Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Noxious New York

The Gotham Gazette Reading NYC Book Club recently met to discuss the environmental justice movement and the book Noxious New York, by Julie Sze. Joining us was Cecil Corbin-Mark, of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT), an established environmental justice group and a subject of the book.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: What is environmental justice?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: The environmental justice movement is a social justice movement that has arisen here in the United States and has spread globally. It was born, I believe, out of the environmental movement, out of the anti-toxics movement, and, most importantly, out of the civil rights movement.

From each of those movements, the environmental justice movement has borrowed particular frames or lenses. From the civil rights movement, it has gotten its racial analysis of how our society delivers burdens and benefits based on racial lines. From the anti-toxics movement, it takes the frame of empowering communities in the discussion around environmental policies. From the environmental movement, obviously, it gets the bread and butter issues of land, water, and air quality.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: What is the anti-toxics movement?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: It grew here in the United States starting in the late 1970s and early1980s. The most famous struggle was the Love Canal situation around Buffalo. It focused on providing a way for the local communities, primarily in Caucasian communities, to respond to the siting of toxic facilities that would affect them. It gave them a voice, a way to say that their communities were not places for these types of facilities.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: Can you tell us about the organization you work with?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: Sure. We are in our 19th year of operation, and were started in 1988 in response to community struggles around the siting of the north river sewage treatment plant, as well as a diesel bus depot and a garbage transfer station. The organization started as an ad-hoc, community driven, community run organization. In 1994, we opened our doors as a staffed organization. We had filed a lawsuit against the city over the operation of the sewage treatment plant, and there was a settlement.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: What are the most pressing environmental justice issues facing the city today?

There are not environmental justice issues per se. Environmental justice is a lens through which to look at all environmental issues.

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: I like to say to people that there are not environmental justice issues per se. Environmental justice is a lens through which to look at all environmental issues. So the issues are the same: water quality, air quality, and sanitation.


One of the big issues is the solid waste management plan for the coming decades. New York City produces 26,000 tons of garbage each day, 13,000 of it from the residential side, and about the same from commercial garbage.

How does that play out from an environmental justice perspective? A lot of the facilities that handle commercial waste have been located in low income communities and communities of color. You would find the facilities that handled the bulk of the garbage in the African American communities of Jamaica, the Latino communities of Sunset Park or Williamsburg, the Latino and African American communities of the South Bronx. That garbage would come primarily from the island of Manhattan. But there were no garbage facilities in Manhattan, so you would have that garbage carted to the South Bronx.

Air Pollution

In terms of air pollution, you would also find disparate burdens for communities like my Harlem community in northern Manhattan. Northern Manhattan plays host to six of the seven bus depots in Manhattan. One was expanded, while a bus depot downtown was closed to make way for the Hudson River Park.

The burdened neighborhoods are not hosting facilities that are serving only their own neighborhoods. For example, in the case of the bus depots, the depots in northern Manhattan have bus lines that run routes through Manhattan and the Bronx. So that's a benefit to the broader society. But when those buses go home at night, they are repaired and fitted, in some instances, to venting mufflers so that the exhaust doesn't build up inside the depot. That sends the diesel fumes and particulates into the surrounding neighborhoods. Many of these bus depots are located next to homes, schools, or recreational facilities.

The flip side of this is that some neighborhoods get particular types of benefits, like the Hudson River Park. The bearing of these burdens should be balanced with the benefits. But these benefits are not being spread evenly across the city.

MARTHA SOFFER: Why not just ban diesel fuel?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: There have been many strides to do something like this. The city passed a law, Local Law 77, to ban construction equipment from using the worst polluting types of fuel. They now have to use ultra-low sulfur diesel, etc. As a result of our struggle, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and NYC Transit have switched to the ultra-low sulfur diesel and put particle traps on their buses. The city has worked to convert taxi fleets, and the diesel issue is also being tackled at the state issue.

