Early in December, a group of environmental organizations and residents of North Brooklyn gathered at a community meeting in East Williamsburg to discuss an issue that they feel is wreaking havoc on their neighborhood: too much trash. An organization called Five Star Carting runs a waste transfer station (Brooklyn Transfer LLC) on Thames Street and Porter Avenue, and there have been complaints about it, including claims that the station was flouting regulations and contributing to health problems in the area. But many of the attendees felt that this single transfer station is symbolic of a larger problem: the fact that they are being forced to bear the brunt of the city’s waste.
Every year, New York City generates around 14 million tons of the stuff—waste that is collected from the curbside, taken to transfer stations, and then trucked to larger landfills both up-state and out-of-state. Transfer stations have become a critical component of this system, since they serve as halfway points, where waste can be aggregated and then loaded onto larger trucks that can cover longer distances.
Unfortunately, they’ve also become the focal point of a raging political debate, and here’s why: A quick look at the system of stations across New York highlights the fact that they’re distributed in an extremely unequal fashion, with a larger concentration in the outer boroughs such as Brooklyn and the Bronx.
According to the City of New York Department of Sanitation’s (DSNY) tonnage reports from the first quarter of 2015, there are 20 waste transfer stations in Brooklyn, which handle around 10,551 tons of waste daily. Greenpoint and Williamsburg alone have 15 transfer stations, and handle between 30 and 40 percent of the waste generated across all five boroughs. This comes with its fair share of problems, including increased truck traffic (and consequently, fuel emission), unsanitary practices that could pose health threats, and noise. Laura Hofmann, a long-time resident of Greenpoint, believes that the issue needs to be addressed quickly. “It is a disgrace that in 2015, communities are still fighting for their environmental health rights,” she said. “It certainly is unfair for only certain communities to be forced to deal with so much garbage, sewage treatment, and other environmental impacts. Most times, it is communities of color that suffer.”
The residents of North Brooklyn—which roughly includes Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Greenpoint—are fighting against not just one transfer station but a network of waste management facilities that have been integrated into their communities over the past two decades. Before this system was in place, a majority of the city’s waste—both residential, which is handled by the Department of Sanitation, and commercial, which is handled by private haulers—was trucked to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. However, as the landfill began to reach capacity, the city started increasing the fee for dumping trash in it.
“In response to that, private companies started to build transfer stations that were designed to simply load garbage on to longer haul trucks and truck it to cheaper landfills out-of-state and up-state,” explained Justin Wood, the Environmental Justice Organizer at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “Unfortunately, the city had no plan to deal with them. They were located where land was cheapest and communities were not as empowered to fight them. That’s when these stations started springing up disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color.” North Brooklyn, he added, while definitely not considered a low-income community today, was significantly different in the mid-90s.
During the 90s, several environmental groups came together to protest the unplanned development of transfer station networks. However, while a few regulations were introduced, Wood says, existing stations were grandfathered in. “Brooklyn Transfer LLC, for instance, is in an M1 (manufacturing) zone. It’s around 30 feet from apartments and densely populated areas. But since they’re grandfathered in, even though they couldn’t site that transfer station in that area today, they’re allowed to continue to operate.”
Another aspect to the problem is that in the last couple of decades, the Department of Sanitation has also grown dependent on these private transfer stations through a contract-based system. “In the interim period since the city closed Fresh Kills, a lot of DSNY waste has been exported through private transfer stations,” Wood said. “The city hadn’t really given itself any other options.”
The city’s dependency on privately run transfer stations, however, has costs. Many residents of North Brooklyn allege that the stations neglect to follow regulations, which leads to problems for them. Jen, a community organizer and activist with Clean Up North Brooklyn, said that members of the group had noticed several such violations at the Brooklyn LLC transfer station. “We took it upon ourselves to really understand the primary regulations they’re supposed to adhere to. For instance, transfer stations are supposed to keep the door shut when waste isn’t being loaded or unloaded, to keep the odor out—but they leave the doors open all the time, which is a major violation,” she said. She added that there are also often trucks idling outside the station, which the city has strict laws against.
Another part of the problem is the excessive traffic around transfer stations. A recent study estimated that garbage trucks comprise 30 to 50 percent of truck traffic at certain intersections in North Brooklyn, many of which are located near homes and schools. This not only leads to increased road damage and congestion, but can have health impacts as well. “If you look at a map of high emergency visits for asthma in the city, the highest concentration is in two locations: South Bronx and North Brooklyn. Overlap that with a map of transfer stations in New York and you’re going to see that they match perfectly,” said Rolando Guzman, a member of OUTRAGE, an advocacy group. “We also conducted a study on air particle count, and we noticed that it goes up by 355 percent on weekdays (when truck traffic is present on the streets). We believe that these particles are non-combusted diesel emissions and as we know, diesel emissions have components that cause cancer, heart disease, and respiratory diseases.”
Laura Hofmann, who has lived in Greenpoint for several years, believes that community members could be better protected if transfer stations ensured proper dust and odor controls, and took measures like washing down vehicles and retrofitting to cut down on air pollution. In the long run, however, she—along with many other residents of Brooklyn—have pinned their hopes on the city’s SWM (Solid Waste Management) Plan, which was proposed back in 2006. In a nutshell, the plan seeks to create a more equitable waste management system and introduce marine and rail transfer stations, which are more efficient and less polluting. It has been delayed several times, but environmental groups are optimistic that the city’s back on the right track. “The city is currently constructing two marine transfer stations. One is on East 91st Street, and it’s been fiercely opposed by the residents of the Upper East Side. They filed several lawsuits, but none of them have been successful,” said Wood. These stations will cut down drastically on truck traffic and the resulting pollution that it causes.
Guzman added, “So far, low-income communities were at the short end of the stick. We think the new plan is going to bring equity to the distribution of waste across the city, and we look forward to its implementation.”