For three decades, residents in the Bensonhurst area of Brooklyn suffered from a faulty incinerator that was found operating without proper permits. The incinerator spewed contaminants into the land, water and air until it was finally shut down and later demolished in 2005.
At the site off Bay Parkway near Bay 41st Street, there is leveled land and an old abandoned building covered in ivy. Shards of broken glass lay across the floor and the lot is
filled with old cars. The back of the building, where boats used to unload waste, has a stench that is completely indescribable: a mix of old garbage and rotting substances.
The facility has not been used in years, but, to the dismay of neighborhood residents, it may be open for business soon. After years of agency review, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has given the green light for a marine trash-transfer station that will accept a weekly limit of 11,148 tons and a maximum peak daily limit of 2,106 tons of municipal solid waste. Bensonhurst residents and community leaders are outraged, pursuing petitions and even lawsuits fearing that the transfer station will be a health hazard and a nuisance. They says it will imperil a thriving community filled with schools, amusement centers, senior homes, and parks.
“I remember when they built that incinerator,” said John Anderson, 61, a boat mechanic who is a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. “Ashes would be all over the place. The boats, cars, were all wrecked. It was sort of like tar, you would rub it and it would smear.”
Commissioner Joseph Martens of the Department of Environmental Conservation approved the $87.7 million plan on May 21, 2012. The facility will be part of the New York City Solid Waste Management Plan that was approved by the City Council and the state’s environmental department. Kathy Hawkins, director of public information for the city Sanitation Department, says with this plan “a reliable and environmentally sound system for managing the City’s waste, a fair and equitable distribution of waste management throughout the five boroughs, and a significant reduction in truck traffic through City streets are achieved.” Construction for another transfer station less than 10 miles away on Hamilton Avenue will be finished late 2013. This site is proposed to receive 21,000 tons of waste weekly.
A waste-transfer station is a facility that compacts trash to be reloaded into larger vehicles, such as barges for shipment to a final disposal site, typically a landfill or waste-to-energy facility. The goal when building a trash-transfer facility is to reduce overall collection costs, the Environmental Protection Agency stated.
Still, many residents are against the plan. “We don’t want it, period,” Anderson stated. Leading the Bensonhurst community fight is Assemblyman William Colton, who filed an article 78 lawsuit in the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn ultimately trying to block construction of the transfer station; Colton is currently waiting to receive a court date. He played a crucial role in the successful tear down of the old incinerator.
Health and environmental groups are concerned that toxic chemicals from the incinerator such as lead and ash, which settled on the sea floor, may resurface during dredging for the trash barges. If that happens, residents say the pollutants could potentially harm fish and wildlife, pollute local beaches such as Coney Island, and may even jeopardize Sheepshead Bay’s fishing industry.
“They couldn’t have picked a worse site,” said Ida Sanoff, chairperson of the Natural Resources Protective Association. She said that Gravesend Bay, which borders the area, is an essential fish habitat. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Habitat Conservation, “essential fish habitats include all types of aquatic habitats—wetlands, coral reefs, sea grasses, rivers—where fish spawn, breed, feed, or grow to maturity.”
In 2004, the New York City Department of Sanitation led an impact study on the surrounding environment and found evidence to support concerns that some settled chemicals are carcinogenic. However, the department concluded that these levels are permissible and are not high enough to have adverse impacts on the environment.
Peddrick Weis, Ph.D, of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, analyzed silt samples of Gravesend Bay, a study funded by the Natural Resources Protection Agency. Weis found high levels of mercury and lead. Citing the study, Colton was alarmed that scientists used the term “black mayonnaise” to refer to what they saw in the samples. “There were unsafe levels of mercury and other harmful toxins found at the bottom of Gravesend Bay and they will spread throughout the coast as a result of dredging,” Colton said. These samples were taken just by scratching the surface, not by digging deep below the surface where the dredging for the transfer station will occur.
“There’s no way we’re going to allow these contaminants to be dug up and pose another threat to the community,” Colton continued. Community action groups such as Wake up and Smell the Garbage, Natural Resources Protective Association, and the No Spray Coalition also oppose the construction of the transfer station.
Both Colton’s sample study and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s impact study shows that the Gravesend Bay is home to a very diverse population of fish and wildlife. Sanoff warns that if the fish “ingest harmful toxins which we then put on our dinner plates, we have cause for grave concerns.”
Petitioners cited many issues of concern and appealed the proposal to Administrative Law Judge Edward Buhrmaster, who ruled in May that no issues were subject to adjudication and the permits should be issued to the Department of Sanitation.
The Environmental Protection Agency notes that traffic, noise, and odor may exist around waste-transfer stations. This traffic can contribute to increased road congestion, air emissions and wear on roads. Other problems that can result from an improperly designed or operated facility include rodents, birds, and litter. “We haven’t seen a rat since the incinerator has been closed,” said 72-year-old retiree Jack Mirabile.
The surrounding area contains playgrounds full of children daily. The site is adjacent to the Marine Basin Marina, Calvert Vaux Park and behind Adventurers, a family entertainment center. Just last year, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz approved a $150 million shopping center plan on the Bensonhurst waterfront that will include BJ’s Wholesale Club. Bay Center will be constructed at 1752 Shore Parkway, minutes from the facility.
Dawkins confirmed that a construction date has not been set. “We are awaiting Department of Environmental Conservation and Army Corps permits,” she said. There are four permits required for proper operation of the facility: a solid waste management facility permit, an air pollution control permit, a tidal wetlands permit, and a use and protection of waters permit.
The Army Corps of Engineers requires that the proposed marine-transfer station obtain a permit for the disturbance of tidal wetlands during construction and operation. The permit will cover construction in the water, dredging to improve existing water depths in the vicinity of the transfer station, and keeping a barge staged at the facility during operation. These activities would allow for container unloading, loading and tug barge towing operations. The department submitted the permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers in January 2009. Rodney Rivera, special assistant to the Environmental Conservation regional director, said the permits are currently in the process of being approved.
If Colton and his team do not win their legal challenge, Dawkins said, “The Department of Sanitation will continue to move forward” with construction of the controversial transfer station.