What We Talk About When Quinn Talks About “Environmental Racism”


Another week, another opportunity for the mayoral race to turn up the volume on its candidate-baiting side-chatter. The latest dealt with a comment Christine Quinn made last Thursday, when she responded to candidate Bill Thompson’s decision to support a group of Upper East Siders lobbying to overturn of a crucial part of the city’s 2006 garbage equity plan.

“The days of environmental racism have come to an end,” Quinn said. “We have, for far too long in the City of New York, put all the municipal refuses into low income neighborhoods of color … No community, regardless of how much money that community has, is going to be exempted from its municipal responsibility.”

Thompson took it to mean Quinn was calling him environmentally racist. “You have to ask yourself why would someone utter the phrase ‘environmental racism,'” he said at a rally in the UES on Friday. “Is it anger? What prompted that?”

Thompson added that the fact that Quinn directed her words at a black man in New York City was hurtful. The UES opposition group, Pledge 2 Protect, then countered that building the 91st Street transfer station would negatively affect the neighborhood’s own low-income community.

“Contrary to Speaker Quinn’s claims, a Pledge 2 Protect report found that 62% more minority residents live in in the immediate area of East 91st St than any other proposed marine transfer station (MTS) sites across the five boroughs,” Pledge 2 Protect president Kelly Nimmo-Guenther said in a statement. “And while only one other site has any public housing units in the area (33), there are more than 1,100 public housing units within a quarter mile of the East 91st St. MTS.”

But while Pledge 2 Protect’s argument may seem solid, it’s really a complete distortion of facts and context, says New York City Environmental Justice Alliance executive director Eddie Bautista.

Bautista, who’s been leading the fight for environmental justice in the outer boroughs for decades, calls the Pledge 2 Protect analyses an “obvious hoax.” For example, their report only looked at data within a quarter-mile radius–just enough to include the Isaacs Houses, but not to paint a larger picture of the wealth that surrounds them.

Meanwhile, the low-income neighborhoods in the South Bronx and North Brooklyn have borne the brunt of the public health problems related to the trucking of Manhattan’s commercial waste for decades.

“They have been effectively been using [the Isaacs Houses] as human shields,” Bautista said. “It’s the Upper East Side. There’s a lot of money and access to power that community has. We’re not going to let obvious misstatements like this pass.”

A 2011 census tract analysis by the New York Times showed that the bulk of waste transfer stations in New York City are indeed located in low-income areas, while the UES transfer station’s surrounding neighborhood held a median income of $91,000. The NYT used the metric of a half-mile:

A review by The New York Times of census tracts within roughly a half-mile of the transfer stations confirms that most of them are in moderate- to extremely low-income neighborhoods. More than half the stations are in two areas in particular: the Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn, and the South Bronx. About 73,000 residents with a median household income of $40,200 for 2009 live near the waste transfer stations in those two Brooklyn neighborhoods, the census figures show; 92,000 people with a median income of $21,000 live near the sites in the South Bronx.

By comparison, the neighborhood near the proposed East River transfer station, Yorkville in the Upper East Side, has about 47,000 residents with a median household income of $91,000.

The likelihood of any mayoral candidate to be able to follow through on a promise not to build the marine waste transfer station is also extremely low. Nearly a dozen lawsuits against the MTS construction have all been dismissed, and state and local permits have already been obtained for construction. In order to amend the 2006 garbage equity plan, the next mayor would have to have City Council vote successfully on a change, and gain the support of state agencies.

“The history of these types of infrastructure decisions has always sided with deeper pocketed communities. A lot of these guys running for mayor are on full-on pander-mode,” Bautista said. “The irony here is that mayoral candidates are essentially playing the UES for fools.”