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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

Environment

A Letter About Lead Poisoning


Dear Commissioner Thomas Frieden:

You have gotten off to a promising start in one of the City's toughest jobs, Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Just look at your list of accomplishments so far.

You aggressively took on the battle to get New Yorkers to stop smoking -- advancing landmark prohibitions on smoking in restaurants and bars, boosting cigarette taxes and even distributing nicotine patches to help New Yorker's kick the habit.

You have been systematically building up New York City's disease surveillance system -- to insure that the city gets the earliest possible warning of infectious disease outbreaks and unthinkable medical emergencies.

And you have been quick to respond to any report suggesting that Severe Acute Respiratory Disease, or SARS, might be trying to secure a toehold in our city.

You have done all this while absorbing tough budget cuts at your agency, and as you work to complete a smooth merger of two former departments that now fall within your portfolio.

So it's understandable that you may just have been too busy to take on the important battle of protecting New York City children from lead poisoning.

But this issue too deserves your attention. And the time is now, I respectfully suggest, for you to make room on your overloaded priority list to come to the rescue of thousands of city youngsters who are unnecessarily suffering from the preventable health impacts of exposure to toxic lead in paint.

THE CHALLENGE OF TOXIC LEAD

As you know, more than 6,200 children with elevated lead levels were newly identified and reported to your department in 2000. Independent estimates suggest that the total number of city children with blood-levels about the 10 micrograms per deciliter threshold is probably double that amount. As has been well-established by the medical community for more than four decades, and as your department has long-acknowledged, elevated blood lead levels can "result in long-lasting neurological damages that may be associated with learning and behavioral problems and with lowered intelligence."

The problems of lead poisoning are not equally distributed across the city. Neighborhoods like Bedford Stuyvesant/Crown Heights, East New York, Williamsburg/Bushwick and East Flatbush/Flatbush (in Brooklyn) and Jamaica and Southwest Queens (in Queens) have for years been disproportionately affected. About 95 percent of the lead-poisoned children identified in the department's 2001 annual report, Preventing Lead Poisoning In New York City, were Black, Hispanic or Asian.

No wonder then that a 1993 Mayor's Advisory Committee Report concluded that "[c]hildhood lead-paint poisoning may be the most significant environmental disease in New York City, in terms of the numbers of cases, the severity of the medical damage created, and the personal, social and economics costs it imposes."

In a recent profile of you, Richard Perez-Pena of the New York Times noted that, like Mayor Bloomberg, you "live on the data... [and] believe in the numbers." So please take a look at the data and numbers concerning elevated lead levels in New York City, and tell us what you think.

Thankfully, the number of reported cases of lead poisoning has declined in recent years.

But isn't it a disgrace in 2003, in the greatest city in the nation, that thousands of children will suffer the intellectual and behavioral burdens from new exposures to long-lasting leaded paint in their apartments and homes?

And what about the latest data, just published in the medical journals?

Have you seen the April 17, 2003 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which reports on a study of children in Rochester, New York -- finding that children suffer intellectual impairment even at blood-lead levels below 10 micrograms per deciliter? Another study, completed at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, also released last month, reached similar conclusions. An author of that study, Bruce Lanphear, concluded: 'There is no magic number for lead poisoning; the science shows that any lead exposure hurts fetuses and young children."

I'm sure your excellent staff can pull together all of the latest research data for you. They make a compelling case for further action by New York City to do everything that it can to end exposures to toxic lead in paint without further delay.

NEW YORK CITY'S ANEMIC LEAD LAW

Unfortunately, existing City law -- Local Law 38 --does not do what is necessary to reduce the lead threat to New York City youngsters.

In 1999, a divided City Council enacted a new lead law, weakening an earlier city statute. The 1999 law limited lead "hazards" to peeling paint, placed no duty on landlords to prevent poisoning from lead dust, contained week training and certification provisions, shifted the burden from landlords to tenants to know about lead hazards in the dwelling and set out extended time frames for enforcement of lead paint violations -- among numerous other gaps.

It was no surprise then that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told city officials in 2000 that the new law will probably result in additional cases of lead poisoning. "I believe that Local Law 38, as currently written, falls short of the protection that children deserve and need," said then EPA Regional Administrator Jeanne Fox. The law, she wrote, contained critical loopholes, such as the failure to require trained workers for lead abatement activities and the failure to mandate follow-up testing to insure that the lead abatement work was properly completed.

With such concerns in mind, a diverse coalition of health groups, children's' organizations and environmental activists got together with the new City Council to reform the weakened statute. Leading the charge have been the N.Y. Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, NYPIRG and West Harlem Environmental Action. The city's medical community, spearheaded by long-time lead clinician Dr. John Rosen and others, has also made its voice heard in support of a strengthened lead paint law.

The result is Intro. 101, the N.Y. City Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Act. Introduced last year by Councilmember Bill Perkins and his colleagues, this statute has more than 30 co-sponsors. It would close more than two dozen gaps in the existing lead law -- expanding the definition of "lead hazards" to any condition that causes exposure to lead from lead-contaminated dust, requiring landlords to prevent (and expeditiously correct) such hazards, and mandating safe work-practices during lead clean-ups, among other things.

As you know, this legislation has been bogged down in the City Council for more than a year.

Do you think that the lengthy delay that has prevented even a vote by the full Council on this bill has anything to do with the significant campaign contributions that some in the real estate industry have made to key City Council members? A March 2003 report by Common Cause found that a group of council members received $160,000 from real estate organizations that oppose the new lead legislation.

I'm sure you agree that this isn't a great way to make health policy.

HERE'S WHERE YOU CAN HELP

After much delay, a hearing on Intro 101 is now expected to be held in June. It is the perfect time for you to wade in on this issue.

I know how busy you will be over the next few months -- with budget issues, SARS, West Nile virus, AIDS and so forth.

And everyone fighting for a tougher lead paint law is aware of the significant efforts already underway in your department to reduce childhood lead poisoning.

