste stream, which is as large or even larger than its residential waste stream.

Some of the city’s commercial waste, including some construction and demolition debris, will move through DSNY’s to-be-opened marine transfer stations, but not all of it. The remainder will go to land-based waste transfer stations.

Angela Tovar argued that the City needs to plan ahead to protect its neighborhoods, especially in this current period of major construction and development.

The fundamental point of the waste cap legislation, Tovar said, is to ensure that, “no other community in the future will have to bear the brunt of the city’s waste.”

Beyond the SWMP: Transforming NYC’s Relationship to Trash

The back-drop to all of these efforts is the City’s execution of the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan. Local opposition to construction of a DSNY Marine Transfer Station at East 91st Street and the East River has attracted the most media attention by far of any aspect of the plan.

The de Blasio administration has resolutely pushed ahead, and Commissioner Garcia said last Friday that at least two marine transfer stations should be on-line in the next two years- Hamilton Avenue in Brooklyn, and the North Shore facility in Flushing, Queens.

Three other marine transfer stations –one in southwest Brooklyn, and two in Manhattan, at East 91st Street and West 59th Street- will start operation as well. Trash shipment by rail will also increase as part of the SWMP.

And the City is planning to develop a major recycling and educational facility at Gansevoort Pier in the West Village.

For the first time, each borough will be directly involved in handling some of its own waste.

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A line of DSNY trucks in Queens, New York. Photo credit: Kris Arnold.

The city’s three most over-burdened communities will be impacted in different ways by the SWMP. Council Member Maria Del Carmen Arroyo, who represents sections of the South Bronx including Hunts Point, said that the South Bronx would probably benefit most from the addition of the West 59th Street station, which will receive construction and demolition debris.

“My community is asking me to do this [support the SWMP],” Arroyo said by phone.

The Councilwoman added that New York City needed to confront the bigger issue, which is the amount of waste it produces. “We’re not talking about real recycling…reducing tonnage…The SWMP addresses one small part.”

“The merits of the plan put us in the right direction,” maintained Kellie Terry. The task, she said, was to “continuously…assess…our current policies for ways to improve them so they can be more just, ultimately for everybody.”

Bautista praised a number of the City’s initiatives, such as increasing household composting, and using anaerobic digestion to turn organic waste into energy. The City, he said, was finally turning its attention to decreasing waste and reducing its carbon footprint.

The “top priority,” Bautista said, “is that however we’re handling our solid waste as a city, that we’re not being hypocritical. We want fair share and environmental justice, not just for our communities, but for those landfills in Pennsylvania, Virginia, wherever else we’re sending our waste. We should be figuring out how to handle that [waste] closer to home, and the way you do it is you reduce waste and increase recycling.”

Standing His Ground

For Council Member Antonio Reynoso, establishing limits on the quantity of waste that can be handled in each of the city’s neighborhoods is the next piece of this enormous puzzle.

A number of Council Members raised questions about the legislation at last week’s hearing, arguing that setting waste caps would simply push trash processing into more neighborhoods, causing widespread harm.

Other Members said they were ready to help shoulder some of the City’s trash burden. “The Upper West Side wants to do more,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal, saying that she saw opportunities for job creation with the overhaul of a marine transfer station at West 59th Street. “Bring it on.”

After a direct plea from representatives of the private waste industry for a delay to moving ahead with Intro 495 and a “dialogue” with the Council and affected communities, Reynoso responded, “we just can’t wait.”

“This piece of legislation has been going on for a long time [8 years],” Reynoso said at the tail-end of Friday’s 5-hour hearing. “There’s no solution [coming] from the other side…We need to get something done because my community can’t wait anymore, and that’s why we’re pushing.”

Intro 495 is currently under review by the Sanitation Committee.

Shifting the Paradigm

In the meantime, residents of the South Bronx have moved ahead with their own sustainability agenda, even as they continue to press the City for waste caps.

“This idea that this is an overburdened community is only part of the story,” said Angela Tovar. “There is a paradigm shift,” she added.

“The other side of the story,” Tovar said, “is that groups and activists are working in tandem to be proactive about solutions…People have a right to clean air and clean water.”

Local groups are pressing the City about improving the quality of the Bronx River, which is impacted by the discharge of over one billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater annually.

South Bronx residents have fought successfully for increased access to amenities, access to green space, and access to the waterfront. The community is now seeking to expand the South Bronx Greenway, which, when completed, will connect existing and new parks through a network of waterfront and on-street routes.

“We have a limited amount of green space in the community,” said Tovar. “We engage a lot of people locally in maintaining the trees. Anything that is going to help improve the air quality is very important to us. Trees are one of the only interventions that we have.”

Local groups have also collaborated with businesses to build green infrastructure projects, such as the green roof installed on ABC Carpet’s Bronx River warehouse.

Angela Tovar and I stopped at Barretto Point Park, which occupies a scenic spot on the East River. The roar from passing trucks was ceaseless as we spoke.

Built in 2007, Barretto Point Park was a victory for local residents and is “one of the treasures of the community,” said Tovar. “The challenge is getting people here safely.”

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Barretto Point Park is located on the East River waterfront. Photo credit: NYC Parks.

Tovar described lines of Hunts Point residents waiting to use the park’s floating pool during the summer. The park is also a destination for fishermen, she said.

“[But] two blocks away we have transfer stations,” she pointed out. On a windy day, Tovar said, fumes and debris can blow into the Park from the stations. Private transfer stations are sometimes open to the elements, which I saw firsthand. The City’s marine transfer stations will be fully enclosed.

One of the city’s wastewater treatment facilities, which is heavily served by trucks, is also close to the Park.

“It’s a challenge for us,” Tovar said, looking out at the beautiful coastline of Barretto Point.

Then she turned her gaze back toward the passing trucks. “We are continuously looking for solutions,” she said.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.