But we are not there yet. Our ferries, for instance, contribute a lot of pollution. There are new technologies that would deal with that, and we should move toward that. Councilman John Liu has legislation around school buses, and we have a project coming up that would retrofit school buses to keep diesel pollution from seeping into the cabin. Right now it's actually worse for children to be inside the school bus than to be outside. Liu's legislation assures us that the best technologies are mandated for school buses. So we're moving in the right direction, it's just taking us a long time to get to a place we should be.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: In the book Julie Sze writes that Giuliani "stands out as a villain in this story, for the belittling of environmental concerns of local neighborhoods, especially those comprising low income residents and people of color." How do you think Bloomberg compares?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: Much more favorably. This mayor has a greater environmental sensitivity, for sure. A number of forces have propelled him, as mayor, to this, because I don't think he necessarily started out that way.

This mayor has a greater environmental sensitivity, for sure. A number of forces have propelled him, as mayor, to this, because I don't think he necessarily started out that way.

In the Giuliani administration, there was very little communication between African American, Asian, and Latino communities – and most communities in general – and City Hall. Giuliani's performance on environmental issues was particularly bad as it related to community involvement in planning for environmental issues. He had a real disdain for that, and his administration had a real closed door, top-down approach. It was a very tough time for our communities.

I remember one story as an example: While Giuliani was in office, Hudson River Park was coming into being. The city and the state were spending significant amounts of money on the creation of the park. As I said, a diesel bus depot was closed to make room for the park, and the buses were sent uptown to an expanded depot. We tried to engage the Giuliani administration in extending the waterfront park. We were very severely rebuffed. On the area we were proposing using to create a park, they put out a Request for Proposals to build hotels, which if you know anything about a hotel, you know would cut off access.

Look at that contrast. Here on the southern part of the Hudson River, $300 million to $500 million were being spent in taxpayer money to create this kind of amenity, take away a particular type of polluting facility, and send that facility uptown. Then, you won't even think about working with the community to create waterfront access on 125th street?

Giuliani's attempt to privatize the hauling of garbage out of the city was another failure. He created a commodity out of garbage which sent the city's waste disposal policies topsy-turvy, making it much more expensive in the process.

Central to Giuliani's legacy with regards to garbage was the closing of the Fresh Kills landfill. But let's set that, and the impact on the Staten Island communities, aside, even though they were very real. We had a system that worked really well, and Giuliani ended it. He put garbage out there for market forces – the corporate titans – to go after. He is known for pushing the mafia out of the garbage business. But he put us into another stranglehold, and prices soared.

Those were tough times.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: So Bloomberg has a new plan. Does that spread the burden more equally?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: It does. It's not perfect, but it takes us in the right direction. He recognizes, for instance, that northern Manhattan has a disproportionate amount of polluting facilities. We have the sewage treatment plant, the bus depots, the garbage marine transfer station. In the new plan, that garbage transfer station will remain closed. That will take a lot of polluting diesel trucks off our streets. I think the plan recognized that there were inequities in the way we handle our garbage, and tried to do something about them.

We can minimize the type of waste we produce, and make sure that electronic waste gets taken away. As we think about waste in the 21st century, we have to find new and innovative ways to reduce the amount of waste we are producing. We have to reduce the burden on neighborhoods that suffer disproportionately from asthma and other problems. 30 percent of kids in East Harlem are asthmatic.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: You also mentioned costs. Correct me if I'm wrong, but garbage costs a lot more because we closed Fresh Kills and now we have to pay another state to take it.

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: Well that was a Giuliani administration policy. We still have a system based on trucks. This is very complex, and we'll probably never get to the utopia that some of us would like.

GOTHAM GAZETTE: But does the Bloomberg plan get us closer?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: I think it does. It seeks to get us to the point where we are reopening garbage marine transfer stations, which will have us shipping garbage, which is more efficient and cost-effective way of shipping garbage by boat. The plan does this while addressing imbalances, and taking truck traffic off the road, which will help confront asthma.

