Until the mid-1980s, New York City disposed of virtually all of its garbage locally: burying it in landfills or burning it in incinerators. Since then, with time running out local landfills and new incinerators rejected as environmentally unacceptable, New York has been transitioning to a system of exporting its garbage to distant, rural landfills. Virtually all of the City's commercial garbage, which is collected by private carters, is now exported. And a steadily increasing percentage (now over 50%) of the residential garbage collected by the Department of Sanitation is now being exported as well. By the end of 2001, when the City's last landfill, Staten Island's infamous Fresh Kills, closes, NYC will export 100% of its residential garbage.
Exporting garbage requires a new infrastructure facility: the transfer station, where collected garbage is consolidated and transferred to long distance trucks. There are now roughly 100 such facilities for commercial garbage citywide, and they are generally loathed by the residents of the industrially zoned neighborhoods like Greenpoint where they are concentrated. The closing of Fresh Kills will require an additional system of transfer stations for residential garbage.
In many ways, New York's solid waste management has had a very successful decade. Recycling is up, the cost of commercial waste disposal is down, incineration has been abandoned, Fresh Kills is on the way to being closed, and out of City landfills are accepting the City's garbage with a minimum of difficulty. The City has transitioned to an export system of garbage without the disposal crisis many predicted.
But the transfer station system works badly and faces ongoing attack. Unlike other integral components of the City's infrastructure, which at some fundamental level are accepted and accommodated, even after a decade transfer stations continue to be regarded as illegitimate temporary expedients. The problem is that New York has been unable to make its newest infrastructure system work except by allowing transfer stations to externalize their very high social, environmental and financial costs - costs that are disproportionately paid by working class and lower income communities.
THE TRANSFER STATION PROBLEM
Transfer stations handling commercial waste have brought to their local communities major odor, noise and traffic problems. They are frequently a major obstacle to community renewal efforts, while their concentration in lower income neighborhoods, often ones with large populations of people of color, is raising growing issues of environmental justice and fair share.
City and state solid waste planning and permitting processes have done little more than mitigate the worst transfer station impacts. Oversight agencies have been hobbled by their recognition that transfer stations have become an essential component of the City's infrastructure and by their resulting fears that aggressive regulatory enforcement would disrupt the outward flow of garbage. The governmental memory of New York's two garbage strikes and streets filled with rotting garbage remains vivid and frightening.
(NO) MORE TRANSFER STATIONS
13,000 tons of commercial garbage now move through transfer stations each day. 15,000 tons more of residential garbage will have to go through transfer stations once Fresh Kills is closed in 2001.
To create this capacity while avoiding the perils of siting the new transfer facilities itself, New York City has issued a series of Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for private waste entities to ship specified amounts of garbage out of the City, with the understanding being that the private entity would either establish a new transfer station or expand an existing one.
Unfortunately, the problems associated with transfer stations, and the lack of confidence in government oversight of them, has spawned bitter local opposition to many of these private sector efforts. Two battles in particularly are currently energizing opposition to the transfer station system - one in Red Hook and the other at Hunts Point in the South Bronx.
These and other battles have divided neighborhoods and pitted borough against borough and New York against New Jersey. The resulting stalemates have forced the City into a series of short term contracts to directly truck waste across the river to New Jersey disposal sites and transfer stations, which has greatly increased the cost of solid waste disposal and garbage-related truck traffic.
GOVERNMENT VS. COMMUNITY
The transfer station system evolved through individual ad hoc decisions, as private garbage collectors went into industrially zoned areas and set up on the cheapest, most immediately convenient sites. These operations were often undercapitalized and environmental concerns like odor control came last. Since this unpromising beginning in the late 80s, regulators have been playing catch-up, with marginal success.
Government's failures to solve the transfer station problem are rooted in two major fears. The first is the fear of regulators that aggressive enforcement could cause too many transfer stations to close, with unwelcome consequences for the smooth flow of garbage out of the City. And second, government has also feared that overly active enforcement role would leave it with the dread responsibility for siting transfer stations. Even having the unequivocal ability to prevent transfer station siting has been seen as something for government to avoid, for community opposition would almost certainly embroil sanitation and environmental agencies in an endless series of siting conflicts that governments perceive would be lose-lose choices that could similarly threaten smooth garbage export.
