Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


After Fresh Kills

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.

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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."

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