NYC Takes a Step Toward Environmental Justice

The New York City Council has enacted legislation limiting the amount of trash that can be sent to overburdened neighborhoods that are home to a majority of privately-owned, environmentally troublesome waste transfer stations in the nation’s largest city.

Today, 26 of these privately-owned waste transfer stations (out of 38 citywide) are located in just three neighborhoods – north Brooklyn, the South Bronx and southeast Queens.  

These facilities are trash freight stations, where waste coming in from all around the city is transferred, mostly onto long-haul trucks, for shipment to out-of-city landfills and incinerators, as well as recycling and composting facilities.

The waste stations are significant localized sources of truck traffic and air and noise pollution, which daily disrupt the quality of life for tens of thousands of nearby residents. 

Specifically, the new legislation would cut the permitted capacity of waste transfer stations by 50 per cent for north Brooklyn and 33 per cent in both the South Bronx and southeast Queens. 

Community and environmental groups, join with environmental justice organizations and Teamsters Joint Council 16 to support waste equity legislation enacted in the NYC Council on July 18, 2018.

Alex Moore

However, since the permitted capacity of these 26 waste stations is much greater than the actual tonnage of waste they are receiving on a daily basis, the legislation will likely result in actual waste reductions at only a handful of facilities in these three neighborhoods. 

The legislation – Intro 157 – will, nevertheless, have the effect of preventing significant increases in waste-handling in these already overburdened districts.  And since the bill would allow for some growth for recycling or composting and for waste transferred by rail (instead of long-haul trucks), it incentivizes improved, more environmentally friendly operations at these facilities.

The idea behind this bill goes back as far as 1989, when the New York City Charter was revised to include a “fair share” provision.  The idea was that environmentally burdensome facilities should be more equally distributed across the city, rather than concentrated in politically less powerful neighborhoods, which were often communities of color.

And the city’s official 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan directly targeted the concentration of privately operated waste transfer stations in these neighborhoods for remedial action. 

The new legislation, while not as strong as previous versions, ends years of legislative gridlock on this issue in the City Council. 

Bringing environmental justice to NYC: Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, Councilmember Stephen Levin, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia.
Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Stephen Levin took the lead in advancing this legislation, with critical support from Council Speaker Corey Johnson.  All three, as well as the bill’s other co-sponsors, deserve public thanks!

New York City Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia also supported the legislation, and Mayor Bill De Blasio is expected to sign the bill.

A broad coalition of environmental justice organizations, community groups and labor activists provided much of the firepower to help the legislation cross the finish line.  Among the leading advocates, in addition to NRDC, were New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (especially Melissa Iachan and Justin Wood), the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (Eddie Bautista and Priya Mulgaonkar), and the Teamsters Local 813 (Bernadette Kelly, Alex Moore and a cast of hundreds).  Also, kudos to the many community groups that have been battling for years for more equitable waste policies, including The Point, OUTRAGE, Clean Up North Brooklyn, El Puente, Nos Quedamos, Waste Equity for Southeast Queens.

The passage of Intro 157 is the beginning of what NRDC hopes will be a broad overhaul of the entire commercial waste handling operation in New York.  The De Blasio Administration, with strong support from a coalition of environmental, solid waste, community and environmental justice organizations, is pushing for the creation of a zoned system to replace the current illogical and environmentally problematic collection process for handling thousands of tons-a-day of commercial waste.  Stay tuned.

About the Authors

Eric A. Goldstein

Senior Attorney and New York City Environment Director

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