BY TRONE DOWD
After working together to bring attention to one of the biggest issues facing communities of color throughout the city, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) and its supporters have split with Councilman I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), accusing the councilman of failing to follow through on his commitment to bring waste equity to neighborhoods in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.
The issues between NYCEJA and Miller stem from a piece of legislation, Introduction 495-C. Introduced to the council in 2014 by Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), the bill aimed to curb excess waste storage and processing taking place in black and Latino communities. The bill would do so by reducing the capacity available at the facilities located in the overburdened communities like North Brooklyn, South Bronx and Southeast Queens. The bill also incentivizes private-sector transfer stations—such as Royal Waste, which is based out of Jamaica—to create jobs by investing in recycling and organic waste processing equipment needed to meet the city’s zero waste goals.
The vote on the bill, which was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, was suddenly delayed on Monday. Following news that the vote would not take place, accusations aimed at the councilman came in almost immediately. A joint statement from NYCEJA and various environmental justice groups condemned the councilman.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYCEJA said. “The fact that some Queens and Bronx elected officials apparently care more about the profits of transfer station owners than the public health of their own constituents is a recent and troubling trend for disproportionately burdened communities of color—and begs the question, ‘Why?’”
Southeast Queens, North Brooklyn and the South Bronx process 75 percent of the city’s waste. This accounts for 745 tons per day, equivalent to 270,000 tons per year, all coincidentally in communities of color.
“The failure of this bill in the closing days of this council’s session also demonstrates a puzzling lack of support from a council leadership that seemed unwilling to broker internal consensus to yield progressive results,” Bautista continued. “Rest assured that this is just a temporary setback—we look forward to continuing our quest for environmental justice next session under more committed and effective council leadership.”
In Southeast Queens, leaders piled on, including Reverend Andrew Wilkes, of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral in Jamaica.
“We are troubled that Councilmember Miller went from championing waste equity at our Toxic Tour and Pray-In last February to walking away from Intro 495-c in a backroom discussion,” Wilkes said.
As reported in the Queens Tribune’s sister paper, the PRESS of Southeast Queens back in March, the councilman was the only Queens elected official to walk alongside Bautista and Wilkes for a protest through Detective Keith Williams Park and the Royal Waste facility, located at 168-56 Douglas Ave in Jamaica. The facility, located just blocks away from numerous residential areas, has reduced the quality of like for homeowners in the area, many of whom say foul stenches, loud trucks and torn up infrastructure has become the norm.
“The issues that prompted the Toxic Tour and Pray-In—namely, environmental injustice and demand for safe, fair working conditions—remain, and the community suffers unnecessarily when generally reliable leadership fails to exercise leadership on such a well-known grievance,” Wilkes continued.
On Wednesday morning, the councilman defended himself, reassuring the public that his stance on the issue has not wavered.
“Without question, we absolutely remain committed to passing waste equity legislation that is both sustainable and environmentally sensible for Southeast Queens and the City of New York,” Miller said. “I will continue to work with my colleagues, including our newly elected members, to see thoughtful and intelligent legislation come to fruition, and for anyone to suggest otherwise is disingenuous.”
Shortly after the councilman’s statement, his colleague, Councilman Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), who also represents one of the three communities burdened by waste inequity, took to Twitter to defend the councilman.
“[Miller] did not kill this bill,” he tweeted. “It is way more complicated and nuanced than that. The advocates should take a step back and note he was one of the strongest advocates for waste equity in the council over the last four years.”
When Bautista questioned Miller’s sudden change of heart on the vote, Reynoso pointed to the council’s record of advocating for compromises on this issue when advocacy groups objected. Bautista rebutted, however, pointing to the changes in Intro 495-C since its introduction.
“It’s about justice—not just us,” Bautista said. “Last I heard, ‘advocates’ aren’t allowed in the council bill-drafting office. With each compromise, the bill got weaker. It’s all online for the world to see.”
The bill in question was revised two different times this year. Each version of Intro 495 saw a reduction in the amount of capacity that the private sector was allowed to own. While the original legislation, Intro 495-A, saw 50 percent reductions in Community Board 12 in Southeast Queens, CB 1 in Brooklyn and Community Boards 1 and 2 in the Bronx, Intro 495-B resulted in the Bronx adopting a policy that would reduce capacity just 33 percent. On Dec. 12, version C of the bill was introduced, with Southeast Queens also adopting the 33 percent reduction. Version C also made an exception to the 33 percent reduction in Bronx at a facility in Hunts Point.
While concessions with the bill were made, Priya Mulgaonkar, of NYCEJA, told the Queens Tribune that version C was not what advocacy groups were originally looking for, but rather a first step.
The Queens Tribune found finance records showing that four Royal Waste managers—Joseph Morra, Michael Angelo Reali, John Reali and Aldo Pereira—all donated $250 to Miller’s reelection campaign on Sept. 19. In addition to the four managers, four other individuals with the last name Reali all contributed the same amount to Miller on the same day. All of the contributions are entirely legal.
In an exclusive phone interview with the Queens Tribune, Miller said that his decision to back away from Intro. 495 in its current form was based entirely on the lack of benefits that it would have for his district.
“It was a misnomer that it was going to happen on Tuesday,” Miller said, adding that “advocates from outside of the community” played a role in pushing the idea that the bill was coming to a vote. “We want to make sure that we have a bill that is consistent with the needs of Southeast Queens. That mitigates the truck traffic, the odors, the noise and so on. The bill that was in place did not allow that to happen.”
He said that he wants the opportunity to go back to the drawing board with the bill to “provide the kinds of things that we are particularly concerned about in Southeast Queens.” He mentioned that both truck routes and industry labor practices and standards are two of the items that need to be addressed in future versions of Intro. 495.
When asked about the waste capacity reduction in Southeast Queens shown in version C of Intro 495, Miller said that the cuts had very little effect on what was being used now. He said that while a 50 percent capacity reduction would have been ideal, many of these facilities use less than that already. He added that many facilities use less than 33 percent of their available capacity and do not reduce quality of life for his constituents.
“Of course, we want to see a reduction, but the reduction has to address the problems that we have here in Southeast Queens,” Miller said. “We want to mitigate odor. We don’t want to do it in a punitive way, thereby leaving people with an excuse that they can’t invest.”
Miller said that private companies—such as Royal Waste—could have used the ineffective cuts as leverage to not invest in waste equity efforts such as “cleaning facilities” and “rail transfer.” He also said that incentivizing recycling and composting as a trade off for these cuts will not reduce such issues as odor, which mostly stems from organic material at these facilities.
“We want to make sure that we have the right fit for Southeast Queens,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can leverage this opportunity for [waste] industry folks to make the kind of investments that would truly mitigate [our concerns]. We want to bring in all of our colleagues in government, community leaders and community boards to ensure that truck transfer routes don’t impact the community.”
Lastly, when asked about the contributions from managers at Royal Waste on Sept. 19, Miller said that he had no knowledge of the donations.
“I would have to check and see,” Miller said after the Queens Tribune read the list of managers who donated. “I was not aware of that.”
Miller said that he only knows one of the principals of the company, but did not solicit any funds from him.
Nearly two hours after the phone interview, the councilman provided a follow-up statement on the matter of the donations.
“There is no causal relationship between the contributions and the councilman’s decision to withdraw his support for 495-C,” the statement said. “Prior to them being publicized in yesterday’s report by Waste Dive, neither the councilman nor his campaign adviser was aware the donations had been made, which is not uncommon. They were not solicited on his behalf, and the date on which they were recorded followed the week of the September primary, during which no fundraisers were held.”