New York Times *** February 28, 2002

To City's Burden, Add 11,000 Tons of Daily Trash


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 trash transfers.

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 officials say.

"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 to reprocess.

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 singled out.

"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 Sanitation.)

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 unknown factor.

"Nothing gets cheaper," Mr. Doherty said.

BACK TO "City's Been Forced To Talk Trash Again," Daily News, 2/25/2002