But I urge you to please take a close look at this legislation.

From everything I can tell, the medical community is strongly in favor of Intro. 101. But you are the city's top doctor. And the lead legislation is an issue that cries out for your attention.

If you or your staff have technical questions or suggested revisions, please share them now with Councilmember Perkins and the bill's other key sponsors.

And if, as I hope you are supportive of the bill, please make the time in your schedule to put the power of your position behind this legislation.

The crises and challenges you are facing and are likely to face over the course of your tenure are enormous. So is your potential to do great things for this city. Passage of Intro. 101 and the elimination of lead poisoning here deserve to be on the list of significant health advances that you and Mayor Bloomberg helped to orchestrate.

Sincerely,
Eric A. Goldstein

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunts Point’s Waterfront Dreams


The East River is not really a river. Technically, it is a tidal strait, connecting New York Harbor with Long Island Sound. At a bend in this non-river are a couple of Bronx neighborhoods that have been treated as non-entities, subjected to a century of industrialization and two generations of waterfront abuse and neglect -- Port Morris and Hunts Point. They have the distinction of being the waterfront neighborhoods with the least amount of waterfront access of any in New York City.

“With only a tiny sliver of waterfront land set aside for the public,” says Paul Lipson, executive director of The Point Community Development Corporation, “the 11,000 residents and 16,000 workers who share the peninsula have virtually no space at the water's edge for recreation, relaxation, or exercise.”

The waterfront of these communities stretches 3.5 miles between the Harlem River Rail Yards to the south and the Hunts Point Terminal Market to the east. To the north along the Bronx River sits the Sheridan Expressway, which blocks access to the Bronx River.

The whole area is probably one of the few in the city where there are more solid waste handling facilities than bodegas. It has the largest food distribution center in the nation, which brings in so many trucks that the communities suffer among the highest asthma rates in the city.

There are currently some $500 million worth of city projects slated for the area, though it is difficult to see how they would result in any meaningful gains for the residents – the projects include improving the truck market , bringing in the Fulton Fish Market, and expanding the Hunts Point Sewage treatment plant.

A highly organized and energetic community as lives here, though, can not just throw off sparks but make potentially incredible things happen. Why expect anything less? This is the community that gave New York salsa music, and was home to one of the first amusement parks in the city.

THE FISH MARKET

The relocation of the Fulton Fish Market from Lower Manhattan to Hunts Point has raised the concerns of local residents, advocacy groups and elected officials alike. Congressman Jose Serrano, for instance, has drawn attention to the likely air quality impacts of moving the truck-based seafood market into a community that suffers from high volumes of truck traffic already. Nearly a half century ago, the city relocated the Washington Market (the major produce market) from Lower Manhattan to create the Hunts Point Cooperative Market. This facility now handles approximately one-half of the food consumed in the entire metropolitan region each day.

The city’s investment in Hunts Point also has the potential to build community amenities into this series of public works such as the “South Bronx Greenway” which will connect the Bronx River and Randall’s Island, which, just off the southern tip of the Bronx peninsula, is emerging as the Central Park of the East River. According to Omar Freilla of the Sustainable South Bronx, the city is on the right track.

“We now have official buy-in from the city,” said Freilla, “which is critical because they are the largest landowner on the peninsula. At the Fish Market site they have reserved 50 feet at the waterside as an esplanade.” How the water’s edge of this project is designed, noted Freilla, will impact the actual width of the eventual Greenway. A vertical bulkhead reconstruction, for instance, could accommodate the entire 50-foot width. But if there is a “rip-rap” edge (typically composed of large rocks or boulders in a gradual downward slope from land to the river bed, then the Greenway could be significantly smaller. Use of a rip-rap edge, in fact, would also interfere with the opportunity to use the waterfront to move freight in that a boat coming in for a pick-up or drop-off might essentially run aground on the rocky slope.

Is there a chance that the fish market might enhance the emissions reduction infrastructure already in the neighborhood? Maybe, but it is still too soon to know.

“It would be difficult,” said Gerry Bogacz of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council, the regional coordinated transportation planning agency for downstate New York which is studying a possible freight ferry for Hunts Point. “The shippers involved are based all over the region and country. It is therefore hard (impossible?) to impose emissions reduction measures on their vehicles.”

But to clean up the air it is not as if the community is starting from zero, notes Bogacz. “There have been efforts, which we've been part of, to [provide incentives to] Bronx shippers to consider alternative fuels. The truck electrification pilot seems to be one of the most promising steps for the market.”

WHERE IS OLMSTED WHEN YOU NEED HIM?

Frederick Law Olmsted supposedly took the lessons he learned from creating Central Park and applied them in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and what he viewed as his greatest innovation had nothing to do with the park itself, but with the parkways leading to the park – Eastern Parkway, and then Ocean Parkway, which connects to Coney Island.

In the 130 years since Prospect Park was created, we still have not demonstrated that we can create the connectivity to parks that we need to. The construction of Hudson River Park shows what happens when designers don’t deal with the access issues related to getting across highways, and the planned development of Brooklyn Bridge Park shows that access issues do not solve themselves. What the South Bronx may need most is a connection to Randall’s Island to help create the feeling that you are a part of something, rather than just stuck in the middle of a neighborhood characterized by dead-end streets.

This year, the reauthorization of the federal Transportation Bill known as TEA-21 creates a great opportunity for all of these transportation innovations and investments to get the funding they deserve: clean fuels, water transit, bikeways and greenways. There is perhaps no better way to honor the memory of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose landmark legislation 12 years ago woke us up from the “highway haze” that ruled transportation policy since the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

Growing up on 42nd Street young Moynihan was 12 years old before he knew the Hudson River flowed just a few blocks west of his apartment. Let’s hope 60 years after Moynihan’s awakening to the Hudson that today’s generation of city leaders, civil servants and urban planners can make these connections through the great wall along the waterfront of the Bronx. Thousands of 12-year-olds must live along this stretch of waterfront suffering the same detachment. Whether aspiring salsa musician or eventual senator, or simply would-be recreational rower, the East River belongs to all of them.

