The largest landfill in the world is New York City's Fresh Kills landfill located in Staten Island. In the face of a lawsuit over the air pollution consequences of the giant dump, and fearing that cleanup costs will be impossible, a 1996 state law required Fresh Kills to close by January 1, 2002. It actually closed early, in March, 2001, and was reopened on an emergency basis the following September to take World Trade Center debris.
Operating since 1948, Fresh Kills is an environmental disaster. The landfill's impacts on Staten Island residents will be felt for generations. New Yorkers should ensure those impacts are minimized, and that other communities are not newly victimized by their waste.
Waste reduction efforts in the City
Today New York City recycles no more than 13 percent of its waste stream. The rate of recycling of commercially generated municipal solid waste dropped from 8.7 percent in 1998 to 3.5 percent in 1999. In July 2006 the City Council approved a waste management plan two years in the making. The 20-year plan addresses residential garbage produced by the city at a rate of 12,000 tons per day. A new barge and rail system intended to reduce trash hauling by truck within the city by 3.5 million miles annually would also reduce the burden among the five boroughs. The city will also create an Office of Recycling Outreach and Education to reduce the amount of garbage that must be managed in the first place.
Allied Waste Industries offered to take as much as 10,000 tons of garbage per day from New York City via rail to Scottsdale, Arizona. (NY Times, 2/21/00)
"The city is spending as much as $67.50 a ton to get rid of Manhattan and Staten Island trash, and the bids submitted last week for Queens trash averaged $71.38 a ton," according to The New York Times (2/21/2000). These relatively high costs are accounted for primarily by the cost of transportation. The per-ton tipping fee at Virginia landfills is about $30, the same as at landfills in upstate New York.
Continued resurfacing of the "crisis" alarm in New York City feeds commercial interests in new landfills and expansions of existing landfills, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and manufacturing a need for landfills where none exists. In February of 2000, bidders for New York City's garbage "offered the city 21,242 tons worth of disposal capacity, far in excess of the approximately 5,000 tons the city still needs," said the Times.
Landfill developers are interested in destroying markets for recyclables and increasing
the urban waste stream
In 2000 New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer began an investigation of the practice of landfilling recyclables. "Integrated waste management," promoted by commercial firms, means landfill companies own the garbage collection and hauling businesses as well as the dumps. They get more more money from tipping fees at landfills than from selling recyclables. Garbage firms charge their collection and hauling subsidaries tipping fee rates, and the subs pass the costs on to municipalities and private customers.
The large parent corporations are insulated from complaints about the cost of garbage pickup, and the small collection and hauling companies they own tell their customers there's nothing they can do about rising costs.
In December, 2000, Attorney General Spitzer's investigation netted four private companies that were mixing recyclables and garbage: Casella subsidaries Vets Disposal of Oneonta and Waste Stream of Ithaca, and the parent company, were fined $90,000. County Waste and Recycling of Clifton Park was also caught in the net and fined $10,000. (AG's Press Release of 12/4/00).
How does New York City's Solid Waste Plan affect the state's waste management policy?
New York City's export policy is at odds with state policy set forth in the Solid Waste Management Act of 1988, making landfilling the least desireable of four waste management practices, after reduction, reuse, and recycling. (ECL § 27-0106).
The May, 2000 "Draft Modification" of the city's Plan includes responses to comments made on the Plan's "Final Scoping Document." These responses make it clear the city's Plan "will assess impacts within NYC only." (See responses to Issues 13.4.1 and 17.7) Out-of-City disposal sites elsewhere in New York State "are not the subject of this Plan EIS." (SWMP 1.2.2)
In 1996 the Fresh Kills Task Force recommended that the consent of proposed host communities where the city's garbage would ultimately go be secured as a precondition for garbage "export" contracts. Mayor Giuliani ultimately adopted this part of the Task Force's remmendations.
