Amid a storm of flash bulbs and fanfare, Staten Island's infamous Fresh Kills landfill received its final barge load of New York's waste on March 22. Reporters called it the end of an unwelcome era, citing the landfill's controversial 53-year history and the 150 million cubic yards of waste buried at what originally was intended to be a “temporary” disposal site.
But this event also marked the beginning of an era in New York's waste management story: an era of exportation, landfill closure procedures and monitoring.
Now in full swing, the city's “interim” waste management plan is founded on the principle of “borough self-sufficiency,” which restricts garbage shipments from one borough to another. Under the interim plan, city sanitation workers pick up and transport 13,000 tons of residential waste per day to 15 privately owned transfer stations located in and around the city.
Although the city has signed separate contracts with each transfer station, the 15 stations are owned by only seven waste haulers, including Waste Services of New York, an Allied Waste Industries, Scottsdale, Ariz., company; Waste Management of New York Inc., a Waste Management Inc., Houston, company; Solid Waste Transfer & Recycling, Newark, N.J.; TransRiver Marketing Co., Newark, N.J.; IESI NY Corp., an IESI Corp., Haltom City, Texas, company; ACS Services Inc., an Onyx Environmental Services LLC., Lombard, Ill., company; and Tully Environmental Inc., Corona, N.Y.
From these companies' transfer stations, the waste will travel to disposal and incineration facilities located in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey. The citywide average cost per ton for export is $64.11 — nearly 50 percent higher than the $43 per ton disposal fee at Fresh Kills.
Despite increased costs, Fresh Kills' closing marks a huge victory for New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, New York Governor George Pataki and Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari. To settle a 1996 lawsuit brought in federal district court by Molinari, Giuliani and Pataki promised to close Fresh Kills by Dec. 31, 2001. The settlement also included specific milestones — all of which Giuliani and Pataki met — toward phasing-out trash shipments to the landfill.
“We have kept that promise and even exceeded our goals by closing the landfill ahead of schedule,” Pataki told onlookers at the “last barge” ceremony in March.
But not everyone is happy with the interim export plan that expedited Fresh Kills' closure. In Pennsylvania, where 50 active landfills import more than twice as much garbage as any other state, legislators are working to stem the flow of New York's waste. Governor Tom Ridge has called for a moratorium on landfill permits and is pushing for the legal tools to enforce road safety and “quality of life” standards for residents affected by trash importation. Additionally, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., has reintroduced a bill that would give state governments the power to limit the influx of trash.
Nonetheless, New York's sanitation department is confident that its interim export plan is not threatened. “Our position is that garbage is protected by interstate commerce,” says Kathy Dawkins, deputy director of public information for the department. “We have a contract that requires our vendors to dispose of waste for the life-span of the contract, and we're confident the vendors will fulfill these terms.”
While the interim plan primarily uses trucks to transport New York's waste, the long-term plan will employ both railroads and barges, according to the sanitation department. Set to be implemented by 2005, the long-term plan will use five existing marine transfer stations to barge approximately 6,500 tons of New York's waste per day to a private transfer station in Linden, N.J. The remaining 6,500 tons per day will be transported out-of-state by rail or barge.
Meanwhile, back at Fresh Kills landfill, the landscape is changing rapidly. Within 24 hours of the last barge's voyage, the final 600 tons of New York garbage were buried beneath a blanket of clean dirt, awaiting a permanent cap. Already, two of Fresh Kills' four sections have been capped permanently. A third section is being prepared for its final cover, and the fourth section will be capped within the next five years, Dawkins says.
At its height, Fresh Kills employed 680 people. Today, only 450 employees remain. And, “as we continue to manage the closure, we'll have to continue to evaluate our staffing needs,” Dawkins says.
Currently, the sanitation department operates two gas collection systems at Fresh Kills and sells enough landfill gas to KeySpan, New York, to power 15,000 homes citywide.
And, migratory birds — indigenous to the wetlands on which Fresh Kills is built — have begun to return to some of the landfill's pristine, outlying areas. “Every year, the [New York-based] Audobon Society goes in and counts birds,” Dawkins says. “They've seen more than 200 species.”
But the picture is not as rosy for once-active portions of the landfill. “These areas won't be developed for 20 years,” she says. “We've said all along that we would be monitoring the landfill for at least the next 30 years.”
Still, Staten Island officials have high hopes for the land. “We might plant wildflowers indigenous to Staten Island over Fresh Kills,” says Dan Master, Molinari's legal counsel. “We took Fresh Kills from nature. It's time to give it back.”