In January, residents of Manhattan’s Upper East Side accused new mayor Bill de Blasio, a Brooklynite, of ordering the city’s sanitation department to direct resources away from their neighborhood during a snowstorm. The lack of snowplows on Park Avenue during the worst parts of the storm, they said, was a petty form of retribution for the district’s support of Republican Joe Lhota in the November 2013 mayoral election. Now, some Upper East Siders think the liberal class warrior is at it again. Only this time, they say, he’ll use the sanitation department to send more trucks into the neighborhood than many residents think it can handle, in order to satisfy claims of “environmental racism” in the city’s waste-management programs and advance an ill-defined notion of “borough equity.”
Kathryn Garcia, de Blasio’s new sanitation commissioner, is moving ahead with a long-stalled plan to open a marine waste-transfer station in the Upper East Side’s farthest corner, along the East River at 91st Street. An earlier transfer station operated on the site until the 1990s but was closed as the surrounding neighborhood—known as Yorkville—transformed from a semi-industrial district into the mixed-income residential district it is today. After the Bloomberg administration pledged in 2006 to “treat each borough fairly” in the implementation of the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), the City Council set aside more than $100 million to modernize the 91st Street facility and prepare it for reopening.
But neighborhood activists and residents’ organizations sued to stop the plan, and the transfer station became a hot topic during last year’s Democratic mayoral primary. In a debate at the 92nd Street Y, just a few blocks away from the site, de Blasio’s chief Democratic rival, then-council speaker Christine Quinn, painted opposition to the transfer station as “environmental racism.” She said that opposing the 91st Street transfer station was akin to “standing for raising asthma rates in places like Williamsburg and the South Bronx.” De Blasio said he supported the 91st Street plan, but felt the needs of the community had not been adequately addressed. As a member of the city council, he voted to approve Bloomberg’s SWMP.
Activists in the neighborhoods Quinn mentioned—which have high concentrations of African-American and Latino residents, and where the majority of the city’s 58 transfer stations are clustered—have pushed the reopening of the East 91st Street site as a means of relieving truck traffic and pollution in low-income sections of the outer boroughs. At a recent budget hearing of the city council’s Committee on Sanitation & Solid Waste Management, Brooklyn Democratic councilman Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the committee, spoke of the “poor black and brown kids and families” living in his district, which includes Williamsburg. He thanked Garcia and the sanitation department for their willingness “to pay more money to bring environmental justice to our community.”
“A system where we have two or three marine transfer stations in Manhattan is a big step toward borough equity,” said Eddie Bautista, executive director of non-profit New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA), an organization advocating on behalf of “communities of color in their struggle for environmental justice.” Bautista noted that while Manhattan produces 40 percent of the city’s residential trash, the borough doesn’t have a single operational marine-transfer station handling commercial or residential waste (an active marine-transfer station on West 59th Street handles only paper). The 91st Street facility will begin to “take some of the load off” the other boroughs, he said. “We have the moral high ground here.”
Commissioner Garcia has said that reopening the 91st Street facility is “fundamentally about fairness, and about making sure that every borough is managing their own waste.” When operational, the plant will be capable of processing more than 5,000 tons of municipal solid waste per day—including medical waste from several local hospitals—that would arrive at the East River site via truck before being compacted, containerized, loaded onto barges, and sent to landfills. Manhattan’s residential waste is currently transported by truck to New Jersey and Yonkers. Under the new plan, the containers will be sent to Staten Island.
“Is burdening one borough with another borough’s trash ‘borough equity’?” asked Councilman Ben Kallos, who represents the Upper East Side and opposes the facility, at a recent hearing on the topic attended by Commissioner Garcia. The sanitation department directed a reporter’s request to define “borough equity” to the text of the SWMP, saying it “is based on the idea of self-sufficiency so that no one borough would carry a disproportionate share of the city’s solid waste system.” Sarah Anders, a spokeswoman for Councilman Kallos, said, “We believe this plan doesn’t achieve borough equity. Even if that’s a noble goal, the 91st Street transfer station won’t provide relief to overburdened neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx.”
Yorkville residents have additional concerns. The driveway ramp for arriving trucks at the 91st Street site runs right through the five-acre Asphalt Green recreation center’s campus, cutting its pool facility off from its soccer field. It’s also steps away from the entrance to a Parks Department playground. Asphalt Green, a nonprofit that claims to serve 34,000 children every year—some of whom train for the Olympics—has partnered in the fight against the transfer station with Pledge 2 Protect, which bills itself as “a coalition of diverse citizens . . . working together to protect the health and safety of New Yorkers by raising awareness of the fiscal, environmental and community impacts of the City’s current solid waste management system and plan.”
Earlier this year, the group released a 44-page report making a multi-pronged case against the transfer station. Not only will the proposed site significantly harm the health of residents by polluting the air and overburdening Yorkville’s narrow streets, the report claims, it also won’t achieve its primary aim of reducing pollution in Brooklyn and the South Bronx. The report claims that the real negative impact in those communities comes not from residential waste disposal, but from the city’s commercial waste-disposal system. Because of the 91st Street station’s “out-of-the-way location” and strict limits on tonnage, Pledge 2 Protect thinks it “highly unlikely” that private commercial trash haulers will opt to use the station. They will continue to “tip” their trash loads in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, the group maintains.
“What’s fueling the opposition on the Upper East Side is money and real estate,” said NYC-EJA’s Bautista. “Glenwood Management is bankrolling the whole thing.” A March article in Crain’s New York Business identified Pledge 2 Protect’s funders as “deep-pocketed Upper East Side real estate interests and residents” and indicated that billionaire Leonard Litwin’s Glenwood Management, which owns properties directly facing Asphalt Green, may be behind neighborhood efforts to turn back the transfer station.
The existence of three New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) apartment buildings on East 92nd Street, less than 500 feet away from the site, has complicated the efforts of those seeking to turn the dispute into an issue of race and class. The NYCHA buildings are home to more than 3,500 low-income children and seniors. Earlier this year, Pledge 2 Protect started working with the Black Institute, a think tank run by Bertha Lewis, former chief executive officer of the left-wing social-justice organization Acorn and founder of the progressive Working Families Party. The WFP went all out to elect de Blasio last year. “Bill and I hardly ever disagree, but on this one issue, we do,” Lewis told the Times in February. “[D]on’t tell me now that you’re going to put this particular marine transfer station smack dab in the middle of poor people, black and brown people, public housing people, and somehow claim that is some type of virtue.” According to Crain’s, Lewis is being paid $10,000 a month by Pledge 2 Protect in “a last-gasp effort by opponents of the transfer station.”
Eight protesters—including the executive director of Asphalt Green, the president of Pledge 2 Protect, and a NYCHA resident—were arrested recently when they tried to block the sanitation department from removing several trees along the driveway ramp, a precursor to widening it in order to accommodate large trucks. The protestors said they were shocked at the city’s sudden decision to remove the trees; Commissioner Garcia had recently agreed to study possible alternative locations for the ramp. “This administration has taken a new approach to implementing the city’s Comprehensive Waste Management Plan,” Garcia said in a statement after the arrests, “which is guided by a commitment to fairness and borough equity.”
In other words, the de Blasio administration is through talking trash and is ready to start hauling it—right through the restive province of the Upper East Side.