Waste Woes: Will Bronx Officials Vote For Env'tal Justice?

New York City Environmental Justice Alliance’s Eddie Bautista leads rally outside South Bronx office of Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, as activists seek legislation to relieve truck traffic and air pollution from commercial waste transfer stations.
Credit: Joe Hirsch

Dozens of local activists, environmental justice advocates and labor union members rallied outside the office of New York City Councilmember Rafael Salamanca the other day to demand clean air and reduced truck traffic for South Bronx residents.

The protesters—undeterred by cold weather or holiday distractions—turned out to urge that Councilmember Salamanca and the other members of the Bronx delegation support City Council legislation that would trim the number of diesel-powered garbage trucks rumbling through the South Bronx every day and reduce air and noise pollution associated with the operation of the numerous solid waste transfer stations that blight their neighborhood.

For years now, a primary goal of New York City’s environmental justice leaders has been to reduce the disproportionate environmental burdens that commercial waste transfer stations impose on communities in the South Bronx, North Brooklyn and Southeast Queens—three neighborhoods where more than 75 per cent of the privately-owned waste transfer stations are located.

Indeed, the City’s 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan—proposed by then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and enhanced and ultimately approved by the City Council—specifically recognized that these communities were suffering from a disproportionate share of waste facilities and committed the city to remediating the unfairness.

It was to fulfill this decade-old promise that the proposed legislation, Intro 495A, was designed.

Specifically, the legislation would reduce the permitted capacity of solid waste transfer stations in four districts in North Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Southeast Queens, where such waste facilities are already overly concentrated. (Since the permitted capacity is greater than the real-world operating practices of these facilities, the bill would actually require reductions in less than half of the 27 transfer stations located in the most overburdened communities, according to calculations prepared by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.)  

Intro 495A would also protect other city neighborhoods from becoming overburdened with commercial waste by limiting waste going to any other district to no more than 10 percent of the total citywide permitted capacity for waste transfer stations.         

Over 600 diesel-powered garbage trucks stream into and out of the South Bronx daily, carrying trash to privately-owned commercial waste transfer stations. Over 75% of NYC’s commercial waste is handled by facilities concentrated in just 3 neighborhoods.
Credit: Jason Wiener

The bill’s primary sponsors are Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Stephen Levin. To their credit, they and their co-sponsors agreed to modify the bill’s original language last summer to address logistical concerns raised by the Sanitation Department.

Despite the sponsors’ flexibility and genuine efforts to achieve a consensus, Councilmember Salamanca and his Bronx colleagues withdrew their support for this legislation—apparently following lobbying on behalf of several transfer station owners whose facilities are contributing to the localized traffic, air and noise pollution problems in the South Bronx. According to Politico New York, one high-powered lobbying firm hired by the waste industry was paid $29,500 in 2016 alone to lobby against the bill.  

The recent Salamanca protest rally was organized by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, The Point CDC, Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, Mothers on the Move, NW Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Teamsters and the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest.

The gathering was spirited. After hearing (and cheering) remarks from the rally’s conveners, community activists paraded around the sidewalk as organizers led them through call-and-response chants in both English and Spanish.

South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens have suffered more than their fair share of environmental burdens; namely traffic, noise and air pollution from numerous solid waste transfer stations. Residents are standing up to say “enough is enough.”
Credit: Alex Moore

Councilmember Salamanca was apparently in his office at the time of the rally. He did not, however, venture out to speak with the community protesters. He sent word that he remained opposed to the transfer station equity legislation. 

But Eddie Bautista, Executive Director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, spoke for the rally participants when he stated: “We’re not going to go away.”

In addition to Councilmember Salamanca, the other Bronx Councilmembers who have withdrawn their support for the bill are Ritchie Torres, Annabel Palma, Rosie Mendez, Vanessa Gibson, Andy King, Andrew Cohen and Fernando Cabrera. 

Many of these councilmembers have endorsed calls for environmental justice and have backed other progressive legislation.

That’s one reason why their abandonment of the transfer station equity legislation is so disappointing.

If the Bronx delegation wants to advance the interests of the overwhelming majority of their constituents and ease the long-standing environmental burdens that these waste transfer stations impose on South Bronx residents, the delegation members need to get back on board in support of Intro 495A, or come up with a reasonable and effective alternative.

It would be a mistake for local elected officials to ignore the environmental and quality-of-life concerns presented by private waste transfer stations in their communities or to hope that the rising chorus of community voices calling for environmental justice will simply fade away.

NRDC joins community, labor and environmental justice activists in calling upon NYC Council’s Bronx delegation to pass legislation that would reduce commercial trash shipments to and from numerous waste transfer stations in the South Bronx.
Credit: Alex Moore