To read more about the South Bronx - and to contribute your own news and views, as well as reports of potholes - go to the South Bronx Gazette, the second of our Community Gazettes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recycling Hangs Tough


One year after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's surprise proposal to eliminate the household recycling of metals, glass and plastics, the city's recycling program refuses to surrender.

In fact, recycling and solid waste experts are now cautiously optimistic regarding the future of this highly visible trash disposal strategy. They point to the ongoing successes of paper recycling, to a new offer that would pay the city for recycling all of the plastics and metals it collects, and to determined legislators on the City Council who have defended and advanced recycling as part of a rational long-term solid waste strategy for New York City.

To be sure, the city still confronts the daunting fiscal challenges that prompted the Bloomberg administration to seek cuts in funding for recycling last spring. The Department of Sanitation remains ambivalent in its support for recycling and waste prevention. And regular changes regarding what materials the city collects for recycling have left many New Yorkers confused about exactly what is and what is not part of the city's recycling program today. (Currently, paper and metal are still part of the program; glass and plastic are not.)

Still, what is remarkable, according to some waste experts and fiscal watchdogs, is that the long-term economic viability of recycling is becoming clearer -- even as the city faces perhaps its most serious budget problems in a generation.

BACKGROUND

While recycling has been around New York City in one form or another for decades, a landmark l989 mandatory recycling law, initiated by the New York City Council, triggered an increased emphasis on this solid waste strategy during the 1990s. When the recycling law was enacted, then City Council chief Peter Vallone called it "one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city."

The l989 statute required the Department of Sanitation to meet annual recycling tonnage requirements that were designed to boost recycling over the next five years. And in the summer of 1989, the department launched what would soon become the first citywide curbside collection of recyclables in New York history.

From less than one percent in the late l980s, recycling in New York City climbed to roughly 20 percent of the city's total residential waste stream by mid-2002. And the 1989 statute (and follow-up state court orders) required the sanitation department to achieve further incremental increases in citywide recycling collections.

In February 2002, however, the Bloomberg administration proposed to "suspend" the recycling of metals, plastic and glass. With the city facing a serious budget shortfall, sanitation department officials forecast that such recycling cuts would result in annual savings of $51 million, due in large part to the reduced number of waste collection trucks that would be needed, they said, under the proposed cutbacks. But recycling advocates questioned the validity of the city's estimated cost savings. And former Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton warned at the time that "halting recycling now is likely to cause irreparable harm to a program that took many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to build up."

The City Council, which had long recognized the environmental benefits and political popularity of recycling, stepped up to help save the program. Under the leadership of Solid Waste Committee Chairman Michael McMahon, and in response to vigorous advocacy from environmental and civic organizations, the council brokered a final budget agreement that retained recycling of metals, while suspending recycling of plastics for one year and glass for two years.

The June 2002 compromise worked out by Chairman McMahon and his council colleagues was especially important, say recycling advocates, because it kept alive the separate collection of metals, and set a schedule for the reintroduction of plastic and glass recycling. (As was true of the original Bloomberg administration plan, the final budget deal also preserved the city's successful paper recycling program.)

As a result of the budget agreement announced last summer, the sanitation department ended recycling pick-ups of plastics and glass on July 1st of last year, and returned to collecting those materials as part of the department's regular trash pick-ups.

MOMENTUM SHIFTS BACK TO RECYCLING

Despite last year's cutbacks to the city's recycling program, solid waste experts, public officials and environmental advocates say that recycling is about to experience another one of its 11th hour come-backs. Ironically, the primary reason for their cautious optimism is the increasing cost-effectiveness of recycling when compared to out-of-state waste export to landfills or incinerators.

The Department of Sanitation "justified its decision to suspend glass and plastic recycling on the expectation that the city would save tens of millions of dollars each year," Comptroller William C. Thompson recently wrote. "It is now abundantly clear that merely recycling metal and exporting glass and plastic as waste is more expensive than recycling all of these materials."

According to the Comptroller, with recent new bids for exporting waste from Brooklyn ranging from $75 to $82 per ton and assuming the sanitation department chooses the lowest bidder, the citywide average waste export costs will rise from $66 to $69 per ton. In Queens, the average cost of waste export is $71 a ton. In comparison, the city has recently received a bid to recycle metal, glass and plastics for $70 a ton. Moreover, the export of waste from Queens requires the city’s sanitation trucks to haul the waste to New Jersey, whereas the reinstatement of full-scale recycling would allow Queens to recycle metal, glass and plastic at a facility within that borough, reducing the department’s transportation costs.

Former New York City sanitation department waste expert Benjamin Miller agrees with such economic analyses. "It is utterly predictable that we'd go back to recycling," he maintains.

"The graph lines for [how much the city pays for waste] export are going straight up and the costs for recycling are coming down," according to Benjamin Miller,author of the book "Fat of the Land," which traces the history of solid waste disposal in New York City over the past 200 years.

The costs for collecting and disposing of city wastes have soared, says Miller, by 60 percent since 1996, when New York began to phase out waste disposal at its Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Independent experts predict another 60 percent increase by 2010 in the cost for collection and waste export. This is largely due, Miller believes, to the fact that the city is now totally dependent on a handful of large national waste industry haulers to dispose of its non-recycled trash.

"Expect the costs of waste export to go up, up, up" under the current approach, warns Miller.

At a recent City Council budget hearing, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty had little choice but to concede that at least the vast bulk of last year's projected savings from cuts to recycling were never actually realized. Under vigorous questioning by City Councilmember David Yassky, Commissioner Doherty acknowledged that most of the projected savings from reduced recycling pick-ups were simply transferred to sanitation department waste collection operations, where hundreds of additional truck shifts were added to handle the increase in plastics and glass (which were now being discarded with regular waste).

As the hearing proceeded, a group of students visited the council chamber to see city government in action. Councilmember Yassky welcomed the students and noted: "I do have to caution them that they should not take their lessons in math from the Department of Sanitation."