However, in the first test of the "host community consent" policy, the Mayor's office renounced the substance of the policy, telling Cattaraugus County Legislature Chairman Jess Fitzpatrick his county did not constitute a "community" under the city's policy. Instead, towns with local regulatory power under New York's home rule scheme would be the only "communities" recognized by the city.
The inability of New York City to implement a meaningful solid waste management plan has unleashed commercial land speculators who use the threat of litigation to intimidate small rural towns into enacting lax local landfill regulations--quite the opposite of community consent. Indeed, rural New Yorkers can reasonably view the garbage wars raging through their communities as a contest between resource-poor small towns on one side, and irresponsible metropolitan government, powerful state regulatory agencies and big business on the other side.
All that changed in 2001. Gone are the waste reduction and recycling programs urged by the Task Force. All that's left is garbage "export" which, under the revised Plan means sending it anywhere outside the City, upstate or out-of-state. Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari has his own environmental engineer, Nick Dmytryszyn, who questions whether investing more money in waste prevention programs makes any economic sense. According to an interview by the Staten Island Advance (2/7/01) the answer is no, Dmytryszyn thinks waste prevention is "a kind of a social experiment."
The same view is apparently held by Mayor Bloomberg. In Februrary, 2002, the mayor proposed cutting the city's recyling budget in half. Tow years later the Mayor sent out a "Request for Expressions of Interest to Provide Waste Disposal Capacity for New York City" to every town in upstate New York. (contact us for a copy)
The New York Times consider's the mayor's abandonment of recycling a reflection of changing "eco-psychology," a decline in "the spirit of recycling" and the rise of budgetary responsibility. (3/12/2002)
Municipally-owned landfills have been forced to become major regional facilities, with the result that commercial imperatives erode their local service and health and safety missions, in Ellery and Schuyler Falls.
The city's Plan does not address commercial waste, about two-thirds of the municipal solid waste the City produces each year. Fresh Kills took only residential waste, until recently 13,000 tons per day or nearly four million tons per year. Beginning in 1997, four of the City's five boroughs secured long-term contracts to send their residential garbage to out-of-state landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. Queens, the fifth borough, in 2000 started sending its residential garbage to four transfer stations in New Jersey (and from there where?), and to more "distant landfills," according to the New York Times (2/5/01).
The need to find a home for the City's residential waste stream seems less pressing to rural upstate communities.
Recently the City Commissioned a study that found there really is no waste crisis. A Commercial Waste Management Study was published in March 2004 by the New York City Department of Sanitation. Volume IV of that study is an examination of landfill capacity that might be utilized by NYC. It concludes that there is adequate landfill capacity in the region. (See link at the top of this page.)
The study found that there are 87 "mega-landfills (landfills with substantially larger capacity than 1,000 tons per day [tpd]) in states within the mid-Atlantic, Southeast and Midwest regions, exclusive of Pennsylvania and New York, that appear to have sufficient physical capacity to meet additional demand of both DSNY [Department of Sanitation of New York City]-managed Waste and commercial waste generated by the city." Commercial Waste Management Study, Vol. IV (NYC Dept. Sanitation, March 2004), p. 1.
The "actual remaining excess capacity" of landfills in this eight-state area (excluding Pennsylvania and New York) in 2003 was 45,750 tpd. Id., p. 4, Table 3.1-1. ).
Most of this capacity was located farther than 400 miles from New York City, and within 150 miles of New York City there is less than 20 years of remaining disposal capacity. Id., note 4 to Table 3.1-1. However, including Pennsylvania adds another 187 million tons of disposal capacity (as of 2002, declining about 8 percent annually) (id., p. 7, Table 3.2-1), and including New York State adds another 93 millions tons (as of 2002). See NYSDEC Capacity Data for Landfills (NYSDEC, April 2003), posted elsewhere on our website.
This will probably eliminate any will to reduce that remains in New York City, and continue to fuel speculation in cheap rural landfill space near the City.