The Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island was closed last year after a long and contentious battle between residents and city and state officials. But after the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, the site was re-opened to collect and sort through the massive amounts of debris barged over from the WTC site. As Amy Eddings from member station WNYC reports, Fresh Kills has taken on new meaning for those who live in Staten Island.
CURWOOD: The collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11th created an enormous pile of debris. New York officials selected the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island as the repository.
Staten Islanders never much liked being the major dump for Manhattan. And when Fresh Kills closed last year, after 54 often malodorous years, they thought they could breath easier. But, now as Fresh Kills has taken on its new role, feelings about the old city dump have changed. Amy Eddings of member station WNYC in New York reports.
[SOUND OF TRUCKS]
EDDINGS: Fresh Kills is a series of large, fenced in, grassy swells...the contours of approximately two billion tons of trash. Most of these hilltops are devoid of activity. But, this 175 acre section rumbles with action. Trucks cart in debris from the collapsed World Trade Center, and a backhoe sorts through a pile of twisted steel reinforcement rods.
Nearby are more than a dozen trailers that form a kind of on-site forensic anthropology lab. None of this was here before. Fresh Kills had received its last barge of garbage and was declared closed on March 22nd, an historic day for Staten Islanders who had been told in 1948 that the landfill was temporary.
But, September 11th was another historic day. While the Twin Towers' huge steel beams are being sent to recyclers, Fresh Kills has been reopened to take everything else.
ALLEE: This is the area where over the fire apparatus, most of the fire apparatus ends up.
EDDINGS: William Allee is Chief of Detectives of the New York City Police Department. He stands near a line of about thirty demolished fire engines and ladder trucks.
ALLEE: You can see the condition of the trucks. And these are the people that responded. And this is the vehicles that they came in. There's other trucks that are unrecognizable. These are recognizable.
[SOUND OF CONVEYOR BELTS]
(Photo: Staten Island Advance/Irving Silverstein)
EDDINGS: Chief Allee oversees about three hundred investigators at Fresh Kills. They work nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Dressed in white Tyvex suits and respirators, they stand next to six conveyor belts that have so far handled one million tons of debris. They pick out personal items, such as credit cards, ID's, rings and watches, and they look for human remains.
At least 46 victims have been identified through remains found here. Some family members have complained about their loved ones being found at a garbage dump, but Chief Allee sees it differently.
ALLEE: I'm tired of hearing about this is a people are coming to a dump. This isn't a dump; this is a special place. And it was closed. There is no garbage here.
EDDINGS: Twelve miles from Fresh Kills is a cluster of buildings that make up the Stapleton Homeport, an old naval base. Shortly after September 11th, its recreation center was transformed into a staging area for the workers at Fresh Kills. The center's operations were closed in mid-December after federal and city officials developed areas at the landfill for workers to shower, eat and get equipment. All that remains of the Homeport's role are large, gray cabinets filled with donated supplies, which volunteer Fran Auruti goes through.
[SOUND OF CABINET]
AURUTI: Toothbrushes...Toothbrushes and toothpaste. Yeah, we had a lot of that.
And then people were sending us-you know, the soaps you rob from the hotels and stuff-We got boxes and boxes of that.
EDDINGS: Donations of food, medical supplies and clothes poured in from people and businesses across the country and on Staten Island. So did volunteer workers. Flower bouquets and an American flag were placed near the landfill's entrance. And Staten Islanders, who had been very vocal about their hatred for the dump, suddenly found themselves re-thinking that term.
Ronnie Micciula who spearheaded the Homeport Support Services was one of them.
MICCIULA: A lot of the volunteers would come in and when they first came in they'd say, "We need to do something. We need to work with the people from Ground Zero." And I'd say, "Well, we don't work with that, but we work with people from the hill." And they'd look at us, and they say, "You mean the dump?" And I said, "We don't call it the dump here. It's not a dump."
EDDINGS: A spokesperson for the Staten Island Borough President's office which had long lobbied to shut Fresh Kills down, says, "There's been no complaints about it being temporarily reopened." Fran Auruti is a real estate broker who loathed showing people homes near the landfill. Even her outlook has changed.
AURUTI: Prior to September 11th if some of the people would have asked me the questions, "What is the landfill?", oh, I would have given them an earful. But, after that, what it is is so different than what it was.
EDDINGS: While the city needs Fresh Kills now, officials have once again promised that the need is temporary and that the landfill will once again be closed when the World Trade Center cleanup is completed. The promise is an expensive one. New York City used to spend about 43 dollars per ton to dispose of its 11,400 daily tons of garbage at Fresh Kills. It now pays about 63 dollars a ton to have private haulers take its garbage to incinerators and landfills in Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia.
Meanwhile, the city faces an estimated four billion dollar budget gap this fiscal year. But, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty says reopening Fresh Kills to save money is not an option.
DOHERTY: As the commissioner and a Staten Islander, I have no intention of reopening it. I don't even think about that, even in the worst conditions. I think the mayor will find ways of handling the budget that do not include reopening Fresh Kills. I mean, that is out of the question. That is not going to happen.
EDDINGS: While the city rethinks the future of its long term garbage export plan, it's also considering what to do with Fresh Kills. Commissioner Doherty says the city is reviewing three plans on what kind of parks, recreational facilities, or development might be appropriate. He did not rule out some way of honoring the landfill's role as the final resting place of remnants from the World Trade Center.
For Living on Earth, I'm Amy Eddings in New York.
[MUSIC: Peter Gabriel, "Of These, Hope", PASSION (Geffen - 1989)]
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