RECYCLING IS BECOMING CHEAPER THAN WASTE EXPORT

Meanwhile, the fiscal outlook is improving for that portion of the waste stream that is or could be recycled.

Newspapers, magazines, cardboard, junk mail, and other paper products make up the single largest portion of the city's residential waste stream. And for this commodity, the economic benefits of recycling are readily apparent.

New York City is paid for every ton of paper it delivers to recyclers. For example, the Visy Paper Recycling Plant on Staten Island takes about a third of the city's recycled paper waste from the Department of Sanitation. The Visy plant de-inks these paper products and turns them into paper used to make corrogated boxes and other products. On average, the city is paid $7 a ton for paper sent to Visy and other paper recyclers. In contrast to paying $66 or more per ton for trash export, New York City benefits economically from every ton of paper it recycles.

Unfortunately, as a result of public confusion following the suspension of plastic and glass recycling last summer, paper recycling rates in New York have declined by about 12 percent. This problem, experts agree, is reversible with stepped up efforts to educate the public on the specifics of the city's recycling program and the fiscal advantages of paper recycling.

Metals have historically been among the most profitable materials to recycle, both here in New York and elsewhere. As with other recyclables, the markets for metals often fluctuate. Since last summer, New York City has been receiving as much as $30 a ton for the metals it collects for recycling.

The market for plastics has historically been more problematic. But this winter, New York received surprisingly good news when a family-owned New Jersey recycling company bid on a combined contract to recycle the city's metals and plastics.

The New Jersey company, Hugo Neu Schnitzer East, submitted a bid that proposed to pay the sanitation department $5.10 a ton for metals and plastics. (This bid stands in contrast with those from primarily large waste management haulers, whose bids require the city to pay $66 a ton or more for the bidder to take New York's metals and plastics for recycling.)

The Department of Sanitation has not yet officially accepted the New Jersey company bid to handle city metals and plastics recyclables. But given the financial benefits to the city of accepting this offer, solid waste experts believe the contract will be awarded shortly -- with citywide collection of plastics to resume this summer.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

There is no longer much doubt that recycling makes environmental sense, that it preserves natural resources, and that it could provide additional opportunities for local jobs, when compared to garbage export. But recycling advocates say that the city must still reform and enhance its system for collecting recyclables. And pressures to find cheaper ways of disposing of the 11,000 or so tons a day of trash that the sanitation department is responsible for will continue to dominate solid waste discussions for the foreseeable future.

"Despite the positive economic news on recycling of paper, metals and plastics, for New York City's recycling program to be fully successful will require both a stronger city commitment to make recycling work and implemention of new approaches to make the program even more cost-effective," says Mark Izeman, an attorney and waste specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work).

With such concerns in mind, the Mayor's Office and the City Council have jointly released a task force report on the city's recycling program. Although the report is only six pages long, it offers several recommendations that could help foster the continuing growth of cost-effective recycling. For example, it recommends restoration of plastics recycling on July 1st (based upon the favorable bid from the New Jersey recycling firm). It calls for an analysis of "single-stream" collection (in which all recyclables are placed in one receptacle) and for consideration of "pay-as-you-throw" systems (a revenue neutral trash collection approach designed to encourage maximum recycling). And it calls upon the State Legislature to expand the "bottle bill" (so that the five cent deposits would cover non-carbonated beverages) and to return unredeemed beverage deposits to the municipality in which the original purchase occurred (to provide a big, new revenue stream for the city's recycling program).

These and other reform proposals will also be the subject of a comprehensive recycling report, scheduled for release by a coalition of the city's leading environmental and waste organizations in early May.

These are challenging times for the New York City Department of Sanitation, which under the city's new budget proposal is facing lay-offs of hundreds of employees. Fortunately, recycling, which has long been championed because of its wide-ranging environmental benefits, may soon prove to also be one of the most cost-effective weapons in the city's waste disposal arsenal.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Recycling Hangs Tough


One year after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's surprise proposal to eliminate the household recycling of metals, glass and plastics, the city's recycling program refuses to surrender.

In fact, recycling and solid waste experts are now cautiously optimistic regarding the future of this highly visible trash disposal strategy. They point to the ongoing successes of paper recycling, to a new offer that would pay the city for recycling all of the plastics and metals it collects, and to determined legislators on the City Council who have defended and advanced recycling as part of a rational long-term solid waste strategy for New York City.

To be sure, the city still confronts the daunting fiscal challenges that prompted the Bloomberg administration to seek cuts in funding for recycling last spring. The Department of Sanitation remains ambivalent in its support for recycling and waste prevention. And regular changes regarding what materials the city collects for recycling have left many New Yorkers confused about exactly what is and what is not part of the city's recycling program today. (Currently, paper and metal are still part of the program; glass and plastic are not.)

Still, what is remarkable, according to some waste experts and fiscal watchdogs, is that the long-term economic viability of recycling is becoming clearer -- even as the city faces perhaps its most serious budget problems in a generation.

BACKGROUND

While recycling has been around New York City in one form or another for decades, a landmark l989 mandatory recycling law, initiated by the New York City Council, triggered an increased emphasis on this solid waste strategy during the 1990s. When the recycling law was enacted, then City Council chief Peter Vallone called it "one of the most significant pieces of legislation in the history of the city."

The l989 statute required the Department of Sanitation to meet annual recycling tonnage requirements that were designed to boost recycling over the next five years. And in the summer of 1989, the department launched what would soon become the first citywide curbside collection of recyclables in New York history.

From less than one percent in the late l980s, recycling in New York City climbed to roughly 20 percent of the city's total residential waste stream by mid-2002. And the 1989 statute (and follow-up state court orders) required the sanitation department to achieve further incremental increases in citywide recycling collections.

