The Coastal Post - July, 1998

Think Marin Has A Garbage Problem-Try New York City

By Jim Scanlon

On Thursday, May 7, 1998 two sanitation workers at the Fresh Kills Sanitary Landfill where 12,000 metric tons of New York City's garbage is deposited daily, became dizzy, delusional, nauseous. One worker lost consciousness. They were rushed to the local hospital and on the way, the paramedics attending them became ill. Other sanitation workers were rushed to the hospital and the paramedics attending them also were sickened. In all, nine workers at the largest dump in the history of the world, and ten emergency medical workers were hospitalized. All had elevated blood pressure, were disoriented, nauseous and vomiting.

All but two improved enough to be released that day after receiving oxygen. The other two were held for observation and released the next day. Initially it was thought that the illnesses were caused by inhalation of either methane or chlorine released from the fifty year old dump, but one worker said there was nothing unusual before the incident, that there was no odor. Hospital tests for both gases were inconclusive.

The incident relieved headline treatment in the Staten Island Advance the next day. The incredibly huge dump, one of the few man made structures visible from orbiting space craft, is a source of great concern for four hundred thousand Staten Islanders but few others. The New York Post was the only other city newspaper reporting the story. I was in New York at the time, staying in Harlem, and did not see anything on the subject on the 11 O'clock News. I did hear from others that the item was reported on television Thursday night, but not thereafter.

The Borough President of Staten Island visited the workers who had been overcome by the unknown toxic gas and was joined by the Mayor of New York Rudolph Giuliani. Longtime participants in this forum may remember a long running discussion here in response to an article written in the New York Times Magazine by John Tierney entitled Recycling Is Garbage. Tierney wrote a scathing attack on the recycling ethos as a form of religion and Mayor Giuliani quoted Tierney in justifying his non compliance with a state deadline to recycle 25% of the city's garbage by 1997. The city got as up to 14%, but then slipped back to 12. In doing so, the mayor saved some $25 million dollars which he used for other purposes. The fact that he deliberately broke the law was not mentioned.

At Staten Island University Hospital, Mayor Giuliani reportedly came out swinging and complained that the city was supposed to have shut down the dump 15 or 20 years before, but didn't. People in the neighborhood were right, he said [according to the Advance], they wanted it done and prior mayors said no. I said yes!

The Post did not follow up the story of the toxic gas from the dump, and the newspaper of record, the New York Times, never mentioned it---although it printed an editorial on the dump just a week before the incident and printed a letter in response to its editorial two days after. State environmental investigators and federal scientist from the Center For Disease Control are investigating the incident.

The Times editorial of May 1, 1998, After Fresh Kills, What? in a good example of clear, but limited thinking, points out the irony of the Mayors plan to finally close the dump, which has assumed the proportions of a small mountain range, 2,200 acres ...in some places 250 feet high...[on]...Mayor Giulianis last day in office[i.e. 2001] The gist of the Times editorial seems to be that holding the city's garbage for transshipment out of state will cause problems for residents in other boroughs--- boroughs which have votes on the Board of Estimate! Staten Island alone of the boroughs has no vote.

Staten Islanders, even Republican Staten Islanders are deeply suspicious of the city's promise to close the dump. They want the garbage to go somewhere else and fear having to cope with the dump interminably. Although the closure of the dump is written into law, they may perhaps remember that the city's requirement to recycle 25% of its waste too, was written into law.

The Times does not mention the cost of shipping an additional 12-13 thousand metric tons of garbage a day out of state. The city now spends $100 million a year and these costs could be expected to double or even triple. Also not mentioned is the possibility of pending federal legislation which would limit or even prohibit the export of garbage interstate. New York and New Jersey are the two big exporters. Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania are the resistant importers. Federal courts have struck down state restrictions on garbage imports. Federal legislation limiting garbage exports passed the U.S. Senate twice, but was not acted on in the House or Representatives due to opposition, mainly from the Congressional Delegation from New York.

