To City's Burden, Add 11,000 Tons of Daily Trash
By KIRK JOHNSON
New York City's trash disposal system, a creaking industrial giant even
in the best of times, is emerging as yet another trouble hotspot - political,
logistical and financial - for a new mayor and a city that seem to have
troubles enough as it is.
A $6 billion long-term Giuliani administration plan to rid the city
of its mountain of daily garbage through a system of barges, terminals
and trains is stalled and may yet unravel entirely, city officials say.
A short-term plan to get the city through the next few years by trucking
waste out of the city, mostly to landfills in places like Pennsylvania
and Virginia, is facing what many experts say could be sharply higher costs
as available landfill space contracts and states seek to restrict interstate
A cost-cutting proposal that would send some of Queens's garbage to
the Bronx threatens to ignite a political firestorm by reneging on a Giuliani
administration promise that none of the city's five boroughs would be used
for dumping by the others, as Staten Island was for half a century at the
Fresh Kills landfill, which closed last year.
A plan to cut the city's recycling program nearly in half as an emergency
measure to save money over the next 18 months may have to be extended indefinitely,
and may not return at all in any recognizable form, Sanitation Department
"We have to rethink," said Sanitation Commissioner John J. Doherty.
That rethinking goes in many directions. And it's more than just a search
for lower costs, Mr. Doherty and others say. Waste disposal in New York
City has long been a fiercely emotional issue that touches on other urban
fault lines, like fairness, class and race, especially when it comes to
locating and building the trash-collection centers on which the system
depends. Recycling goes beyond disposal as well - to the goals of environmentalism
and civic consciousness that have been carefully cultivated by the city
itself in supporting the recycling program through millions of dollars
in promotion and advertising over the years.
Under the mayor's budget proposal, all recycling of metal, glass and
plastic would be halted for 18 months beginning this summer because that
part of the sanitation system has become an economic drain that Mayor Michael
R. Bloomberg says New York cannot afford. (Paper recycling would continue,
because pulp markets readily compete for the city's paper supply.)
Mr. Doherty said in an interview this week that if the city's financial
picture or the economics of recycling did not improve, restoring the program
could be difficult. Alternatives include a permanent abandonment of glass
recycling, which has proven to be the most difficult and costly material
The proposal to go back on the city's pledge that each of New York's
five boroughs would be self-sufficient in trash disposal, made in connection
with the closing of Fresh Kills, is similarly driven purely by budget pressures,
Mr. Doherty said.
The mayor's budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 assumes a savings
of $7 million a year by taking 1,500 tons of trash collected daily in Queens
to a transfer station in the Bronx, where costs are lower, and shipping
the trash out of state from there. Fifteen hundred tons is about 13 percent
of the city's total daily collection of 11,000 tons.
That proposal, though, is not sitting well in the Bronx, where the new
borough president, Adolfo Carrion Jr., said City Council members from the
Bronx would certainly call for hearings into why the borough was being
"The basis of the current way that we manage," Mr. Carrion said, "is
based on a fair-share principle - `you create this, you process this and
deal with it.' One shouldn't violate that. Second, we certainly shouldn't
put the burden of saving $7 million on the backs of a particular constituency
in a particular part of the city."
City officials have also begun exploring alternatives to Rudolph W.
Giuliani's plan to ship waste through a giant barge-to-rail transfer station
proposed for Linden, N.J. The Linden proposal has been delayed by New Jersey
regulators pending a series of investigations, and Mr. Doherty said he
believed that the ultimate viability of the project was now "very questionable."
Meanwhile, the states that receive New York's garbage say their patience
is wearing thin. Legislation is pending in Congress and in the Pennsylvania
General Assembly that could result in restrictions and tighter regulations
of so-called trash exports. Those bills could bring whole new rounds of
headaches and higher trash bills for the New York region.
Attempts to send the trash to closer landfills in New York or New Jersey
would not help much either, because disposal costs are generally far higher
closer to the city than in less densely populated areas.
What complicates New York City's trash story more than anything else
is that it has a kind of split personality - a long-term plan on the one
hand, and a short-term contingency system on the other, meant to be in
place only until the long-term system is built. And both face very different
kinds of troubles.
When Mr. Giuliani and Gov. George E. Pataki announced in 1996 that Fresh
Kills would close, the city came up with its long-term plan, centered on
the barge-to-rail transfer station in Linden. The Linden station would
take up to 10,000 tons of city garbage a day, and mile-long trash trains
would then transport it to landfills in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
Under that plan, transfer stations would be built in each borough -
to handle only that borough's trash - and barges would float it all serenely
through the city's waterways.
That $6 billion system, the city said, would take at least four years
to build, and so an interim solution, mostly relying on fleets of trucks,
was created. The residential trash- by-truck system requires about 264,000
outbound truck trips every year, according to a study by the Tri- State
Transportation Campaign, a coalition of environmental and planning groups.
The city's Independent Budget Office projected last year that the sanitation
budget would rise by more than 66 percent, to nearly $1 billion, from 1997
to 2004, primarily because of the increasing costs of out-of-city garbage
hauling. City officials concede that the trucking system is expensive and
does not help air quality or traffic congestion, but say it is only temporary.
From the beginning, however, the long-term plan was
plagued by doubts. An investigation by the New Jersey attorney
general's office said last fall, for example, that "serious questions"
had been raised about the Linden property, which is partly owned by the
son-in-law of Linden's mayor. The proposed system of transfer stations
also fell through, mainly because of community opposition. Mr. Doherty
said three new stations are being considered - one in Brooklyn near Coney
Island, and one each on either side of Newtown Creek, which divides Brooklyn
and Queens. Those proposals are all years away from regulatory approval
and completion, which means that parts of the city, even in a best-case
scenario, could have to rely on the short-term truck transport system for
perhaps another decade, Mr. Doherty said.
Meanwhile, waste industry experts say a consolidation in the private
waste-hauling industry and shrinking landfill space in the Northeast are
likely to push up the costs during that truck-dependent interim.
Over just the last four years, for example, the number of small private
trash-hauling companies that once dominated the garbage business in the
metropolitan area has plummeted as giant companies like Waste Management
Inc. and Allied Waste have bought out their competition. Waste Management
alone now controls about 32 percent of New York City's out-of-town trash
transport system. The company also controls about 38 percent of the waste-
disposal market within a 100-mile radius of New York City, up from 33 percent
in 1997, according to Chartwell Information Publishers, a market research
firm based in San Diego that tracks the waste industry.
"There's a limited number of exporters because the mom-and-pops are
being bought out by big guys, so when the city puts out to bid, it's usually
one of these big firms, and there are fewer of them because they keep merging,"
said Marjorie J. Clarke, an environmental consultant and scientist-in-residence
at Lehman College in Manhattan.
Less competition for trash hauling is in turn compounded by what waste
experts say will be a decreasing number of landfills willing to take the
city's garbage in years to come. Chartwell Information projects that constriction
of landfill space could push disposal costs up by more than 63 percent
by 2010 across a wide swath of the Northeast, especially in Pennsylvania,
which currently receives about 68 percent of New York City's garbage. (Fourteen
percent goes to Virginia, and the rest ends up in landfills and incinerators
in New York State, New Jersey and Ohio, according to the Department of
Mr. Doherty said he did not think that price increases for dumping the
city's trash would be as dramatic as that. But he conceded that delays
in building a long-term solution would inevitably raise the costs by an
"Nothing gets cheaper," Mr. Doherty said.
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