In February 2002, however, the Bloomberg administration proposed to "suspend" the recycling of metals, plastic and glass. With the city facing a serious budget shortfall, sanitation department officials forecast that such recycling cuts would result in annual savings of $51 million, due in large part to the reduced number of waste collection trucks that would be needed, they said, under the proposed cutbacks. But recycling advocates questioned the validity of the city's estimated cost savings. And former Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton warned at the time that "halting recycling now is likely to cause irreparable harm to a program that took many years and hundreds of millions of dollars to build up."

The City Council, which had long recognized the environmental benefits and political popularity of recycling, stepped up to help save the program. Under the leadership of Solid Waste Committee Chairman Michael McMahon, and in response to vigorous advocacy from environmental and civic organizations, the council brokered a final budget agreement that retained recycling of metals, while suspending recycling of plastics for one year and glass for two years.

The June 2002 compromise worked out by Chairman McMahon and his council colleagues was especially important, say recycling advocates, because it kept alive the separate collection of metals, and set a schedule for the reintroduction of plastic and glass recycling. (As was true of the original Bloomberg administration plan, the final budget deal also preserved the city's successful paper recycling program.)

As a result of the budget agreement announced last summer, the sanitation department ended recycling pick-ups of plastics and glass on July 1st of last year, and returned to collecting those materials as part of the department's regular trash pick-ups.

MOMENTUM SHIFTS BACK TO RECYCLING

Despite last year's cutbacks to the city's recycling program, solid waste experts, public officials and environmental advocates say that recycling is about to experience another one of its 11th hour come-backs. Ironically, the primary reason for their cautious optimism is the increasing cost-effectiveness of recycling when compared to out-of-state waste export to landfills or incinerators.

The Department of Sanitation "justified its decision to suspend glass and plastic recycling on the expectation that the city would save tens of millions of dollars each year," Comptroller William C. Thompson recently wrote. "It is now abundantly clear that merely recycling metal and exporting glass and plastic as waste is more expensive than recycling all of these materials."

According to the Comptroller, with recent new bids for exporting waste from Brooklyn ranging from $75 to $82 per ton and assuming the sanitation department chooses the lowest bidder, the citywide average waste export costs will rise from $66 to $69 per ton. In Queens, the average cost of waste export is $71 a ton. In comparison, the city has recently received a bid to recycle metal, glass and plastics for $70 a ton. Moreover, the export of waste from Queens requires the city’s sanitation trucks to haul the waste to New Jersey, whereas the reinstatement of full-scale recycling would allow Queens to recycle metal, glass and plastic at a facility within that borough, reducing the department’s transportation costs.

Former New York City sanitation department waste expert Benjamin Miller agrees with such economic analyses. "It is utterly predictable that we'd go back to recycling," he maintains.

"The graph lines for [how much the city pays for waste] export are going straight up and the costs for recycling are coming down," according to Benjamin Miller, author of the book "Fat of the Land," which traces the history of solid waste disposal in New York City over the past 200 years.

The costs for collecting and disposing of city wastes have soared, says Miller, by 60 percent since 1996, when New York began to phase out waste disposal at its Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Independent experts predict another 60 percent increase by 2010 in the cost for collection and waste export. This is largely due, Miller believes, to the fact that the city is now totally dependent on a handful of large national waste industry haulers to dispose of its non-recycled trash.

"Expect the costs of waste export to go up, up, up" under the current approach, warns Miller.

At a recent City Council budget hearing, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty had little choice but to concede that at least the vast bulk of last year's projected savings from cuts to recycling were never actually realized. Under vigorous questioning by City Councilmember David Yassky, Commissioner Doherty acknowledged that most of the projected savings from reduced recycling pick-ups were simply transferred to sanitation department waste collection operations, where hundreds of additional truck shifts were added to handle the increase in plastics and glass (which were now being discarded with regular waste).

As the hearing proceeded, a group of students visited the council chamber to see city government in action. Councilmember Yassky welcomed the students and noted: "I do have to caution them that they should not take their lessons in math from the Department of Sanitation."

RECYCLING IS BECOMING CHEAPER THAN WASTE EXPORT

Meanwhile, the fiscal outlook is improving for that portion of the waste stream that is or could be recycled.

Newspapers, magazines, cardboard, junk mail, and other paper products make up the single largest portion of the city's residential waste stream. And for this commodity, the economic benefits of recycling are readily apparent.

New York City is paid for every ton of paper it delivers to recyclers. For example, the Visy Paper Recycling Plant on Staten Island takes about a third of the city's recycled paper waste from the Department of Sanitation. The Visy plant de-inks these paper products and turns them into paper used to make corrogated boxes and other products. On average, the city is paid $7 a ton for paper sent to Visy and other paper recyclers. In contrast to paying $66 or more per ton for trash export, New York City benefits economically from every ton of paper it recycles.

Unfortunately, as a result of public confusion following the suspension of plastic and glass recycling last summer, paper recycling rates in New York have declined by about 12 percent. This problem, experts agree, is reversible with stepped up efforts to educate the public on the specifics of the city's recycling program and the fiscal advantages of paper recycling.

Metals have historically been among the most profitable materials to recycle, both here in New York and elsewhere. As with other recyclables, the markets for metals often fluctuate. Since last summer, New York City has been receiving as much as $30 a ton for the metals it collects for recycling.

The market for plastics has historically been more problematic. But this winter, New York received surprisingly good news when a family-owned New Jersey recycling company bid on a combined contract to recycle the city's metals and plastics.

The New Jersey company, Hugo Neu Schnitzer East, submitted a bid that proposed to pay the sanitation department $5.10 a ton for metals and plastics. (This bid stands in contrast with those from primarily large waste management haulers, whose bids require the city to pay $66 a ton or more for the bidder to take New York's metals and plastics for recycling.)

The Department of Sanitation has not yet officially accepted the New Jersey company bid to handle city metals and plastics recyclables. But given the financial benefits to the city of accepting this offer, solid waste experts believe the contract will be awarded shortly -- with citywide collection of plastics to resume this summer.

