The End of An Era

A hundred years ago, New York City faced the 20th century with a confident sense of its place in the industrial world. Consolidating its five boroughs, it had a strong vision for city management. For example, six decades before Earth Day was even an idea, its city waste commissioner had put an end to ocean dumping of waste. The city wanted all its residents, rich and poor, to benefit from a sanitary waste disposal system as well as clean streets. Quite simply, New York was ahead of its time.

However, a change in the political winds brought less conscientious officials to power. As the nation moved through two world wars, ocean dumping - as well as landfilling and incineration - became the accepted modes of waste disposal. Later, in the face of environmentalism, the tide shifted again. One by one, the city began closing its incinerators and landfills. All that remained when the dust settled was the Fresh Kills Landfill.

As everyone knows, today that old war horse of a landfill is slated to close. The planned closure date - Dec. 31, 2001 - is fitting. As we face a new century and a new millennium, the city once again is investigating waste disposal options to improve its residents' quality of life, just as it had a century ago. Once Fresh Kills is closed, Staten Islanders no longer will have to live next to - or complain about - the 13,000 ton per day behemoth. Landfill gas (LFG), for instance, already is being captured and converted to fuel for homes across the city.

Last December, New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, R, unveiled the city's plan to close the landfill and ship its waste elsewhere. Long-term efforts to export New York City waste, the mayor asserted, would bring no more trash trucks to city streets and no more environmental impacts to the already besieged metropolis. But not everyone is buying it.

For years, heavy trash-importing states such as Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio have fought the influx of New York City trash with little success. These days, the issue is particularly contentious in Virginia, the nation's second-largest waste importer next to Pennsylvania. The Virginia legislature, as well as myriad conservation groups, have amassed a formidable opposition. But so far their efforts have not stopped the flow of trash. Several thousand tons of the New York City's waste already have been buried in Virginia landfills.

So with just more than two years remaining before that 2001 deadline, the debate continues. Many significant challenges remain before Fresh Kills can be laid to rest.

Checks and Balances As Hillary Rodham Clinton surely realizes, Guiliani is known for his fierce defense of New York interests. His waste management plan is no exception. The city plans to build three private barge unloading facilities for export to out-of-city sites from Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Two other facilities serving Staten Island and the Bronx would move waste for transport by barge or rail. Eventually, Guiliani says, each borough would handle its own waste for export, with the city's seven existing marine transfer stations put to full use. All waste handling operations would be fully enclosed, the city is quick to point out, with design and environmental controls mitigating any potential air quality, odor, or noise impacts.

To the waste industry, the deal is sweet as well. Waste Management Inc. (WMI), Houston, has been the undisputed beneficiary of Fresh Kills' closing. Despite the internal problems the company has suffered recently, the company already has been awarded two contracts to export the city's waste, as well as a bid to construct at least one of the barge unloading facilities.

The communities that receive the trash also are benefiting in at least one way. As part of the city's waste plan, no trash will be exported to and dumped in out-of-state landfills without a host-community agreement. Although the people in those communities might argue about the negative aspects of living near such a landfill, hard numbers tell a different story. A host-community agreement, plus ample tipping fees, equals revenue. At the Charles City County Sanitary Landfill, for example, garbage disposed in 1998 raised approximately $4 million, one-third of the county's operating budget.

But this is just one side of the story, and not the side that gets the headlines. Virginia is a state that once quietly took in millions of tons of out-of-state waste, long before it was decided that Fresh Kills would close. Now that the notion of New York City garbage arriving by barge is a distinct reality, the citizens of Virginia - and their political representatives - have sat up and taken notice. Of concern are the additional trash trucks that would crisscross the state (Guiliani promised no new trash trucks in New York City, not anywhere else) and the potentially leaky garbage barges. One barge already has leaked into the state's historic James River last year.

In an initiative championed by Virginia Governor James Gilmore, R, the state passed laws this spring that set a cap on the amount of waste that could be imported. "New York cannot refuse to dispose of its own garbage in New York and then complain that the commonwealth is attempting to regulate the disposal in Virginia," argued state Attorney General Mark Earley, R, in a recent federal court filing.

Soon after the laws passed, WMI, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Allied Waste and other waste hauling interests sued. WMI operates five of the seven large regional landfills in Virginia that would accept New York City waste. Of course the plaintiffs' claim was that the Virginia statutes were in violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. In July, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction that blocked enforcement of the laws while the case plays out in appellate court. At press time, odds were in favor of the plaintiffs.

"It was clear to the judge that the laws were unconstitutional," says Chaz Miller, director of state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C., which filed an amicus brief on the side of the haulers.

But if it was so clear, why is the state even going down such a worn path, trying to limit the movement of waste?

"It's politics," Miller says. "By the state's own numbers, Maryland, North Carolina and D.C. ship twice as much [to Virginia] as New York City. Garbage is easy to run against. You have some members of the Virginia legislature that are sincerely concerned about landfills, but some are using this to further their own personal goals."

Virginia politicians say that the argument isn't about commerce, but about environmental protection. Opposition to the state restrictions "challenges Virginia's right to protect her waterways and landscape from the uncontrolled expansion of landfills," Virginia Sen. John Warner, R, said recently. "We must strike a balance between the rights of free enterprise to deal in waste and the rights of citizens of the states to protect themselves from the negative impacts on our quality of life."

