NYC Issues 2001: The Environment
By Michael Burger
Environmental issues, like the environment itself, are
best understood in terms of their interconnectedness,
rather than as a series of independent problems. Yet,
politicians from the mayor to borough presidents to members
of the City Council tend to treat environmental issues
as mutually exclusive and deal with them on a first-come,
The result is that the solutions often create new problems:
new power plants aimed to fend off energy shortages are
rushed through the regulatory system, new waste transfer
stations create increased diesel truck traffic through
adjacent neighborhoods, and efforts to redevelop brownfields
fail to clean them up.
Not only do these short-term solutions fail to fully
address the city's environmental condition, they often
have the most impact on the city's low-income and minority
neighborhoods. The growing inequity between rich and poor
New Yorkers and the deteriorating state of the city's
industrial dumping grounds call for some comprehensive,
strategic plan. Will anyone answer that call?
POWER PLANT SITING
Mayor Giuliani and officials from the New York Independent
System Operator and the New
York Power Authority have said that the city may face
a shortage of energy that could create a price spike like
last summer's and the threat of blackouts and brownouts.
The state has stepped in, and, in a controversial
process, agreed to build 10 "temporary mini-power
plants" inside city limits.
Opponents have argued against the plant sitings -- which
were placed in low-income and minority neighborhoods in
the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island -- charging
that the state sidestepped regulations that called for
environmental reviews and community input. State officials
have admitted that temporary plants may not be so temporary
after all. And the same expedited process is being repeated
with larger plants proposed for Hunts Point, Sunset Park
and Long Island City. Power plant siting will continue
to evoke protests for at least the next few years.
This year, candidates will be challenged to see if they
support a system that favors power plant producers at
the cost of public participation and environmental regulations.
The air in New York City remains the third dirtiest in
the nation, behind only Los Angeles and Houston. The soot
and smog that darken the city skies come from diesel trucks,
cars, and new and old power plants. Over the next few
years, the city will experience a significant increase
in emissions from all these sources. New plants are being
built, and old ones put back in use (like a notorious
coal-fired polluter in the Brooklyn Navy Yards that is
being resuscitated to meet this summer's demand). Waste
transfer stations are using more and more diesel trucks
to make up for the closing of the Fresh Kill landfill
on Staten Island. And consumers continue to buy larger,
less efficient, more polluting vehicles.
Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the United
States Environmental Protection Agency's new national
ambient air quality standards, which regulate emissions
of smaller particles of soot. Soot is the generic term
for particulate matter, an airborne black dust, that at
its smallest sizes lodges in the lungs and can cause respiratory
illnesses and asthma. Studies show that New York City
is well out of compliance with the new standards, but
the city and state are holding back on developing a strategy
and recommending changes until the new standards take
Complying with the new standards could mean re-siting
power plants so that neighborhoods are not inundated with
soot, promoting alternative fuels by investing in a new
fleet of electric or hybrid vehicles, and even rethinking
the city's public transportation system.
"It would instigate significant changes in the way we
live life in New York City," says Mathy Stanislaus, an
environmental engineer who has worked with the Environmental
Protection Agency, the city government, and numerous community
groups. "They are trying to avoid the impact of when those
decisions hit. [But] unless we deal with this now, we're
cementing health for the next ten years."
Welcome to the post-Fresh Kills era. Since the infamous
landfill closed this spring, the city has been without
a local solution for the 13,000 tons of residential waste
of Sanitation collects daily. (The same daily amount
of commercial waste has always been trucked out of the
city.) The city has rushed into a long-term plan for solid
waste disposal that calls for contracting with a private
facility in Linden, New Jersey for over half of the city's
trash. But that facility has yet to be built and is subject
to New Jersey regulations.
Candidates for office will be asked whether or not they
support that plan and will be challenged to come up with
Waste Transfer Stations
For the moment, residential waste is being lumped together
with commercial waste and carried in and out of waste
transfer stations on diesel trucks. As a result of the
increased traffic, neighborhoods that play host to the
stations -- which, again, are mostly poor and minority
neighborhoods -- have to deal with increased air pollution
Mayor Giuliani has cut back on funding for recycling
education and infrastructure. Recycling, long the
poster-child of personal environmentalism, could receive
more money and airtime from a new mayoral administration
or City Council.
