By TRONE DOWD
After years of advocacy from environmental groups, the New York City Council voted July 18 in favor of legislation that would alter the current state of waste management in communities that handle the majority of the city’s waste.
The bill, Intro 157, reduces the capacity that private waste companies have to process local garbage, an issue that has primarily been a problem in communities of color, such as North Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Southeast Queens. Combined, the three communities house 26 of the city’s 38 waste transfer stations, which process 75 percent of the city’s total garbage. The bill also incentivizes recycling as a means of inspiring companies to take up cleaner practices.
A number of advocate groups, including the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA), have pointed out that private waste companies have been allowed to go unchecked in these neighborhoods at the expense of nearby residents. This has resulted in large, noisy garbage trucks’ tearing up roadways, hazardous environmental impacts—such as dangerous and toxic runoff from trucks and processing plants—and pungent air pollution that has ruined the quality of life, particularly during the summer months. In March 2017, the Greater Allen AME Cathedral organized a protest against these issues alongside NYCEJA and residents, who said that the foul smells have worsened asthma symptoms and made it impossible to enjoy outdoor activities.
“Today’s vote on Intro 157 is truly a watershed moment for environmental justice,” said Eddie Bautista, the executive director of NYCEJA. “Our communities have been fighting for relief from waste facilities and truck traffic for decades. Finally, we will see this first critical step toward waste equity, and ensure that local communities—particularly the three most impacted—finally begin to realize some semblance of fair share.”
Intro 157 is not the first effort to change these policies. Last year, Intro 495-C, a similar bill to the one that passed last week, failed to garner enough support in the council before being scrapped altogether in December.
“Intro 495, there was a carve-out specifically for a transfer station called Metropolitan up in the Bronx,” Priya Mulgaonkar, a policy organizer for NYCEJA, said. “For us, that was a big concession.”
Intro 157 no longer contains that carve-out.
On the other hand, the capacity cap enacted by Intro 157 is not as steep as Intro 495-C’s proposed cap. According to Mulgaonkar, most of the waste companies use less than half of the capacity they are currently allocated, so the move was more about future-proofing.
“We wanted to cut the capacity in half to bring the permits down to the current throughput level with a little bit of wiggle room, but not allow these facilities to keep expanding,” she said.
While NYCEJA celebrated the bill’s passage, the organization admitted that it still had a long way to go.
“We never saw this bill as a cure-all,” Mulgaonkar said. “It’s very much a first, but critical, step. We’ve been fighting this for over 10 years. Negotiations are bound to happen, but ultimately this sends a really good signal to environmental justice communities that the tides are turning.”
With the recent victory under its belt, NYCEJA said that it is now turning its attention toward ensuring that each of the boroughs is distributing waste management equally throughout its respective neighborhoods.
Intro 157 received nearly universal support from members of the council, including Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) and members Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn) and Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton).
“The passage of Intro 157 is a momentous achievement in the fight for environmental justice and the reform of our city’s private waste-management system,” Reynoso said. “Intro 157 will finally deliver environmental justice to frontline communities and ensure that no other neighborhood suffers the same fate, while setting a historic precedent for the fair-share distribution of burdensome and polluting facilities in the city of New York. This is a first, crucial step toward reforming the city’s commercial carting industry.”
Richards agreed, saying, “In recent weeks, the reckless and negligent operations of New York City’s private waste haulers have finally gotten the attention they deserve, including the awful working conditions these companies force on their largely immigrant, Latino and black workforce. We as elected officials can no longer sit idly by. It is high time that we hold the private sanitation companies responsible not only for their awful practices when collecting waste, but also when dumping and processing waste. Intro 157 is the first step towards bringing true accountability to an industry in desperate need of reform.”
But while Richards and Reynoso praised the bill, one Southeast Queens councilman argued that the legislation does not go far enough. In an interview with the Queens Tribune, Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) stated that Intro 157 didn’t go far enough to address the specific concerns of his community.
“This was a very general bill,” Miller said. “There’s a lot more to waste-transfer equity, recycling and environmental justice than what the bill produced.”
Miller, who was one of the original advocates on the issue since taking office in 2014, cited that truck traffic and unbearable odors were among the concerns that he argues the bill does little to alleviate. He also pointed out that Queens’ waste capacity vastly outweighs that of the two other communities, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“For decades, Southeast Queens has been disproportionately impacted by poor waste-management policies,” Miller said during a July 18 meeting at City Hall following the vote on 157. “And I have viewed this bill as having the potential to holistically approach this issue and bring justice to an unjust situation. Addressing environmental justice requires broader vision than a focus on only waste management. It requires the creation of investment in our communities. It requires jobs to promote the well-being of the larger community. In that spirit, I believe we can be better than Intro 157. We can encourage investment, we can strengthen our communities, and we can build a more equitable system.”
Miller had dropped support of Intro 495-C in December for similar reasons, much to the chagrin of environmental activists. But despite his lack of support for the bill, Miller said that he has kept up a dialogue with his colleagues to get them to understand his concerns.
“I am still committed to change,” Miller reassured the Queens Tribune.