The reopening of the East 91st Street marine transfer station’s a controversy a decade in the making. Sparked by Christine Quinn’s “environmental racism” comment, the waste disposal spot has infiltrated the mayoral race discussion, leading candidates to pick a side on an issue that involves how we New Yorkers dispose of millions of pounds of trash every day. Republican frontrunner Joe Lhota has pledged to close it if he becomes mayor, but his reasoning is a bit misleading, given his past as Giuliani’s go-to garbage defender.
In a statement two weeks ago aimed to appease Pledge2Protest, an anti-waste-transfer-station advocacy group, Lhota sought to justify his intentions to halt the East 91st Street MTS from reopening: “As deputy mayor, I worked to close it in the past and we successfully negotiated contracts to ship the garbage to New Jersey, which is less expensive and does not put children’s safety and health at risk. It’s a no-brainer.”
Keep this in mind as we go forward.
For background, the East 91st Street MTS was built in the 1930s to accommodate the growing urbanization of LaGuardia’s New York City. The area was an industrial hotbed on the East River, where barges of garbage could come in and out with ease. Warehouses, not penthouses, dominated the neighborhood so community backlash was relatively nonexistent.
Flash forward 60 years. It’s 1998 and Joe Lhota is Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s second-in-command, in control of operations and, as we know from former Voice scribe Nick Pinto’s December cover story, the city’s pest problem, landing him with the intimidating title of “Rat Czar.” Fresh Kills–the city’s largest landfill and that smell you encounter while driving through Staten Island–is filled to the brim, with a federally enforced shutdown deadline looming and the administration is seeking an alternative Solid Waste Management Plan.
After years of urban sprawl, the Upper East Side has switched from industrial to residential, with thousands of New Yorkers moving uptown as Manhattan’s demographics shift. But the East 91st Street MTS is still there, receiving and sending out garbage in a neighborhood of rising income levels. Naturally, a NIMBY opposition to the site proliferates, eventually forming the Gracie Point Community Council–an organization of local leaders and legal counsel that exists to make sure the MTS doesn’t.
The solution (and an all-too-common mantra) emanating from the Giuliani administration: “When Staten Island goes bad, head to New Jersey.”
Instead of dumping tons upon tons of garbage on the other island, the city would seek to have each borough bring its waste to New Jersey areas like Essex and Newark, where private contractors would package it and send it off to faraway landfills in the South. This included the use of the East 91st Street MTS and other stations in Queens and Red Hook. So at one point, Lhota had opted for the station’s use, long before an election where UES votes mattered was around the corner.
Of course, New Jersey officials weren’t so willing to take New York City’s trash and put it in their constituents’ neighborhoods.
Notwithstanding the fact that Rudy’s people informed then-New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman, of the proposal the night before. As deputy mayor of operations, Lhota was in charge of damage control. ”No one likes to be surprised, and in this case, the governor was surprised,” he told the New York Times. ”It’s my job to make the governor fully apprised.”
The response from the New Jersey governor: “Drop dead.” No, seriously, the statement was titled “‘Whitman to New York’s Garbage Plan: Drop Dead.”
Remember the “successful negotiated contracts to ship the garbage to New Jersey” that Lhota heralded from before? Yeah, that never happened. Without Whitman on board, the state equity garbage plan was scrapped in 1999. ”It’s one thing to design a plan,” former sanitation commissioner Steven Polan said at the time. ”It’s another matter to actually implement it.”
The Giuliani administration’s failure left the city in a sanitation scramble. Now that the Fresh Kills landfill was closed, there was no general destination for garbage. As a result, a makeshift plan was hatched to use an environmentally terrible fleet of 900 garbage trucks to transport our daily waste output to smaller disposal sites. But at least it worked out for the Gracie Point Community Council: No Fresh Kills meant no East 91st Street MTS, since there wasn’t a reason for marine transfer anymore.
The station closed in 1999. It would return to focus in 2006 with Bloomberg’s stalled S.W.M.P. plan, which seeks to renovate and reopen four marine transfers around the city, including the one on East 91st Street. Speaker Christine Quinn was integral in getting the council’s approval (hence her support for the MTS now) and last year’s budget set aside $125 million to get the project started (hence the current controversy). But it’s the Rat Czar we’re focusing on here.
Maybe it’s to pander to uptown voters before the primary. Or maybe it’s to come off as an environmentally sound Republican in an environmentally conscious city. Regardless of the reason, the mayoral candidate has provided us with a revisionist version of his time as deputy mayor.
Lhota’s touting of “I worked to close it in the past” really amounts to a consequence of his boss not having a Plan B for City’s eternal “too much shit” problem. And, to add onto the insubstantial policy pledge, the Giuliani administration’s proposal before the New Jersey one was to dump 560 million pounds of our raw, collective sewage into the New York Harbor. Yes, the “closing” of the East 91st Street MTS definitely evaded “[putting] children’s safety and health at risk,” but dropping 280,000 tons of garbage sure would have.
That’s the “no-brainer” here, Joe.
The Voice has reached out to Lhota’s campaign and the Gracie Point Community Council for comment on the situation. We’ll update when we hear back.
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