Methane gas, possibly responsible for the toxic incident, is produced in the landfill in staggering amounts---5.3 million pound each day [30 million cubic feet]... about 2% of the total methane production on the entire planet. The Advance also notes the landfill produces 2,700 tons of volatile organic compounds a year some of which are known to cause cancer. (these numbers need to be checked -Jim Scanlon)

The city is now on the verge of obtaining approval from state and federal officials to burn or flare methane and other gases collected in specially drilled wells and piped to special incinerators where the gases will be burned at high temperature. There are serious concerns about the human health effects of the products of methane combustion, namely carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen, but the stench from the present dump is so overpoweringly nauseating, especially in summertime, that everyone concerned seems willing to try anything that has a chance of reducing it.

The stench may actually be worse than Staten Islanders report. I visit the area regularly, usually in winter or early spring and I smell the sickening smell when no one else can--at least on my first few days there---so it seems there is olfactory tolerance involved.

For years, Staten Islanders have reported health problems which seem to be associated with the dump: cases of cancer, autism, asthma, respiratory illnesses. But studies by federal scientists have been hampered by the difficulty of separating exposure to toxins from the dump, from exposure to the highly polluted air blowing from the heavily industrialized petrochemical corridor along the New Jersey coast just a few kilometers away.

Additionally, water percolating through the huge mound of garbage and who knows what, produces a brownish black fluid called leachate which has to be collected and treated. This treatment is difficult because the dump actually is on top of a salt marsh which filled and drained with the tide. The dump was the source of medical waste including used hypodermic needles and blood samples which washed on to New Jersey beaches several summers ago.

No one involved, state, federal, local officials, academics, activists seem to recognize or realize that a vital part of the waste problem is not to produce so much of it. Producers of waste do not pay for its disposal and therefore have no incentive to stop producing it. There is no serious recycling effort, and none will be possible in dense urban neighborhoods where high rises are exempt. Recycling is, after all, a stop gap at best and is subject to being disrespected by scofflaws like Rudolph Giuliani who might easily be labeled an environmental hypocrite or indicted as an environmental criminal.

The Times says that Dealing with the waste streams of the 21st Century is probably New York's most important unsolved environmental problem. The same can be said for our consumer civilization. However, the solution is not to inflict garbage on weaker and more powerless neighbors in a sort of reverse Imperialism. We get the benefit, you get the problem!

In order to allow deep draft container ships to access ports on Newark Bay, the New York/New Jersey Port Authority will have to find new disposal sites for the toxic, contaminated muck that continually fills the waters ways around New York Bay. Ocean dumping is no longer permitted.

One solution is to dig "borrow pits" in the waters surrounding Staten Island, the least populated political area and the site of the largest land dump in the history of the world.. The muck will be dumped in the pits and "capped" and hopefully, the cap will stay capped.

Excavated muck is currently being sent to Utah at a cost of $100 a square foot! Alternatives being considered are filling abandoned coal mines and dropping it into active volcanoes, like Monserrat in the West Caribbean

where the heat would hopefully fix the toxics into lava.

Without irony, the New York Times published an article "New Measure of Disparities: Poor Sanitation in Internet Era" noting the lack of basic sanitation in countries like. Afghanistan, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Congo, Egypt etc.

I believe one can safely predict that after Mayor Giuliani is elected later this year, the delays and difficulties in closing the dump will become evident. Staten Island is a kind of colony of Manhattan and is powerless with no vote on the Board of Estimate. They can be ignored and sacrificed, with, or course, the deepest regrets. Fresh Kills Sanitary Landfill, the biggest dump in the history of the world, will remain open, perhaps somewhat deodorized, as a monument to environmental insanity.

The City of New York has budgeted $350 million to close the landfill by December 31, 2001 and will have to spend an estimated $24 million a year until 2031. Exporting garbage will become increasingly more expensive and difficult in a changing regulatory climate.

It seems unthinkable that our culture of waste is capable of change without a catastrophe---which seems to be the way New York is headed. Suffocating under mountains of garbage, recycling will truly become a religion as Mayor Giuliani and John Tierney describe it--- desperate religion of coercion and perhaps consolation, irrationally prolonging a hopeless situation.

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