Perhaps the least sexy part of being the mayor of a city with 8 million inhabitants is dealing with the immense amount of waste produced by all those chic restaurants and high-rise office buildings, not to mention what the typical four-person family tosses out in a week. Luckily our mayor isn’t known to fixate on the glamorous. Bloomberg has come up with an ambitious and sustainable plan to dispose of all this waste. And not only that, he has made it a priority that all five boroughs carry their share of the burden, including, (gasp) Manhattan.
The plan, which includes retrofitting four marine transfer stations in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens in order to transport waste by barge, has been well-received by the city’s environmental organizations as well as lawmakers in areas hardest hit by the current land-based system of waste removal. It faces one serious pocket of resistance, however; and this small pocket is likely to have a lot more influence than it should.
One marine transfer station set to be reopened is on the east end of 91st Street in Manhattan, where it lies uncomfortably within the borders of City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s affluent District 5. Encompassing moneyed neighborhoods that include Sutton Place, Yorkville, and Carnegie Hill, District 5 constituents, led by Miller, will fight hard to keep the city’s trash where they think it belongs: in the backyards of the city’s poorest residents.
Ever since the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island closed in 2001, New York City’s trash has made its way through the city’s neighborhoods in loud, environmentally-offensive diesel-powered trucks, stopping first at transfer stations, before going to its final resting places out of state. This interim solution has been wreaking havoc on the city’s air quality, pavement, and most of all, on residents unlucky enough to live, work or attend school near one of the three biggest clusters of waste transfer stations.
Currently, 75 percent of the city’s garbage is processed in three neighborhoods—Jamaica in Queens, Hunts Point in the Bronx and Greenpoint-Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Trucks rumble into these neighborhoods, and then rumble out after they’ve deposited their cargo. Then another set of trucks rumble in, to pick up their load, and leave once again. Since 2001, these neighborhoods have been bearing the brunt of an expensive and unfair system.
Under the new plan, residential trash will be transported out of the city on barges instead of trucks, much like it was before. Barges will pick up containerized waste at a marine transfer station in each borough, and carry it to a landfill, out of state. Trucks will still need to drive in and out of neighboring areas. There isn’t another way, short of asking residents to reuse everything, to eliminate city waste. Each borough will have to take responsibility for its share of the environmental cost of living in a dense urban area.
Speaker Miller said that plans for moving the Manhattan transfer station from one proposed area, West Harlem, to another, the Upper East Side, amounts to shifting the same unfair burden to a different group. The problem with Miller’s reasoning is that these two neighborhoods have not had to deal with similar amounts of environmental stress.
West Harlem is already home to the North River Sewage Treatment Plant as well as six bus depots. The Upper East Side has none of these things. It has a park. No neighborhoods should be exempted from helping to shoulder the civic load, as long as it is fair. Community activists and lawmakers on both sides are gearing up for a battle over the 91st Street transfer station, which threatens to stalemate the entire plan. Though a fraction of the city’s residents will fight against the greater good of all 8 million, the combination of the Upper East Side’s money and Miller’s power as speaker will make it a fierce fight.