Despite four unsuccessful lawsuits in six years to stop the construction of the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (MTS) in Manhattan, opponents are still making the case that it should not be built. Last month, opponents released a report, conducted by a private consulting firm, indicating that the vehemently-debated facility would not make much of a dent in reducing garbage filled trucks from some of New York City’s most overburdened communities. While the report takes a comprehensive look at the 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) and makes solid recommendations, the construction of the 91st Street Marine Transfer Station should not be the casualty of a reevaluation of solid waste management in New York City.
The 2006 SWMP was expected to reduce truck traffic through overburdened communities in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. So one of the report’s key claims, that truck traffic would not be reduced significantly in these communities, was bound to ignite the fire about the borough equity of the SWMP.
Overall, the report challenges the analyses and data underlying the 2006 plan and raises sound questions about the numbers while also addressing new issues that have come to light. Severe storms have exposed the vulnerability of the City’s waste disposal and treatment systems. Commercial trucks are still lacking greener technology. A recycling rate of 15 percent lags embarrassingly behind other progressive cities like Seattle (56 percent) and Los Angeles (45 percent). The polluting tug/barge industry is slow to implement green technologies. And the key point of the report: the 91st Street station will only divert 1.6 percent of commercial waste and 1.3 percent of the in-city truck miles associated with this waste. These points are the report’s strengths and contributions but they are not the reasons to abandon the 91st Street MTS. In fact, they are the reasons to make the MTS the premier environmental example in waste handling.
One way to do this is for the New York City Council to pass Local Law 2013/145 which would allow the City to refuse to issue a license or registration to any applicant that has failed to reduce (by 2020) “the emissions of pollutants from heavy duty trade waste hauling vehicles… with the best available retrofit technology.” This mandate will ensure that trucks entering the 91st Street MTS, which would be located in close proximity to recreational facilities like Asphalt Green, release as few pollutants as possible.
The City can also devise carrot-and stick-approaches to provide incentives for converting to cleaner, greener truck fleets. While the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey denied port access to trucks with polluting engines, they also implemented a Regional Truck Replacement Program which used federal grant money to replace those engines.
The report touts the greening of the City’s sanitation fleet, yet it overlooks the greening of the proposed 91st Street MTS. There is no mention of how to green the tug industry, nor is there any recommendation that City leaders implement legislation requiring commercial vehicles to divert more waste to particular marine transfer stations. In fact, it succumbs to the belief that only the most polluting technology and equipment will be used at the proposed site. It needn’t be that way, as is evidenced by some of the environmental progress noted in the report.
According to the report, 31 percent of residents who live within ¼ mile of the 91st Street MTS are “minority residents.” While the statistic attempts to highlight the disproportionate impact on people of color, other marine transfer stations in New York City are located in areas with significantly greater percentages: Southwest Brooklyn (52 percent); Hamilton Avenue, Brooklyn (61 percent); West 59th Street, Manhattan (61 percent). But, there is no acceptable percentage of people who should be impacted by the disposal of solid waste in any community–and that gets to the heart of this dispute.
The disposal of waste results in trucks traveling through communities, many of which are poor, and many of which are communities of color. Not only does this contribute to air pollution, which exacerbates health problems plaguing these constituencies, but it also deteriorates quality of life and safety. Trucks threaten pedestrian and bicyclist safety. Every effort must be made to protect pedestrians and cyclists in the immediate 91st Street MTS vicinity via traffic calming, signage and signal technology. Additionally, the City should require trucks operating within the city limits to use safety measures such as rear wheel and side guards that reduce the risk of being caught under the wheels — a measure identified in the Vision Zero Action Plan.
One example of a waste facility that has been significantly mitigated because of community action and legal mandates has been the North River wastewater treatment plant, visible from the West Side Highway between 137th and 145th Streets. After a campaign led by WE ACT for Environmental Justice in the 1990s, the facility was retrofitted with some of the best available technology. Today, Riverbank State Park sits atop the plant and hosts nearly four million visitors a year.
The 91st Street MTS has divided New York City’s environmental justice community. Respected environmental leaders have been at the forefront of each side of the debate, and they agree on the same basic tenets: no community should have to deal with the ills of garbage disposal. But because many communities do and will, the report convincingly makes the case that aspects of the SWMP should be reevaluated. However, it does not succeed at making the case that the 91st Street MTS should not be built. Instead, it makes a stronger case for the most aggressive mitigations, the best available green technology, and mandates and incentives that direct commercial haulers to use greener fleets and more accessible transfer facilities in order for the 91st Street MTS to have the smallest environmental and health impacts to the surrounding community.