Environmentalism and Equity in New York City, 2015

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Last week's New York City Council hearing on commercial waste disposal featured some unusually riveting testimony.

Three men who have been employed by private carting companies, which collect waste from businesses across the city, testified before a committee investigating ways to make New York's commercial waste industry more sustainable.

Carlton Darden and Michael Bush are employees of the privately owned Five Star Carting. They talked about their dedication to back-breaking jobs, how they work up to 60 hours a week, often in the bitter cold, and how they are also helping to take care of their kids and extended families. And they told about feeling degraded by low pay, dangerous working conditions and lack of respect from their employer.

Juan Feliz, who had worked for another private carting company, told the Council he believed that daily exposures to debris and toxics on his waste collection route led to his contracting cancer. And he testified that when he sought to return to work following surgery, his boss at Mr. T Carting insisted that he work in an environment filled with cigarette smoke.

Everyone who heard these brave men speak in a public forum about their personal experiences and professional challenges was moved. Councilmember Brad Lander quickly realized the significance of their heartfelt remarks and stood up to record their testimony on his iPhone. And Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the Sanitation Committee, spoke for many when he said: "It takes a lot of courage to come up here. I'll be there with you guys through this whole process."

Two days later, in the aftermath of their Council appearances, Mr. Darden and Mr. Bush were reportedly fired. As Councilmember Reynoso, his colleagues, Teamster Local 813 and other labor groups began organizing to protest the dismissals, a representative of Five Star Carting explained to Capitol New York's David Giambusso that it was all a big misunderstanding and that the men's jobs were safe. (For now.)

Above: New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious new sustainability plan, called OneNYC, needs additional milestones and funding details. The new plan's most significant contribution, and it's a big one, is to broaden the definition of what it means to have a truly sustainable city.

One week before the Council's waste hearing, Mayor de Blasio had unveiled his ambitious new sustainability plan, called OneNYC, at the South Bronx headquarters of the community group, The Point.

The new plan -- which seeks to continue and expand upon the sustainability efforts begun by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's PlaNYC -- includes laudable long-term environmental goals like reducing climate-altering carbon emissions 80%; delivering the cleanest air of any big city in the country; reducing waste sent to landfills 90%; and strengthening coastal protections.

In addition, the plan incorporates bold equity goals such as lifting 800,000 New Yorkers out of poverty or near-poverty; cutting premature mortality by 25%; and creating/preserving 200,000 affordable housing units.

NRDC welcomes the new plan and has expressed support for its inspiring vision.

At the same time, NRDC and others have noted that many of the plan strategies still need implementation milestones and funding strategies.

In the area of public transportation, to cite just one example, the plan recognizes that "(a) modern and reliable region transit system is essential to New York's future growth" and "strongly supports the full funding of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) 2015-19 Capital Plan." But the document does not identify specific strategies that might help close the multi-billion dollar capital plan funding gap. Nor does it contain milestones for city action.

The de Blasio administration indicated that some details will be filled in today, when the Mayor's executive budget is released.

It is essential to the new plan's success that - one way or another - the document is supplemented with timetables for short-term action and, where possible, funding specifics.

But to focus only on missing benchmarks overlooks one of the most significant contributions of the Mayor's new plan -- its expansive definition of sustainability, which seeks to couple the city's environmental and economic challenges together to a greater degree than ever before.

On this point, Mayor de Blasio could not have been clearer: "I believe fundamentally that you can't have environmental sustainability without economic sustainability," he told the audience at the plan's ceremonial release on Earth Day.

"We need to make sure," he said, "that, as our carbon footprint continues to decrease, access to opportunity for all New Yorkers increases."

And, in a New York Times story published that same day, the Mayor emphasized: "A beautifully sustainable city that is [just] a playground for the rich doesn't work ...."

We agree.

It's easy to understand why the Mayor is seeking to bring environmental sustainability and economic justice issues closer together.

For one thing -- as the city's environmental justice community knows only too well -- many environmental pollution problems have hit poor and working class New Yorkers the hardest.

Take asbestos, for example. Its toxic properties are now well recognized and its use throughout the country has been sharply limited. But all this came years after thousands of ship-builders and other workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard (and elsewhere) were exposed to asbestos fibers in the workplace, and after many developed serious lung diseases.

Toxic lead is another case in point. Although the removal of lead from gasoline and from paint has dramatically cut pediatric risks in recent years, thousands of youngsters were found to have elevated blood lead levels in New York City annually, at least through the 1980s. Not surprisingly, most cases of lead poisoning were diagnosed in young children who were residing in older housing stock in the city's poorest neighborhoods -- where exposures to peeling leaded paint had long been frequent occurrences.

And today, and in the years to come, it is the City's poor who are likely to feel the impacts from our changing climate. Tens of thousands of lower-income New Yorkers living along the city's coastline are especially vulnerable to future storm surges and more frequent flooding. And, with the number of days of intense heat expected to climb in the summers ahead, New Yorkers on the lowest economic rungs will suffer disproportionately since they will most likely not have the means to escape the sweltering city for a cool vacation spot or the extra income to run their air conditioners 24 hours a day.

Just as environmental justice activists know that pollution problems join issues like poverty in threatening the health and well-being of their communities, mainstream environmental advocates have increasingly come to understand that a sustainable city is one that both achieves long-standing environmental goals and provides economic opportunities for all.

Shouldn't such things as clean air, safe drinking water, basic shelter and a living wage all be considered fundamental human rights?

Joining together to support this broader vision of sustainability is not just the right thing to do. It also makes sense from a pragmatic standpoint -- both the environmental movement and the social justice movement could boost their clout by working together more frequently on issues where their interests converge.

This doesn't mean, of course, that the environmental advocates and social justice forces will see eye to eye on every issue or that a full merging of the two movements is likely.

But the golden nugget in Mayor de Blasio's new sustainability plan is its recognition of the natural inter-connection between the two camps and how a greater cooperation between those seeking to safeguard our environment and those seeking to promote social justice could fortify both factions and make New York a better place.