CHALLENGES REMAIN

There is no longer much doubt that recycling makes environmental sense, that it preserves natural resources, and that it could provide additional opportunities for local jobs, when compared to garbage export. But recycling advocates say that the city must still reform and enhance its system for collecting recyclables. And pressures to find cheaper ways of disposing of the 11,000 or so tons a day of trash that the sanitation department is responsible for will continue to dominate solid waste discussions for the foreseeable future.

"Despite the positive economic news on recycling of paper, metals and plastics, for New York City's recycling program to be fully successful will require both a stronger city commitment to make recycling work and implemention of new approaches to make the program even more cost-effective," says Mark Izeman, an attorney and waste specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work).

With such concerns in mind, the Mayor's Office and the City Council have jointly released a task force report on the city's recycling program. Although the report is only six pages long, it offers several recommendations that could help foster the continuing growth of cost-effective recycling. For example, it recommends restoration of plastics recycling on July 1st (based upon the favorable bid from the New Jersey recycling firm). It calls for an analysis of "single-stream" collection (in which all recyclables are placed in one receptacle) and for consideration of "pay-as-you-throw" systems (a revenue neutral trash collection approach designed to encourage maximum recycling). And it calls upon the State Legislature to expand the "bottle bill" (so that the five cent deposits would cover non-carbonated beverages) and to return unredeemed beverage deposits to the municipality in which the original purchase occurred (to provide a big, new revenue stream for the city's recycling program).

These and other reform proposals will also be the subject of a comprehensive recycling report, scheduled for release by a coalition of the city's leading environmental and waste organizations in early May.

These are challenging times for the New York City Department of Sanitation, which under the city's new budget proposal is facing lay-offs of hundreds of employees. Fortunately, recycling, which has long been championed because of its wide-ranging environmental benefits, may soon prove to also be one of the most cost-effective weapons in the city's waste disposal arsenal.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The City's New Spending Plan For The Environment


The Bloomberg Administration is expecting to make major changes in how billions of dollars are spent on the environment. Chris Ward, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, seems to be doing some big thinking about the city's future, judging from his presentation at a City Council hearing of the department's new $16.5 billion, ten year capital plan — the blueprint for how much the city will spend from 2004 to 2013 on such needs as water tunnels, sewage treatment plant upgrades, and reservoir protection.

The plan, which would double current expenditures, is not yet in final form, nor have all of its details been released. That will happen in May, with the release of the executive budget.

Some elements are certain to stir opposition, and several proposed alterations would require state or federal approval.

TOP PRIORITY — DRINKING WATER

"Our paramount responsibility over the next decade and beyond is to ensure the uninterrupted conveyance of clean, safe, and sufficient drinking water to nine million people," Commissioner Ward recently told the City Council's Environmental Protection Committee.

The plan shifts focus away from where it has been over the last few decades — sewage treatment plant construction — and places highest priority on the infrastructure needed to bring New Yorkers their drinking water.

One reason for the new focus is that the city's world-class water supply network is aging. The city's 85-mile long Delaware Aqueduct, which has brought water downstate from four reservoirs west of the Hudson River for more than half a century, has sprung several serious leaks. As the city moves to repair these leaks, it is also seeking to make sure that it could supply sufficient drinking water even if this aqueduct, which ordinarily supplies up to 50 percent of the city's water, must be temporarily closed.

Other parts of the water supply system are also aging. The two in-city water tunnels that transport upstate water to connector mains and then to smaller mains under local streets, were constructed in 1917 and 1936, and have never been shut down for inspection.

Funds would be expended to continue work on the third water tunnel within city limits, continuing an initiative started 30 years ago that is already the single largest capital project in the city's history. Millions of dollars a year would also be provided for ongoing maintenance of reservoirs, dams, pump stations, water mains and other water system components.

The biggest new project unveiled by Commissioner Ward is a proposed $2.5 billion aqueduct that could carry drinking water from the Westchester County Kensico Reservoir, which collects water from all other Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs, into New York City. The 16 mile underground tunnel would provide needed redundancy, according to the department, at a critical juncture in the entire downstate water supply.

One controversial expenditure is the roughly $1.5 billion cost of constructing a filtration plant to treat drinking water coming from the city's oldest reservoir system — the Croton, whose watershed is located primarily in Westchester and Putnam counties. The Department of Environmental Protection maintains that this facility is needed to assure safe tap water quality and to meet federal law. Activists counter that reducing pollution discharges into the Croton watershed is a less expensive way of safeguarding water quality and that the city has not yet presented a convincing public case for why Croton filtration is necessary to protect health. There is also continuing debate about where to site this facility, with the city's desire to locate the plant in Van Cortlandt Park colliding with the plans of a determined parks constituency.

Other priority drinking water expenditures in the plan include an ultra-violet disinfection plant for water coming from the West-of-Hudson Catskill and Delaware reservoirs and continued implementation of the programs begun in the 1990s to reduce pollution into reservoirs and safeguard upstate watershed lands, in an effort to avoid the estimated six billion dollar cost of constructing filtration facilities for the Catskill and Delaware reservoir supplies.

SHIFTING FROM SEWAGE TREATMENT

Over the past decade, the single largest category of capital spending by the Department of Environmental Projection was for the upgrading and modernizing of the city's 14 sewage treatment plants — about 41 percent of total capital spending by the department from 1993 to 2002. These expenditures were necessary for the city to bring its sewage treatment plant discharges up to federal Clean Water Act standards, and reduce the amount of sewage being discharged into New York's surrounding waters.

But much of that work is now complete, or nearing completion, and the department is now looking to lessen the costs for such projects as nitrogen reduction and controlling combined sewer overflow.

A consent decree requires that the city remove nitrogen from wastewaters being discharged from city sewage plants into the Long Island Sound and the Upper East River. (Nitrogen discharges deplete water of oxygen needed to sustain marine life, and this program has been viewed as an essential part of efforts to restore the Long Island Sound ecosystem.)

