Air Date: Week of July 16, 1999
New Yorkers are preparing to shut down the world’s biggest landfill, and as Neal Rauch reports, the closure presents a heap of practical and political problems. No one in or out of state seems to want New York trash, and the city’s minority communities say they’re not prepared to be dumped on again.
CURWOOD: New York City is preparing to close the world's largest garbage dump. The massive landfill on Staten Island, called Fresh Kills, has been processing the city's [trash] for the past 50 years, and its bags of garbage and debris are taller than many office towers. And when it shuts down at the end of 2001, it will leave a big problem: what to do with the 8,500 tons of trash Fresh Kills now handles every day. Neal Rauch reports.
RAUCH: The Fresh Kills landfill sits on the westernmost edge of Staten Island, a semi-rural stretch 15 miles from midtown Manhattan. Four mountains of rotting trash here cover 1,200 acres, with the tallest one expected to rise as high as a 25-story building.
GLEASON: They reported to us that you can see it from outer space.
RAUCH: Phil Gleason, Director of Landfill Engineering for the New York City Department of Sanitation, says there are 2 main environmental problems created here as at any landfill. There are the gases produced by decomposing trash, and rainwater that percolates through the garbage and leaks out as a brown, foamy, smelly liquid. These will linger for decades after Fresh Kills closes.
RAUCH: Water flows into this multi-stage treatment plant. From a catwalk above a pool, Phil Gleason says it's a challenge to keep the polluted water, called leachate, from leaking into the surrounding waterways, because older landfills like this one weren't required to have a lining.
GLEASON: The equivalent of what we've done here is make use of a lot of natural features, which are these underlying clay deposits beneath the landfill, as well as putting in a cutoff wall, a subsurface wall around the perimeter that ties into this clay. So that actually keeps the leachate from escaping.
RAUCH: The leachate is then collected from the landfill through a system of subsurface pipes. Six to seven hundred thousand gallons of it are pumped into the water treatment plant each day.
RAUCH: Workers install a gas collection well. There are already 500 wells here, with another 200 on the way.
GLEASON: When garbage decomposes, it lets off 2 principal gases, methane and carbon dioxide. In addition, there's a little more of -- there are other trace compounds that are also let out, and that's what really creates the odors.
RAUCH: Which are quite prevalent.
GLEASON: Oh yes, very prevalent. (Laughs)
RAUCH: The landfill puts out upwards of 35 million cubic feet of gas a day.
GLEASON: We mine the gas. We have a plant that processes the gas, and separates out the methane from the carbon dioxide. It's sold as natural gas on Staten Island.
RAUCH: Right now, about a third of the gas is used for cooking and heating by some 14,000 households. Eventually, most of the gas will be mined and sold in this way.
RAUCH: In the meantime, the excess gas is burned off through a system of 6 flares, 50-foot chimneys around the landfill. Without this, the odors would be much worse. There are no foul-odors on this mountain of trash, 1 of 2 that was closed in the early 90s. Now, the third of the 4 mountains is in the process of being shut down.
GLEASON: As part of the closure work, what we have to do is put in what we call a final cover over the landfill. And that consists of multiple layers of material.
RAUCH: The first would be a layer of plastic, to keep the gases from getting out into the air and to keep rain water from getting in. To keep water from accumulating on top, the next layer, called the drainage net, is placed on the plastic.
GLEASON: We then put about another 2 feet of soil down, followed by 6 inches of topsoil over that, followed by seeding the area, maybe plantings.
RAUCH: Grasses and shrubs can be planted here, but not trees. The roots could tear into the plastic cover, or interfere with the gas collection pipes. So the land won't be able to return to anything like it's natural state, and buildings can't be constructed here, either. Much of the material in older landfills consisted of cinders from coal and trash incinerators that was stable enough to support structures, but here it's estimated that the tallest mountain, 250 feet of decomposing garbage, could eventually sink by as much as 50 feet. A likely scenario, therefore, would be to create recreational areas, such as parks, ball fields, and even trails.
RAUCH: Natural wetlands still exist on parts of the Fresh Kills property that were never filled in, while other sections that were filled but not piled with garbage have returned to a wetland state. Endangered red-tailed hawks, long-eared owls, and harbor herons nest here. Phil Gleason points out that these areas have become a wildlife refuge because the landfill keeps people away.
GLEASON: If you take a look around, you'll find out we have access to the waterways. The waterways here are actually part of the significant coastal habitat area, so they do have a high ecological value. That's something that you don't find lots of those areas around in New York City.
RAUCH: It will take 5 years to close Fresh Kills. The final cost will be about $1 billion. That's in addition to the millions more it will cost to dispose of New York's waste after Fresh Kills closes. Each day 8,500 tons of trash is still delivered here, though 3 times as much came here a decade ago.
RAUCH: Now, most of that garbage, produced by the business sector, goes to transfer stations like this one in Red Hook, a low-income neighborhood in south Brooklyn. Residents in this densely-populated area have to put up with rumbling, odorous garbage trucks delivering the trash, which is then loaded onto larger, even more intrusive trucks that take the garbage to out-of-town landfills. As Fresh Kills closes down, the Sanitation Department has an interim plan to divert more and more of its refuse to these transfer stations, mostly located in poor neighborhoods around the city. Community activists fear that this plan will become permanent. But in Red Hook, they're even more unhappy with the long-term proposal, to build a new state-of-the-art transfer facility here. John McGettrick is co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association.
McGETTRICK: The city is attempting to impose on us the largest garbage transfer station on the east coast.
RAUCH: Although it would be an enclosed facility in which trash would be shipped out of the city in enclosed containers by barge or rail, refuse would still arrive here in smaller, open barges. At a Sanitation Department hearing at City Hall, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez says minority neighborhoods have dealt disproportionately with the city's garbage for a long time.
VELAZQUEZ: If you look at the statistic, it is obvious that waste transfer facilities are highly concentrated in communities of color. This plan proposes to increase the environmental inequity by potentially diverting more than 65,000 tons of additional waste through them each day. Where is the fairness in that?
HIRST: That's not at all what's happening.
RAUCH: Martha Hirst is the Sanitation Department's Deputy Commissioner for Solid Waste.
HIRST: Those facilities are clustered in communities that are zoned to have them. They are located in industrial and manufacturing areas of the city. Is it also the case that there is housing that is lower-income housing, and that therefore developed around these locations, which have always been zoned in that way? That's the case.
RAUCH: Hirst points out that the number of transfer stations has gone down substantially in recent years, and she sees the new barge-fed facility leading to even more closings of the older, truck-fed kind. She says the city is trying to cut the amount of garbage it produces through a waste reduction program, and New York hopes to expand recycling to 25% of the waste stream, though that's nowhere near the 40% and more that environmentalists are calling for. The city also has to deal with strong resistance to the plan to send trash that would have gone to Fresh Kills to out-of-town dumps, even though garbage from city businesses has been disposed of that way for years. Martha Hirst says the recipient communities actually stand to gain.
HIRST: There is certainly an economic benefit to having such facilities. The people in Charles City, Virginia, talk about that all the time. And you see the schools that have been built, and you see people talking about the tax base that has been enhanced. That's not to say you don't have to do it right.
RAUCH: But most potential recipients don't seem convinced. Yet while no one wants New York City's garbage, including New Yorkers, officials promise that the last tonnage to be dumped here at Fresh Kills will arrive on December 31st, 2001. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.
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