A bid by people who live near a proposed new waste transfer station to halt the project was derailed today by a state judge. That means, barring their unlikely success on an appeal, the residents of the East 91st Street area won’t be able to halt the eventual arrival of sanitation trucks and garbage barges to their area—a key part of the historic, 20-year solid waste transfer plan approved after much haggling by the City Council this summer.
The city’s Law Department dubbed the decision by Michael Stallman a “big win,” an indeed the judge showed little sympathy for any of the neighborhood residents’ arguments. “It was rational for respondents to have selected the existing East 91 Street MTS as the site of the proposed facility,” he wrote.
In other neighborhoods around the city that have been plagued by stinky transfer stations and the constant rumble of polluting trucks, the new solid waste plan holds out the hope of relief for the outer boroughs and a fair share for Manhattan, which currently doesn’t handle its own waste. So the neighborhood around East 91st got little sympathy from advocates from Brooklyn and Bronx, especially since the area was perceived (erroneously) as a habitat solely inhabited by the privileged.
They’ll cheer the result in this case, since it clears an obstacle from the solid waste plan going forward and taking some of the pressure off the asthma alleys of the city. But the fine print of the decision should be sobering for advocates on all sides of the trash issue, because it reflects the limits on public input in any development debate.
After all, Stallman wasn’t ruling on the merits of the solid waste plan but simply whether or not the city had complied with its obligations under the State Environmental Quality Review Act—the law that requires the Environmental Impact Statements you hear about in every development debate. And Stallman demonstrated the constraints of that law, which requires agencies simply to size-up environmental hazards, but permits the public and the courts very little leeway to challenge whether those assessments bear any resemblance to reality. To wit, he wrote:
To allow a cause of action for nuisance to go forward here would allow plaintiffs to challenge the underlying merits and substance of the agency’s determinations of environmental impact, which is not permitted. In reviewing SEQRA findings, “it is not the role of this Court to second-guess respondent’s determination and/or substitute our judgment for the conclusions it has reached.”