Fifteen percent of the city's waste consists of discarded
offers a solution to tossing food in with commercial and
non-organic residential waste, but the city has postponed
funding compost facilities for another seven years, until
2010. The new administration could make composting a priority
and force New Yorkers to deal with an additional recycling
are abandoned properties that, due to actual or imagined
toxic contamination, have been left unused or under-utilized.
Brownfields pose a risk to both the public health and
the environment, as toxics may leak into groundwater or
neighboring property, or present hazards to children in
search of a playground. However, brownfields also represent
a great opportunity to revitalize urban neighborhoods
with anything from a new community center to a public
park, from affordable housing to a new manufacturing plant.
New York City has over 4,000 acres of brownfields, most
located along the waterfront and concentrated in poor
and minority neighborhoods.
The challenge, according to Alan Dershowitz of the Natural
Resource Defense Council's Urban
Program, is "not only on how to clean brownfields
up but how to make that economically competitive. It often
has less to do with contamination than the high costs
of redevelopment in New York City."
There are currently two brownfields bills before the
state legislature: a bill by Governor Pataki, and the
Brownfields Coalition bill, put together by a group of
private developers, government officials, community leaders
and scientists. The Brownfields Coalition bill provides
community-based organizations greater opportunity to participate
directly by creating an advisory panel that would represent
diverse interests. The governor's bill maintains a municipal
veto over redevelopment plans and takes a risk-based approach
to planning which could provide developers with an incentive
to pave over pollution rather than clean it up. New city
officials could play a role in determining which one gets
Brownfields are often situated in close proximity to
each other, yet redevelopment plans tend to look site-to-site.
Environmental and community activists are calling for
a broader vision that will look at entire areas rather
than single sites in plotting urban renewal.
THE GREEN ECONOMY
New York City's government can take the lead in creating
a more efficient, conservation-minded economy by using
its buying power to subsidize and support markets for
eco-friendly products. These could include recycled paper,
wood products culled from sustainable forests, wood alternatives,
and hybrid cars and SUVs that use both electric and gas
power. The city can also help create and expand markets
for high-efficiency water and energy systems by retrofitting
government buildings with them, and can promote alternatives
to fossil fuels by purchasing more power from wind, solar,
and geothermal sources, as well as from companies that
invest in research and development of alternative energy.
The impacts of the city's environmental policies are
most pronounced in a few low-income, minority neighborhoods
like Hunts Point, Melrose Commons and Mott Haven in the
South Bronx and Red Hook, Sunset Park, and Greenpoint/Williamsburg
in Brooklyn. These are the neighborhoods saddled with
the power plants and the waste transfer stations, and
overrun with brownfields. As a result of shouldering the
city's pollution burdens, people here are more susceptible
to upper respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular complications,
lead poisoning, and asthma. These are also the neighborhoods
with the greatest need for open space and waterfront revitalization
Velazquez has become a champion in the cause of environmental
justice, a movement that aims to lift environmental burdens
from poor and minority neighborhoods. Last July, she filed
two formal complaints with the Environmental Protection
Agency about the amount of pollution in her district neighborhoods.
This past April, she introduced legislation to Congress
that would enable communities to file complaints for discrimination
under the Civil Rights Act.
Candidates in this campaign season should be asked whether
they support Rep. Velazquez's stance, and whether they
have any plan for promoting environmental justice themselves.
This year, candidates will also have to confront a few
more questions on the environment.
What kind of attention will be paid to waterfront redevelopment,
including improving access, recreational facilities and
mixed use of land and water? What will candidates do to
protect the city's watershed,
and ensure drinking
water quality? Finally, and perhaps the most pressing
in the summer months, will pesticides be used to control
the threat of the West Nile Virus?