Upper East Side — To some, Mayor Bloomberg’s Solid Waste Management Plan is a move in the direction of environmental justice that will relieve overburdened neighborhoods of handling the bulk of other New Yorkers' garbage. Others argue that the plan is set to ruin their neighborhood by bringing the trash there instead.

On Wednesday, June 15, citizens, community activists and politicians gathered on the basketball court of Asphalt Green Park to rally against the Marine Transfer Station (MTS) that the Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP, pronounced “swamp”) calls for locating on East 91st Street. Participants in the rally held up signs with slogans such as, “Fund classrooms/Not trash!” and “Don’t trash the park.” Many children attended, holding up signs of their own or running around on the Astroturf beside the court.

New York City produces about 25,000 tons of refuse every day. About half of it is generated by businesses, who pay for private companies to collect their waste. The rest of the garbage comes from residences served by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Until the closure of Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill in 2001, DSNY trucks carried residential trash to marine transfer stations, where it was loaded onto barges and floated to Fresh Kills.

As the city began to shut down Fresh Kills in the late 1990s, more and more residential garbage was diverted from the barge system to private waste transfer stations, where companies collected trash from DSNY trucks and loaded it onto long-haul trucks that carted it out of the city.

Bloomberg's SWMP, approved in September 2006, lays out the city’s solid waste management plan through 2025, addressing the areas of Waste Prevention and Recycling, Long Term Export, and Commercial Waste. The proposed East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station is part of an effort in SWMP to get the city's waste off the roads and onto barges again, and to make each borough responsible for its own waste. The SWMP calls for a total of four Converted Marine Transfer Stations, the others being at North Shore in College Point, Queens; Hamilton Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Bensonhurst in Southwest Brooklyn.

Is it a park?

East 91st was previously the site of an MTS from 1940 until its closing in 1999. Community members of the Upper East Side, many of whom have resided in the area since before the previous MTS closed and can recall its adverse effects, say that any densely-populated residential area is an inappropriate location for a waste station. In 2009, New York State Senator Liz Krueger posted a press release on the New York Senate website stating that the 91st Street location is the only of the four proposed sites where there is no commercial zone separating the facility from the closest residences.

The facility would be accessible by an entrance ramp bisecting the Asphalt Green complex, which some opponents of the facility argue, as a park, is subject to public doctrine. They challenged the city on this issue in court, claiming the MTS could not intrude on parkland without approval from the New York State Legislature. On June 7, the Appellate Division, First Department, upheld a lower court’s decision that Asphalt Green and Bobby Wagner Walk are not parkland, and therefore not subject to public trust doctrine.

The rally was held on Asphalt Green in part as a reaction to this ruling, with those in attendance arguing that the complex is in fact a park. Jennifer Ratner, community activist and one of the main rally organizers, mentioned to the crowd that in setting up for the event, the Asphalt Green staff had to ask youths playing a basketball pick-up game to leave.

Council Member Jessica Lappin of Manhattan’s 5th district, the first speaker at the rally, argued against furthering pollute the air of an area where public school children learn to swim for free and local residents are able to exercise.

“We have some of the worst air quality in the City of New York, not because I say so, because the Department of Health says so,” Lappin said, referencing the 2008-2009 New York City Community Air Survey that showed the air on the Upper East Side to have some of the highest pollutant concentrations. “So why on earth would we put up to 54 garbage trucks a day on York Avenue?"

Worries about truck traffic

The facility at East 91st Street would receive waste from four of Manhattan's 12 sanitation districts--those covering Times Square, Gramercy Park, Murray Hill, Stuyvesant Town, Sutton Place, Peter Cooper Village, the Upper East Side, Yorkville, Roosevelt Island and East Harlem. The garbage would be exported through barge and rail transport.

The garbage of the other eight sanitation districts is brought by truck to a waste-to-energy facility in Essex, New Jersey. Vito Turso, Deputy Commissioner for Public Information and Community Affairs at the DSNY, said the amount of waste that can go to Essex is limited by the capacity that Essex can rent to the city and a need to limit truck traffic and on city roads.

The April 2005 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the East 91st Street facility projects that the peak amount of truck trips per hour will actually be even higher than Lappin had expressed concern about: 56 trips per hour at about 9 am, with an estimate of 5-56 truck trips per hour during the mid morning. For other times of day, the FEIS estimates there to be 0-15 truck trips per hour in the late evening and zero in late afternoon or early evening.

Ratner said she had invited Speaker Quinn to speak at the rally, asking for her comment on the decision of the East 91st Street location. Although Quinn did not attend, her communications department handed out written statements stating that the building of MTSs was done with community input and that every neighborhood is expected to do its part. It also mentioned the recycling station that will be included in Speaker Quinn’s West Side district.

Following the rally, the office of the mayor also released a statement about the East 91st Street MTS.

"The East 91st St. Marine Transfer Station will allow us to deliver on the commitment we made to all New Yorkers to improve our solid waste management plan by making it more environmentally friendly, cost-effective, reliable, and fair to all five boroughs,” Julie Wood, spokesperson for the Mayor, stated via e-mail. “In order to achieve that fairness, each borough must manage its own waste – and that includes Manhattan. No exceptions."