Internet resources for what you need to know on NYC Environment
Sites For Beginners

The Topic
"Environment" refers to the places where New Yorkers live; our surroundings; the air, water and land that make our existence possible.
The Context
With more than 22,000 people per square mile, NYC must take considerable measures to protect the environment from the effects of such population density. Problems like asthma, PCBs, lead poisoning and waste disposal compromise the quality of the City's natural resources and threaten the health of its residents. The policy implications for solving environmental problems are complex: Should commercial activity take priority over environmental protection? To what extent can we require changes in lifestyle and consumption through legislation? How far does our responsibility extend to those in other places and future generations?
The Reporter
Alison Blackman Dunham is the former Director of Special Projects for the Recycling Division of the New York City Department of Sanitation, and former Executive Director of The Green Guerrillas, a citywide community gardening organization. She is an author who is known as one-half of The Advice Sisters.

Michael Burger is a freelance writer and native New Yorker. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Earth Times, Terrain, Artbyte, and other magazines."

The Archives
See past monthly updates for Environment.

by Michael Burger

After Fresh Kills

(April '01) When the great mountain at the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island closed down, the piles of garbage in waste transfer stations started to rise. At the same time, street level traffic around the storage facilities picked up considerably. Some of the stations are located in isolated industrial areas. But others are in residential neighborhoods. The increased truck traffic, residents and community leaders say, is putting people there at risk of serious illness.

The city argues that it has to move its garbage. Fresh Kills, the city's last in-house refuge for refuse, handled 13,000 to 15,000 tons of residential trash everyday. Trucks would carry the stuff to city-owned collection sites on the water, where barges would pick it up and carry it to the landfill. Now, 13 private, land-based stations which formerly contracted only for commercial rubbish are handling the far more personal tonnage, doubling their daily intake. The stations are basically warehouses which serve as motels for garbage on its way to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and other points west. The city now exports 100 percent of its trash.

The transfer stations are located in the same communities as the new power plants presently under contruction - the South Bronx, and Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, for example - and there have been similar charges of environmental racism. Congressmembers Jose Serrano of the Bronx and Nydia Velazquez of Brooklyn have both filed civil rights complaints over the high number of waste transfer sites in low-income and minority neighborhoods in their districts.

With the increased number of diesel trucks carrying garbage to and from the stations, people are seeing more and more soot clogging the air. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that there is a link between the tiniest particles of soot - those below 2.5 microns in diameter (a human hair is 100 microns) - and thousands of premature deaths nationwide each year. The microscopic bits of soot are the product of emissions from power plants and vehicles. Diesel trucks are among the worst ground-level polluters. The particles lodge deep in the lungs, causing asthma and other respiratory illnesses. Studies have shown both a higher death rate and an increased incidence of children entering hospitals with asthma attacks in areas with high levels of small soot.

The agency has issued a report that reviewed more than 3,000 scientific studies conducted since new national air quality standards were proposed in 1997, and found need for change. The new standards would limit concentrations of particles smaller than 2.5 microns to an average of 15 micrograms per cubic meter measured for three years in a row. The existing standards have limits of particles 10 microns and smaller, but not on the smallest ones. A final report is expected around the end of summer.

Residents in neighborhoods burdened with the stations have more complaints than air pollution. The plants cause severe odor and noise problems as well. Yet, they will stay in action. The city's long-term plan for putting residential garbage back on the water is not expected to kick into gear for up to five years. Until then, it is most likely that all of the city's residential and commercial waste will pass through these stations. And even then, they may start to import trash from Long Island and other areas.

Related Sites:

  • GothamGazette Prequel
  • Battle over station in Queens
  • New York City Dept. of Sanitation
  • New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Solid Waste Management Program
  • Natural Resource Defense Council's transportation page looks at the impact of diesel trucks and more
  • Scorecard's interactive environmental justice page
  • Big Apple Garbage Sentinel Archive, an independent publication's 15 months of garbage-centered glory

    Sites For Beginners:

    • Natural Resources Defense Council - Their report, entitled "New York's Vital Signs," offers an excellent summary of NYC's overall environmental health. Mixed conclusions: in the last 25 years, air, rivers and bays have improved, but the quality of drinking water has declined.
    • NYC Department of Environmental Protection - Find out about the NYC's water supply, wastewater treatment, environmental planning and other environmental issues. Especially recommended: their info on the 3rd Water Tunnel. Great graphics.
    • U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Region 2
    • Environmental Advocates - An aggressive, Albany-based advocacy group for environmental concerns throughout the state. Reports on many different issues (some NYC-specific), voters' guides and volunteer opportunities, as well a terrific list of links.
    • New York Public Interest Group - A notoriously flinty organization, NYPIRG performs some heavy lifting in unglamorous environmental topics. Check out their report on waste plant emissions.

    Other Recommendations:

    • Wind Power New York (WPNY) - A project of the American Wind Energy Association, was formed to promote the development of wind-powered electricity generation in New York State. For more information about the PG&E project in Madison, follow their link to The windmills of Madison County, a feature of Syracuse Online.
    • Cornell Cooperative Extension - Entomologists from Cornell University tell you everything you want to know about the Asian Longhorn Beetle, from how to identify it to how it can be destroyed.
    • Audubon Society - Founded in 1905 and named for famed ornithologist, explorer, and wildlife artist John James Audubon (1785-1851), the National Audubon Society's mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds and other wildlife for the benefit of humanity and the earth's biological diversity. Learn why birds are an "ecological litmus paper".
    • www.moregardens.org - This pro-garden web site provides background on Esperanza Garden and efforts to preserve the city's other community gardens. Log on to learn about the Samson Bill, which would make all New York City community gardens permanent State parkland, and SLR 61, a complimentary bill that the City Council must endorse before the State can act.
    • Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities - Environmental concepts made easy. A great little Web site that provides comprehensive information about lead, environmental estrogens and, in case you were wondering, environmental astrobiology.
    • The Environmental Defense Fund - In conjunction with several other prominent environmental groups, presents a comprehensive explanation and analysis of global warming. Contents range from a simple explanation of how global warming works, to a discussion of its likely impact in the coming century. Be sure to check out the map of early warming signs.
    • Environmental Health Center's Asthma page - The Environmental Health Center, a division of the National Safety Council, provides voluminous, easy-to-understand background information on a comprehensive array of environmental and safety issues. If you live in New York City, this is a good place to start learning about asthma risks and prevention.
    • The Fire Island Ecology Coalition - Fans of Fire Island who can't bear the long winter separation may visit this comprehensive site, but they won't get the languorous summer feeling associated with their traditional summer visits. Instead, it offers a vigorous examination of threats to the island that demand serious attention„from the proliferation of jet skis and deer to global warming.
    • The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance - This page belongs to a coalition of grassroots organizations concerned with providing a clean and safe environment to communities of color and low-income communities, with topics such as "What's Transportation got to do with Environmental Justice?" This site connects you with such groups and shows you what they're doing . . .and how you can help.

    Visit the Topic Archives!