Rather than ignoring this mandate, Commissioner Ward is asking the state and federal governments (and water quality advocates) to work with him to find less expensive ways of meeting the consent decree's ten year goals.

The commissioner is also seeking new approaches to control the combined sewer overflow problem — when storm water runoff that has combined with sewage drains into surrounding waterways.

Activists express some concern. "We hope this doesn't mean that necessary upgrades to pollution controls and air monitoring at the problematic North River Sewage Treatment Plant will be sacrificed, because we have seen that happen many times in the past," said Swati Prakash, environmental health director of West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT).

But Ward said all the department is asking for is some flexibility: "Existing consent decrees dictate specific construction projects and schedules, and they leave little room for innovation, technological progress or prioritization of projects."

Ward argues that if the plan were to include all of the projects the department deems essential to keeping its water supply in a state of good repair and at the same time meeting all of its consent decree obligations as currently written, total costs could balloon to as much as $24 billion. Under a $16.5 billion capital plan, water and sewer rates would increase annually at somewhere between six and nine percent a year, a rate the department maintains is equitable when compared to water prices in other big cities.

Though City Councilmember Jim Gennero, who chairs the Environmental Protection Committee, deems the city's plan too "foggy" on the details to evaluate it yet, he shares the priority of "insuring that the watershed lands around our reservoirs are protected in perpetuity so that we have a safe and unfiltered drinking water supply for generations to come." At the same time, he is concerned about keeping water rates down for New Yorkers who have "already been socked with property tax and transit fare increases."

From a strategic standpoint, DEP Commissioner Ward seems to have positioned himself well to begin the debate over the future direction for the environment. He has a vision with protection of the water supply system at its heart. He recognizes the need for sustaining vital city infrastructure, and he is seeking to carve out a middle ground between an unrealistically high capital program that would trigger overwhelming water rate hikes, and a status quo capital plan that limits expenditures but does not set out to meet the city's most essential long-term capital needs.

LINKS IN THE NEWS

Earth Day is April 22nd — a great opportunity to speak with city and state elected officials on various environmental issues of interest.  Here are two links that offer information on how to participate and have your voice heard:

New York League of Conservation Voters
The website of the New York League of Conservation Voters,click on Earth Day. The League is sponsoring a "Lobby Day at New York City Hall" on April 22nd is setting up meetings in advance and provides training for those who are making their maiden visits.

Environmental Advocates
The website of the statewide environmental group Environmental Advocates. This group also coordinates an annual lobby day in Albany. This year, the event takes place on April 28th (so you can make it to both City Hall and the State Capitol, if you so choose). Click on Earth Day for all the details.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Environmental Aftermath


Many of the people closest to the World Trade Center relief efforts are not satisfied with how government agencies are handling the cleanup. There appear to be a lot of gaps. In particular, residents, workers and advocates have expressed concern about the lack of coordination, and the lack of information, on environmental health issues at Ground Zero and the neighborhoods around it.

"People feel like they are not getting a clear picture from the authorities," says Foster Maer, a downtown resident and member of the Warren-Murray Street Task Force. "To the extent that information is being released people are not getting it. And there is probably a lot of information not even being released."

The federal, state and city governments have hundreds of people monitoring air quality in and around the site. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring for asbestos and particulate matter in the air, and for asbestos in the dust. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is monitoring for carbon and fine particulate matter in the air. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection is in on the action as well.

Yet, in the last two weeks it has become increasingly apparent that the government scientists are not looking for precisely the right thing, or, if they are, they are not releasing that information to the public.

Dr. Paul Lioy of the University of Dentistry and Medicine of New Jersey announced last week that he had found levels of lead in dust samples from around the World Trade Center disaster area that may pose a threat to the public health. At a public meeting at New York University, Dr. Lioy characterized the levels as "moderate", and said that the lead needs to be removed from homes and buildings, especially where children are likely to come across it. He advised homeowners to apply to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for aid, and that renters approach their building managers.

At the same meeting, Dr. Jacqueline Moline of Mt. Sinai Medical Center reported that fiberglass is one of the main constituents in air and dust samples at Ground Zero. Fiberglass is a suspected carcinogen. It also causes significant irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. In a telephone interview, Carrie Loewenherz, an industrial hygienist with the New York Committee on Occupational Health, explained that NYCOSH has found fiberglass to comprise five to 95 percent of the weight of outdoor samples taken in the area, and 30 to 50 percent of indoor samples taken from a Church Street location across from the World Trade Center. Loewenherz pointed out that there are no state or federal standards for levels of fiberglass or for fiberglass cleanup. "There are guidelines [for cleanup] by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists, but OSHA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulates it as if it were regular, household dust."

And, in a third development, an independent study by Virginia-based toxicology firm HP Environmental has shown higher levels of asbestos in the fallout dust than previously measured. The study, which used an EPA-approved test, found that the force of the explosions shattered the asbestos into fibers so small that they slipped under the agency's radar. Scientists and public health experts are unsure about the health risk. Some argue that the smaller fibers do not possess the pine-cone shape of the larger fibers, and therefore are unlikely to scrape the lungs in the same way and lead to the same results. Others argue that the smaller fibers will more easily lodge deep in the lungs. EPA has not released any information on the smaller asbestos or HP Environmental's study.

Joel Kupferman of the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project is pressing the EPA to release information on these and other substances, including dioxins, PCBs and other toxins which may be released from burning wood, paper, plastics, vinyl-coated wiring and cable, urethane foam upholstery, vinyl floor tile, synthetic fiber carpets, or oils from old fluorescent light ballasts; and carbon monoxide and sulfur oxides, which may be released with the smoke and gases. In addition, a report from the project points out that while some scientists believe that the freon from the Trade Center's air conditioning system escaped during the initial explosions, others say that pockets of freon remain and may have converted to phosgene, also known as nerve gas.

Part of the problem in organizing an effective cleanup of the area is that the collapse of the Twin Towers seems to have created something like a new form of particulate matter, a minute dust smaller than anything regulated by EPA. There are no standards for this material, which like other fine dust and soot dries out the lungs and makes them susceptible to opportunistic organisms.

