The last time Rudy Giuliani ran for office—his reelection campaign in 1997—he promised heavily Republican Staten Island that its hated Fresh Kills landfill would shut down for good on New Year’s Day, 2002, quelling the secessionist movement that threatened the city GOP’s political future. And where would the 13,000 tons of trash go every day? Oh, that was a little detail to be worked out later, Hizzoner responded.
It’s election season again, and New York’s post-Fresh Kills world of garbage disposal is beginning to take shape. The Giuliani administration relies mostly on trucks to transport waste out of New York, a policy resulting in 425,000 additional truck trips a year on the city’s roads, bridges, and tunnels, leading to vast increases in air pollution at busy intersections, according to a report by Attorney General Eliot Spitzer. (His office is suing the administration over this.)
As for the long term, if all goes as planned, not a single registered Republican will get a whiff of the city’s waste. Instead of devising a comprehensive and equitable waste-management plan, city and state officials want to dump 5200 tons of trash a day in the Bronx’s Hunts Point peninsula over the next 30 years.
The company eager to run this venture is American Marine Rail, a New Jersey-based firm and a newcomer to the city’s garbage markets. AMR has proffered a bold plan—to have waste shipped to Hunts Point by barge and whisked off to an out-of-state landfill by rail. No trucks. The waste will arrive at Hunts Point in airtight containers, thus protecting the local populace from noxious odors. “This project will hurt no one,” insists Rob Jones, co-owner of American Marine Rail. “In fact, it may be worse if we’re not there. Trucks are going to come through if there aren’t alternatives available.”
Hunts Point residents aren’t buying it. AMR may promise the moon, but the community faces the possible exodus of many local businesses, which are not thrilled to be situated near a mini-Fresh Kills. Adjacent to the site—which will occupy 5.6 acres, require extensive construction, and operate 24 hours a day, six days a week—are a lumber manufacturer, a Frito-Lay distribution center, and some 10,000 residents already suffering from asthma rates that are among the nation’s highest. What’s more, warns Majora Carter, associate director of the Point, a local economic development nonprofit, the project will “cement the thinking in people’s mind that Hunts Point is only good for garbage. That’s an image we have been trying to fight.”
In January, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)—infamous for its laissez-faire attitude toward waste-transfer stations—and the city’s Department of Sanitation made public their decision: AMR did not have to produce an environmental impact statement, whereby a developer submits a report detailing why its project poses no threat to the environment. (AMR did a less onerous environmental-assessment statement instead.) “This is totally unacceptable,” fumes local assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. “How do we know that the waste is going to be moved out by rail every day? If rail doesn’t work, will AMR truck then?” According to Mary Ellen Kris, regional director of the DEC, there will be a prohibition on trucking in AMR’s permit. “We believe that the project, despite its size, does not present adverse impacts [to the community].”
Such confidence on the part of these public agencies belies the considerable rail-freight problems many Bronx companies now deal with. Waste Management Inc. opened a $40 million waste-transfer station in the Bronx’s Harlem River Yard last November with the intention of sending 3000 tons of trash a day to Virginia by rail. But thanks to flawed services by CSX Transportation and other snafus, railcars heading down south are not returning fast enough, allowing garbage to languish at the Waste Management facility. (Another nearby transfer station has had the same problem.) Some food distributors and manufacturers in the Bronx have also complained about rail freight in New York, noting that service is slow and the routes are convoluted—railcars can cross the Hudson River only via Albany, a 250-mile round-trip diversion for a company looking to transport down south, as AMR is proposing.
Still, AMR is undaunted by these hurdles. “It’s an economic risk, but a minimal risk,” says Rob Jones. “It remains cheaper to use rail than to truck.”
The risk might be minimal to AMR, but could be enormous to the people of Hunts Point. “I know rail is the way to go, but rail is nonexistent on this side of the Hudson,” says Paul Lipson, executive director of the Point. “That’s the worst-kept secret: You can’t move things out, and that’s why it sits out there days on end.”
Meanwhile, the costs of closing Fresh Kills are rising—both financially and environmentally. According to a new City Council report, the price tag on shutting down the landfill is $622 million, up by $100 million from 18 months ago. Moreover, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an environmental group, believes that an additional 700,000 trucks will traverse the city’s streets by the time the landfill is shut down, if the city meets the state-imposed deadline. The Giuliani administration is expected to announce a new long-term waste-management plan by spring.
American Marine Rail will present its case at a public hearing scheduled for 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 8, at IS 74, 730 Bryant Avenue, in the Bronx.