If government policy toward transfer stations is problematic, so too are community and civic efforts to reform transfer station management. First, many of these efforts have pursued essentially process strategies: better solid waste planning and regulatory enforcement, and genuine consideration of issues such as environmental justice and fair share. But after a decade of such efforts, the continuing persistence of transfer station problems demonstrates that process strategies alone cannot overcome the inherent governmental fears.
Second, advocacy efforts have generally had limited or single target goals: block a particular facility, improve recycling, address fair share, etc. But from a citywide perspective, even when such efforts succeed, they simply push the impacts elsewhere.
Third, advocates and critics of transfer station management have never developed a real systematic alternative to the existing system. Advocates also have political realities that dictate caution. They are wary of accepting involvement in site selection, or of being seen as an ambassador for ideas like consolidating residential and commercial garbage that could raise local fears that their neighborhood will wind up getting more garbage. And often, they lack the resources to do anything more than focus on the immediate crisis.
Yet the current folklore that transfer stations are an intrinsic evil needs a major reality check. Like it or not, transfer stations perform a critical environmental and infrastructure function. They are important sources of blue collar employment and light industrial activity, and are critical for preserving public health. The question therefore is not how to get rid of them, but where should they be sited, how should they be run, and what changes in current laws and practices are needed to bring civic peace and resolution to the issue.
PROBLEMS TO BE SOLVED
So what will it take to create a viable transfer station system? The answer would probably include the following: 1) Obtain agreement on a policy goal of siting transfer stations where they will minimize both local and interstate truck traffic and maximize garbage movement by barge and rail; 2) Combine the currently separate commercial and residential garbage streams to minimize the need for transfer stations; 3) Understand the implications of those concerns for current siting controversies such as Red Hook and AMR in the South Bronx ; 4) Make transfer stations operate in an urban friendly manner; 5) Shut down existing substandard stations as new ones come on line; 6) Determine the role of recycling and waste reduction, and the role of marine transfer stations once they are no longer needed; 8) Lower the rapidly escalating costs of garbage handling; 9) Determine the right division of labor between public and private sectors and assess the current administration's privatization program. These questions should all be answered, and then of course, there remains the task of putting them all together and making the right solution work politically.
THREE RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
In recent months, some critical local stakeholders have realized that they must go beyond opposing proposed local transfer stations and work as well for an overall solution. Thus, spurred by the Red Hook Civic Association, the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods has proposed that the City consider conversion of its eight marine transfer stations (which are currently used to load garbage into barges for shipment to Fresh Kills) to waste transfer stations once Fresh Kills is closed.
This proposal is appealing because it avoids the complications and community costs of siting new facilities. It is far from a complete solution. Yet the willingness of community interests to recognize the need for an alternative presents a major opportunity to engage community interests in a process of a viable solution. But so far, government interests are responding to this opening in a vague and desultory manner.
Under State law, the City has to modify its solid waste plan to include its program for managing residential garbage post Fresh Kills. The long delayed Draft Environmental Impact Statement for such a plan is supposedly going to be issued by the New York City Department of Sanitation "soon." Since the plan modification must be approved by the City Council, advocates are looking towards using the plan amendment process to raise community concerns over transfer stations, citywide garbage truck traffic increases, and the rising costs of solid waste management. Many advocates see these hearings, if and when they occur, as a first step towards making transfer stations an issue in the 2001 mayoral election.
Third, though citywide civic groups have long been involved with solid waste, most of that involvement has been at the policy planning level or in promoting recycling. Issues of siting have largely been left to local community groups. Now two of the citywide civics, EDF and RPA are actively reaching out to community and environmental justice interests, seeking to forge a local-regional coalition that can put forth a credible alternative program to the existing jerrybuilt transfer station system.
Only two things seem certain at this time. The first is that the Fresh Kills landfill will close on schedule and the City will be exporting 100% of its solid waste by the end of 2001. Everything else - how it will be done, at what price and with what external impacts - seems up for grabs.
