Stall Tactics Slow NYC’s Solid Waste Plan

It’s been five years since NYC passed a landmark Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) to alleviate the burden of garbage disposal in low-income communities and communities of color throughout the five boroughs, but most of the plan’s benefits have yet to materialize.  Implementation of the SWMP, which was passed by the NYC Council in 2006, has been plagued by legal delays and funding constraints.  For communities still making garbage concessions and hosting a disproportionate share of NYC’s garbage, frustrations with the stall tactics are mounting.

A fully implemented plan would better balance garbage management throughout NYC by requiring each borough to handle its waste at new marine transfer stations where the waste would be barged out, instead of the existing land-based transfer stations, where waste is trucked out.  This would reduce the number of trucks trekking through communities, such as the South Bronx, and Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and contributing to these communities’ environmental, health, and safety concerns.

Central to SWMP implementation is the construction of four new marine transfer stations (MTS) to be located at former or existing MTS sites in North Shore, Queens; Southwest, Brooklyn; Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn; and 91st Street, Manhattan that would handle each borough’s solid waste, most of which is now trucked to the Bronx and Brooklyn. An old transfer station at West 59th Street, Manhattan would be refurbished and reopened. New recycling facilities will also be built in Gansevoort, Manhattan and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  But opposition to two of the Manhattan facilities has stalled the solid waste management plan.

Manhattan Resisting Fair Share

Four different lawsuits have delayed construction of the 91st Street marine transfer station. A 2005 lawsuit unsuccessfully challenged the environmental review, and was rejected by an appellate court in 2008.  While that appeal was in process, a second lawsuit was filed in 2006 claiming that construction impacted a nearby “public” park, Asphalt Green.  But this claim was denied in 2009 as the court ruled the privately owned and operated Asphalt Green park was not “public.”  Plaintiffs swiftly appealed, but the appellate court upheld the earlier ruling in a recently rendered (June 7, 2011) decision. Meanwhile, the third and fourth lawsuits, filed in August 2009, challenged the issuance of various construction permits. These suits were combined and then dismissed by a judge in June 2010, only to be appealed. A decision by the appellate court is still pending. Additionally, the permit for the Southwest, Brooklyn MTS is awaiting a final determination by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as that agency waits to see how the court rules on the 91st Street permit.  In the interim, construction on both sites is being delayed.

Opponents of the 91st Street station have even encouraged legislators to support legislation that would prohibit the construction of a marine transfer station within 800 feet of public housing.  At face value, this might seem a laudable environmental justice effort. But the legislation applies only to marine waste transfer stations, not the more common land-based facilities that dot neighborhoods like the South Bronx and Williamsburg. In fact, it would affect only the marine transfer station  at 91st Street, making it little more than a thinly veiled attempt to win the support of low-income residents and residents of color for the benefit of keeping the 91st Street MTS out of the affluent Upper East Side.

The Gansevoort community is also equally opposed to sharing the garbage burden. In 2007 and 2008, Assemblymembers and residents of the Gansevoort community fought to block the recycling facility from being built in Gansevoort Peninsula on Manhattan’s West Side.  The NYS Legislature eventually did pass a bill in June 2008 amending the Hudson River Park Act and allowing the marine transfer station to be built.  However, as a concession to the three Gansevoort Assemblymembers in opposition (Deborah Glick, Richard Gottfried and Linda Rosenthal), a memorandum of understanding to replace or pay for existing parkland (with $25M from NYC and $25M from NYS)  impacted by the construction of the site was to be signed between the state and city.  Apparently, that hasn’t yet happened, although NYC has already set aside the money in its capital budget.  Until that memo is signed, no ground can be broken at the Gansevoort location.

The Solid Waste Management Plan surfaced from these contentious legal battles only to narrowly escape the budget ax earlier this year.  In his draft budget released in February, Mayor Bloomberg proposed delaying funding for construction of the four marine transfer stations by five to eight years because of budget restrictions.  However, that proposal was dropped amidst outcry by the NYC Council and advocacy by the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance.  The construction will continue as planned, though funding for each of the projects has been staggered; 91st Street and Southwest, Brooklyn will receive funding in fiscal year 2012, while the Gansevoort recycling facility will receive funding in 2013.

Progress, But Frustratingly Slow

Some SWMP progress has been made.  NYC-handled waste from Staten Island, the Bronx, and Northern Brooklyn (representing more than 30% of waste collected by NYC) is now leaving the city via rail, not trucks, thanks to new rail export contracts.  Construction has begun on two marine transfer stations (North Shore MTS, Queens and Hamilton MTS, Brooklyn) and the Sims Recycling facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.  An engineer was selected for the design and construction of the Gansevoort Recycling Center, which will also eventually house an education center.

Also notable is the inclusion of a Solid Waste section in the city’s relaunched PlaNYC sustainability blueprint, which was released in April. The plan outlines ten initiatives to reduce waste and lessen NYC’s solid waste footprint.  Solid waste was barely mentioned in the original, 2007 PlaNYC.

Progress has been frustratingly slow. Considering the landmark Solid Waste Management Plan was an effort that took 20 years of advocacy and political will, NYC garbage relief has been an issue for a quarter of a century.  Garbage is produced everywhere in the city, and it’s long past time to embrace a more equitable waste management system.  Sunset Park, which hosts more than its fair share of transportation and garbage infrastructure, will soon host another one — the new Sims Recycling facility.   By contrast, it’s hard to look at the stall tactics taking place on Manhattan’s West Side and see anything more than self-interest at the expense of others–exactly what the SWMP was created to overcome.

Project Current Status Future Timeline
North Shore MTS (Queens) Construction began in Sept 2009 Original completion 2012; pushed back to mid-2013
Hamilton Ave MTS (Bklyn) Construction began in May 2010 Expected completion mid-2013
91st Street MTS (Manhattan) Funding in FY2012; construction permit on hold in litigation Unknown pending litigation
Southwest MTS (Bklyn) Funding in FY2012; construction permit on hold while 91st Str permit decided Unknown pending litigation
West 59th Str MTS (Manhattan) Design and begin refurbishment 2013
Gansevoort Recycling (Manhattan) Design and begin construction; engineer selected 2013
Sims Municipal Recycling Facility (Bklyn) Construction began in October 2010 2013

3 Comments on "Stall Tactics Slow NYC’s Solid Waste Plan"

  1. Gloria Gross | June 27, 2011 at 1:40 pm |

    New York City needs a real solution to these issues. Moving environmental toxins from one locale to another is not a real solution, the people of Stanley Isaacs are real people, and the parklands surrounding E. 91 Street are real parklands.

  2. Jean Burden | March 11, 2012 at 7:27 pm |

    Let’s come up with a real solution to the problem. Compromising the health of human, animal, and marine life is not acceptable. Let’s spend some of the proposed multi-million dollar projects on educating New Yorkers about the realities of how their trash is managed. I know it is not pretty. Let’s not jump the gun by spending money unwisely on bad ideas. I think with all the brilliant minds in this city that someone might be able to come up with some really sensible and very good ideas. Let’s not spend our city’s funds on bad ideas.

  3. Michael Cannell | March 13, 2012 at 4:56 pm |

    The proposed 91st Street MTS will destroy a neighborhood, irreparably harm three parks and return Manhattan to the regressive reliance on landfills. If you’re opposed, please take one moment to sign this petition.

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