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New York City Outsourcing Incineration

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- by Dara Hunt

Congratulations to Energy Justice Network and other organizations on stopping a Covanta contract to incinerate DC waste in an Environmental Justice community. 

Unfortunately, we have not succeeded in stopping New York City’s plan, and a 20-year contract with Covanta Energy to transport and burn 800,000 tons per year, or more, of New York City’s putrescible waste in poorly filtered Covanta incinerators in Chester, PA, and Niagara Falls, NY.

This disposal strategy is part of New York City’s 20-Year, 2006 Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). The SWMP didn’t set aggressive waste reduction goals for New York City or establish concrete plans to reform the City’s inadequately regulated private waste industry.  A modest, 25 percent recycling target set in the SWMP has never been achieved – the City’s recycling rates remain at abysmal levels: 15-16 percent for City collected waste and around 24 percent for privately collected waste. Instead, the SWMP focused on building large and expensive, single-purpose waste transport facilities and long-term contracts to move waste to distant disposal sites.   

Many of us believe the plan’s focus on investment in new buildings and 20+ year waste transfer and disposal contracts takes the City in the wrong direction – tethering us to the lagging, high waste volume status quo. New York City needs to implement price incentives to create better waste behavior. We need aggressive goals and programs to help residents, businesses and government agencies reduce or divert much more waste. And the City needs to clean up private waste industry vehicles and operations through better regulation and oversight. 

Pledge 2 Protect, Residents for Sane Trash Solutions and other groups have additional concerns about the City’s plan to build one specific transport facility - a marine transfer station (MTS) for putrescible waste - in a highly populated and flood-prone residential neighborhood in Manhattan, at East 91st Street. The MTS will be located less than 400 feet from a public housing complex that flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.   

According to New York City’s consulting engineer, Greeley and Hansen, this MTS will be in FEMA flood zone A and its critical first floor will be 5.6 feet below the flood elevation recommended by FEMA and required by New York City code. Despite this dangerous location and elevation, the City has no plans to raise the MTS or make any structural changes to mitigate flood risk. Sea level along New York’s coastline is rising at almost twice the global rate. Increasingly intense and unpredictable storms are forecast for the Northeast. 

More than 22,000 people live within one quarter mile of the East 91st Street MTS. The neighborhood - part of Yorkville (often mischaracterized by opponents by presenting stats that include more affluent areas of upper Manhattan) - borders East Harlem and is one of the most densely residential areas in the City’s five boroughs. During Sandy, the community was flooded as much as four blocks inland. This area will flood again and residents fear that putrescible waste and MTS debris will contaminate flood water the next time around.  

One of the major goals of the SWMP’s MTS plan was to relieve neighborhoods that are truly overburdened by too many private waste trucks and transfer stations. When we learned that the East 91st Street MTS will do very little if anything to improve conditions in overburdened neighborhoods we were even more concerned about the costs and health and safety impacts of the plan. The logic of the SWMP MTS plan is that waste from one New York City borough should not be transported to or through other boroughs - increasing traffic, air pollution, noise, etc. Thus, a major reason to open a transfer station in Manhattan is to reduce traffic and waste volume in other parts of the City. The problem is, the East 91st Street MTS won’t do that to any measurable extent. 

Putrescible waste from 4 of 12 Manhattan districts will be delivered to the MTS (waste from the other 8 districts will continue to be transported and disposed of as it has been). The vast majority of waste destined for the MTS – more than three quarters of it - has NEVER gone to or through any other borough in New York City. Most of this putrescible waste is collected by the City and it goes directly to New Jersey – and from there most now goes on to landfill. Over half of the waste collected by private carters that MAY come to the MTS (if the carters decide to use the inconveniently located facility) also goes directly to New Jersey and not through any other borough of the City.  No one argues that the current system is ideal and should not be improved – but the MTS will NOT achieve the goal of reducing waste activity in overburdened New York City communities.                                  

Another troubling effect of the MTS plan is that truck routes to bring waste to East 91st will spread diesel emissions into many additional heavily populated neighborhoods throughout New York City and beyond.

Under the MTS plan, putrescible waste that is now trucked to New Jersey will be transported from as far as lower and Midtown Manhattan up and across town through the most gridlocked and populated areas of the City – and into increasingly residential neighborhoods.  

Once garbage trucks reach the MTS to tip, they will queue on a ramp that will bisect a soccer field used by schools from many City neighborhoods and a public/private sports and fitness facility (Asphalt Green) that provides free or subsidized programs for thousands of New York City kids.

After the trucks tip waste at the MTS it will be containerized and loaded on barges. These barges will run up and down the East River from East 91st Street to the Staten Island Container Terminal and back. The barges will be powered by tug boats. Even the best available (Tier 3-compliant) tugs emit 8 times more diesel particulate matter (and other diesel pollutants) than trucks that are 2007 EPA Highway Diesel Rule-compliant.  

The long barge route from the MTS to Staten Island will pass waterfront neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Roosevelt Island and Staten Island – spreading diesel emissions along the way. Once the barges and tugs reach the Staten Island Container Terminal, the containers will be unloaded and reloaded on freight trains. 

For those not familiar with New York City, this waste has already been on a long and almost circular journey. Waste will be trucked from as far South as 14th Street and as far West as 8th Avenue all the way up and across town to East 91st  Street through the most congested parts of Midtown and upper Manhattan. Then, after being loaded in containers, it will travel all the way back downtown on the East River – past the Southern tip of Manhattan and on to Staten Island. 

Once loaded on trains, the waste will travel more than 400 miles to Niagara Falls, NY and more than 125 miles to Chester, PA. But getting waste to the Chester Covanta incinerator isn’t a straight shot – waste containers must be unloaded in Wilmington, DE, and loaded on diesel trucks for the last leg of the trip to Chester.   

According to New York City’s Independent Budget Office, this MTS will triple the cost of processing waste. It’s very hard to see how this plan improves New York City’s dismal waste management system.

There are a number of strategies that would improve conditions for New York City neighborhoods and the environment. Reduction of total waste generated is essential, but other measures are needed to improve waste management practices in the near term, particularly in the City’s private waste industry. For example, private waste trucks must be forced to meet Local Law 145 emissions control standards, and excessively overlapping and polluting private carter truck routes need to be rationalized. The private waste industry needs better regulation overall. The Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition has provided valuable research and proposals to improve New York City's private waste industry. New York City residents need to provide support for these proposals and others – to help create the political will to adopt important waste management reforms.

Earlier this year, New York City launched the OneNYC plan which, among other initiatives, establishes a broad goal to send zero waste to landfill by 2023. This goal sets the stage for progress, but many questions remain. Detailed action plans to increase waste reduction and diversion rates have not been presented. More troubling, the plan does not specify what waste disposal approaches and technologies will be considered by the City to keep waste out of landfills.

Several years ago, New York City decided that incineration is too dirty to be used within its five boroughs. While implementing the Solid Waste Management Plan, however, elected officials and the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) had no problem deciding to send nearly a million tons of putrescible waste each year to be burned in aging and poorly filtered Covanta incinerators hundreds of miles from the City.

We need to ensure that New York City achieves its new waste reduction goal – and does so in a way that protects not just residents of the City’s five boroughs, but distant communities as well - and the environment.