In New York City's communities, the issues are similar. Some citizens have reacted angrily to Guiliani's proposals. Brooklynites have attacked the plan, arguing that a new waste transfer facility would derail an ongoing effort to revitalize the borough's waterfront. Particularly explosive are arguments of environmental racism that the city would site new facilities in poor or minority areas. Other complaints charge that the city has not presented enough environmental impact information, something the city has said it will do.

Adding fuel to the fire is the continuing question of whether Congress will pass interstate waste legislation. The senate has pushed for some action to restrict the movement of waste across state lines, but such measures are likely to stall and eventually die in the face of a big election year.

It appears that the waste industry giants are weathering the storm so far, but are they really? All this contention makes for a fairly uncertain climate in which to do business. If restrictive measures were enacted or enforced on a local or national level, which could happen at any moment, the effects on investments, perceptions and one's position in the marketplace would be problematic and possibly disastrous.

"Everyone said we should close Fresh Kills until they understood that it meant the trash would have to go someplace else," says Martha Hirst, the city's deputy commissioner of solid waste.

Shutting the Doors Meanwhile, the city is actually ahead of schedule in its plan to close the landfill, Hirst says. Two of the landfill's four sections have been completely capped and already are going to seed. The city is working on the closure of the other two sections, only one of which still is taking waste.

In many ways, the actual capping and closure is "fairly standard," says Greg McCarron, project manager at SCS Engineers' West Nyack, New York office. McCarron worked on the closure of the first two landfill sections, which cost more than $20 million apiece. (Malcolm Pirnie, White Plains, N.Y., and Woodward Clyde, Denver, were awarded the contracts for the other sections.) Capping required six inches of daily cover, a foot of intermediate cover, 6 to 12 inches of grading soil, topped with a 40 mil high-density polyethylene (HDPE) geotextile. Above that layer went another 2-foot layer of soil mix, capped with 6 inches of topsoil and grass.

SCS Engineers also worked with Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J., to discern other data about the landfill and shape post-closure activity. Work included identifying wetland areas, determining native plant species, developing stormwater management plans and designing "habitat islands." The firm also helped to develop LFG migration pathways. About 400 wells dot the landfill mining gas for conversion to fuel. A GSF Energy facility, for example, collects up to 10 million cubic feet per day of LFG from a 400-acre portion of the landfill, which produces enough natural gas to meet the energy requirements of 12,000 Staten Island homes. The process of energy recovery, according to the Austin, Texas-based company, also eliminates volatile organic compounds (VOCs), sulfur compounds and other potentially harmful liquids. The city also is laying pipe to control leachate and channel it to a treatment plant.

This fall, the city will begin negotiating the landfill's end use and design. Hirst says that recreational active or passive use of the site is likely, but that it would require "substantial engineering" to get to that point. The landfill site has been identified as important to estuary resources, particularly migratory birds.

Despite the remediation and mitigation activity occurring at Fresh Kills, the word "environment" still comes up more often in relation to the Virginia sites that will accept New York City waste than the place from which that waste is being diverted. "New York City is operating an unpermitted landfill in a wetland," EIA's Miller says. "They're trying to do the right thing; people are forgetting that this is a public health issue."

A recent conference on the Fresh Kills' closure highlighted this corner of the debate. One study showed that when compared to a demographically similar area elsewhere in New York City, the incidence of colon, lung and other types of cancers was 10 percent to 55 percent higher on Staten Island. (However, there was no significant discrepancy in cancers among those who lived right next to Fresh Kills and those who lived somewhere else on Staten Island.)

In the meantime, New York's recycling rate has risen, according to the state. In the shadow of the Fresh Kills closure, New York City has beefed up its recycling program, accepting a wider range of materials such as mixed paper and bulk metal. In the spring, collection will move from biweekly to weekly.

"With all of that material, there should be more recycling than refuse," Hirst says. This summer the state announced that it had reached its 42 percent recycling rate goal. But the high number already has raised some skeptical eyebrows. State recycling activists have questioned the ability to maintain this rate in the face of increasing waste services privatization, which might lead to cutbacks in municipal programs. Unstable recyclables markets are another factor.

No one debates whether glass bottles, plastic or aluminum cans are a commodity, but trash is, and always has been, a different story. The city's viewpoint is clear: "Trash is a commodity," Hirst says. "I'm a New York City resident. My trash is no different than my sister's household in the Mojave Desert in California. We just have more of it. We're going to handle it carefully and dispose of it in appropriately designed facilities."

Hirst reminds naysayers that for a burg of more than 7 million people, New York City has spent many years disposing of its own waste. It would continue to have in-city disposal if it was feasible economically and environmentally, she argues. "We have been self-sufficient in this regard. We no longer can be."

In the absence of total recycling or an environmentally sound and affordable way to eviscerate solid waste, the city has little choice but to find alternate landfill space. But even if everyone can understand that in theory, there always will be those with convincing and not-so-convincing reasons for not wanting the trash in their backyards.

Perhaps, instead of looking back at the New York of a century ago, or even a year ago, the industry should look forward. While the haulers, the politicians and the enviros are fighting it out in court, people still will generate waste. It must go somewhere. As the New York Times recently editorialized, "Dealing with the waste stream in the 21st century probably is New York's most important unsolved environmental problem."

One thing is certain. As long as interstate battles continue in Virginia, New York or anywhere the amount of waste exceeds capacity, Fresh Kills Landfill - or at least the issues surrounding it - never will be fully closed.