The second certainty is that the issue of solid waste and transfer stations will wind up in the 2001 mayoral race. If the advocates follow the course of the past, then the Mayoral campaign will hear a primal scream of "help us" and the candidates will respond with various pledges to feel your pain and make solid waste planning and regulation work better. There will be improvement at the margins but all the basic problems will remain. But if civic stakeholders can come up with a specific strategy, one that they can make a touchstone of solid waste concern that candidates can safely respond to, then the prospects for finally resolving the transfer station problem and replacing today's motley set of ad hoc facilities with modern, community friendly transfer stations will be greatly improved.
John McGutrick of the Red Hook Civic Association, is a major opponent of Waste Management Inc.'s proposed Red Hook transfer station and a strong force in the Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods. Steve Hammer, Co-chair of the Citywide Recycling Advisory Board, writes about the role that recycling should play in lowering the pressures to create transfer stations.
New York City Department of Sanitation - Admired for their operational skill in doing an unattractive job, but without the kinds of planning and community relations skills needed to address the transfer station problem. Also responsible for enforcing transfer station compliance with local solid waste regulation.
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - Oversees the state required solid waste plan development process municipalities are supposed to go through. DEC also grants permits for transfer stations and other solid waste facilities, and enforce state solid waste regulations. Given that the solid waste planning process is designed to insure garbage is disposed of without the external costs of New York's current transfer station system, most regard that as prima facie evidence of DEC failure to properly administer the solid waste planning process.
New York City Council - Must approve the solid waste plan and future amendments to it. The Council has been a strong and effective defender of recycling, but otherwise has yet to carve out for itself a substantial role in formulating solid waste policy.
Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari - Has taken advantage of a Republican Governor and Mayor, and of the critical role he played in getting both elected, to insure Fresh Kills is closed on time and keep new waste facilities on Staten Island to a minimum.
Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer - A major actor in the Hunts Point AMR facility controversy and has been working to develop integrated areawide and citywide solutions to transfer station issues. A voice of reason on the need to recognize that transfer stations are needed and must be properly managed.
Neighbors Against Garbage (NAG) - Greenpoint, Williamsburg based group concerned with the clustering of transfer stations for commercial garbage in the northeastern Brooklyn.
New York Environmental Justice Alliance - Focuses on transfer stations, their siting and their concentration in neighborhoods of low income and color.
New York Lawyers for the Public Interest - Active in providing legal muscle on a number of transfer station issues, including the two leading current controversies, the Red Hook and Hunt's Point facilities.
The Point Community Development Corporation - The community organization in Hunts Point that has led the community opposition in Hunts Point to the AMR facility.
Environmental Defense Fund - Long time environmental force on New York issues thanks to its stalwart Counsel Jim Tripp, is now working actively with local communities on waste transfer issues. A major focus of the EDF effort is exploring combining management of the two main waste streams, commercial and residential garbage, to rationalize facility siting and minimize the number of stations needed.
The Regional Plan Association - Also involved in the issue, driven by waterfront and community renewal concerns. One RPA focus, reflecting its transportation interests, is using the rail system for solid waste export, to minimize truck traffic and help fund the proposed trans-Hudson rail tunnel. RPA is also working on minimizing transfer stations on the waterfront and replacing the current sprawling network of 100 plus transfer stations with a handful of modern facilities modeled on successful overseas best practices that could serve as nodes of local, light industrial redevelopment.
Inform - An environmental organization with a distinguished record in environmental education and analysis, is reportedly preparing a new planning analysis of the potential for local waste reduction.
Organization of Waterfront Neighborhoods - A citywide coalition of communities bordering the waterfront that are concerned with conditions of current transfer stations and threats to bring new ones into their communities.
Uprose - A Sunset Park based community organization that is not currently fighting any transfer specific new transfer station proposal but sees the Sunset Park waterfront as a prime target for future garbage management and is determined to head it off.
The Solid Waste Advisory Boards are a borough by borough system of citizen advisory oversight set up by the New York City Department of Sanitation.
The Citywide Recycling Advisory Board is a similar entity focusing on recycling. Currently preparing a Snuff Mill Manifesto on new opportunities for waste reduction and recycling.