JONATHAN MANDELL: Can you talk more about Fresh Kills? From a devil's advocate position, it seems to knock down your argument. It was the focus of our garbage policy for 40 years, and it's not a community of color. Were they suffering disproportionately from asthma? How does that reconcile with your arguments about environmental racism, even though that's not the phrase you used?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: When you think about the politics of how Fresh Kills got closed, there was a provision of relief for a community that was predominantly Caucasian, a community that had a lot of power under the Giuliani administration.

It certainly is an anomaly that Staten Island had to suffer for so long. But the environmental justice movement doesn't say that there is no burden on Caucasian communities; we're just trying to point out that there's a disparity, and our decision-making allows that to continue. Further, many of us agreed with the people at Fresh Kills and started working together on forming a comprehensive plan.

In another way, the way Fresh Kills was closed was consistent with our assertions, because the community was able to exert influence and close the landfill, even though the way it was closed was problematic from a big picture perspective.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: A lot of the action in the environmental justice movement involves either closing facilities down, or keeping facilities from opening. One of the things discussed in the book is the distinction between NIMBYism, and environmental justice. NIMBYism, which stands for not in my backyard, is generally used to describe community opposition to a facility with the hopes of pushing the burden onto someone else and has negative connotations.

It seems that someone who wanted to keep something out of their backyard, so to speak, could wrap themselves in the mantle of environmental justice. Does that happen, and how do you tell the difference?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: Well, you tell the difference by looking at what is going on in a geographic location. If a particular community is up in arms about a facility, and they don't have the health profile of, say, northern Manhattan, if that community doesn't have the number of facilities that the South Bronx has, then I would say that it's not a valid claim of environmental justice.

This happened on the Upper East Side with the solid waste management plan. Many people there banded together to fight Bloomberg because he wanted to reopen a transfer station on the East River at 90th Street. I would attend these hearings, and they would trot out a particular housing development, even though they didn’t live near the transfer station. They were invoking the term "environmental racism," and cloaking themselves in the term environmental justice. It's very clear to me that that's NIMBYism.

In northern Manhattan, opposition to new facilities is not about NIMBYism, it's about my backyard is full.

The use of land in a place like New York City is, for all intents and purposes, where it's at. As they say in the real estate world: location, location, location.

This is very contested terrain. The use of land in a place like New York City is, for all intents and purposes, where it's at. As they say in the real estate world: location, location, location. Some communities have the opportunities to play all cards, including some that shouldn't be in their hands.


GOTHAM GAZETTE: Sze mentions that Williamsburg has one of the city's highest concentrations of noxious developments. Well, Williamsburg is now one of the centerpieces of Bloomberg's plan to turn 'dead' waterfront areas into upper middle class housing developments. How might Williamsburg's fortunes change?

CECIL CORBIN-MARK: They're changing as we speak. The low-income communities are being gentrified out. The landscape is being changed. The Bloomberg administration has been in motion. It's going to take some time, but the administration has set in motion a particular set of forces that we have not come to terms with, as a city, state or nation. That is, how do we improve the physical built environmental of communities without displacing people?

New York City is constantly transforming and changing face. So in Williamsburg there is the movement out of certain noxious facilities.

It's still the economic sector that is driving the redevelopment, without a connected and interwoven concern for the environment and social sectors.

This whole piece of how we plan for sustainable neighborhoods is missing. One of the things we do is create new zoning tracts and regulations, spurring certain types of development. But sustainable development isn't just about how we spur that economic development. It is also about the social sector and protecting the environment. I think that the Bloomberg administration has an effort afoot with its 2030 project, even if I'm not necessarily giving them As and Bs. It's still the economic sector that is driving the redevelopment, without a connected and interwoven concern for the environment and social sectors. If we know anything after episodes like 9/11 and Katrina, we know that everything is connected. So we have to figure out how to create more connected systems.

If we don't figure out how to deal with displacement of the people who have struggled to make communities out of places that were not even on the map, then we are doing them a constant disservice. We're just going to push people, and problems, somewhere else.


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