CLEANING UP

Many of the workers at Ground Zero, perhaps tricked by not seeing the fine particles in the air, do not wear gas masks or other respiratory protection. Dr. Moline of Mt. Sinai reported that there have been reports of new onset asthma and reactive airways, an asthma-like condition that arises from sudden exposures to toxic materials. In addition, she said, there have been many reports of increased irritation of the eyes, nose and throat. But nobody is enforcing federal cleanup laws on the site, which, under other circumstances, may have been listed as a federal Superfund site and subject to rigorous hazardous waste cleanup regulations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not performed tests whose results could compel employers to make workers use respiratory protection. Indeed, OSHA has claimed status as an advisory agency, rather than an enforcement agency. Unfortunately, the regional administrator from OSHA was unavailable to comment on the legal basis for the administration's decision.

As the science trickles in and new threats come to light, the city is left to consider what cleanup standards should be used in apartments and offices, and who should pay for it. Anecdotal evidence paints a chaotic picture of downtown: insurers tell tenants they will not cover cleanup unless levels exceed EPA levels; tenants do not trust building managers; building managers clean up the apartment but leave the balcony untouched; people have been seen sweeping dust from the roof into the air.

"At this point, the non-economic problem, and there are a host of economic problems, but the non-economic problem is that the burden of the cleanup and the assurance that it is done properly has been dumped on the private sector," says Alan Gerson, the Democratic candidate for City Council in District 1. "What we have is a process of self-certification, which is a problem in normal times. Now it is just inappropriate."

Ordinarily, asbestos cleanup is a quarantined procedure which employs plastic sheets to contain the affected area and negative air pressure to make sure nothing escapes. Workers have full-face respirators, suits that cover their whole bodies, and gloves. After the cleanup, workers take their clothes off and put them into labeled bags that are taken straight to a landfill. "The whole point is to make sure asbestos does not get disturbed and spread more widely, and to make sure the workers do not breathe it in," says Lowell Peterson, legal counsel to Local 78, the asbestos, lead and hazardous waste abatement union. "A lot of the cleanups are being done without any of those protections."

Yet, air samples taken by EPA in rooms with dust on the floors show levels above EPA's clearance standard for asbestos. Of 143 bulk samples in Lower Manhattan, 109 have had detectable asbestos, and 37 of those 109 are above EPA?s standard for defining asbestos-containing material. Of course, the other 72 also had asbestos, and even borderline levels of asbestos in dust present significant threats to health. During cleanup the asbestos is liable to get kicked up into the air and linger for days. The EPA's standard levels for asbestos were meant to address tiles and other seemingly stable materials, not dust. In the present situation, asbestos fibers are so tiny that the only way they will remain on the floor of an apartment or office is if no doors or windows are open, and no one enters the room. Whoever is cleaning up any of these rooms will be exposed to high levels.

"What we need is a coordinated, concerted cleanup effort for lower Manhattan under the auspices of a city agency or authority," says Gerson. "We need block-by-block, building-by-building certification. Like what the city is doing with the crime effort, and what it is doing with removal from Ground Zero. It is not that the city should clean every office, but the city should see to it that every apartment and rooftop is clean."

Other Resources

Michael Burger writes Gotham Gazette's Environmental Topic Page.

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9/11/01 - 02: An Unprecedented Attack On New York's Environment


One year after September 11th, experts believe that the collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the ensuing fires triggered one of the worst air pollution episodes in New York City's history.

Of course, the pollution-induced respiratory impacts from the trade center terrorism have been rightly overshadowed by the horrific toll of more than 2,800 lives that were lost as a direct result of the attacks. Moreover, the contaminants released from the World Trade Center's collapse and fires did not create a disaster comparable to the 1984 toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which killed over 3,000 and seriously injured 20,000 more. And significantly, outdoor air quality in Lower Manhattan has returned to pre-September 11th levels.

But the public health and environmental consequences from the September 11th attacks in New York have had disturbing short-term impacts for many thousands of New Yorkers. Concerns about indoor air pollutants remain among some who live and work in the area. And it is almost certain that a portion of those who have suffered sort-term health problems from inhaling pollutants on or after September 11th, or who were otherwise exposed to 9/11 contaminants, will experience mid-term or long-term respiratory conditions or disease.

The collapse of the two 110 story towers released an avalanche of debris and pollution that roared down adjacent streets in Lower Manhattan. Intense fires, fueled initially by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, sent billowing smoke over large areas of the financial district. Prevailing winds carried some of the pollution across the East River into Brooklyn. Huge volumes of pulverized cement, fiberglass and particulate matter of all sizes, along with hundreds of toxins (including asbestos, dioxins, and volatilized metals such as lead and mercury) were rocketed into the environment. The fires at Ground Zero, which continued for more than three months, emitted noxious gases; a sickening, acrid odor often pierced the air.

AT HIGHEST RISK

Public health risks from environmental assaults such as the one that began on September 11th are related directly to the intensity and duration of the pollution exposure.

Not surprisingly, then, the first short-term health impacts were seen am ong the first-responders, including thousands of hero firefighters who developed respiratory symptoms that were dubbed the "World Trade Center cough." Today, the New York City Fire Department reports, several hundred members are still suffering from significant respiratory problems. Indeed, some firefighters who came from across the country to assist in recovery efforts also returned to their homes with a variety of pulmonary and related symptoms.

Police, emergency personnel, construction workers and others who spent significant time at the pile are also among those who also may have received high exposures. More than one hundred ironworkers have been treated by occupational health physicians at Mt. Sinai's Selikoff Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine. And according to the Center's Director, Dr. Stephen Levin, two of three still have persistent coughs and other signs of respiratory distress.

The several thousand largely untrained workers who were hired to clean out dust and pollution inside commercial buildings in the immediate vicinity of Ground Zero constitute another high risk group. A medicinal team headed by Dr. Steve Markowitz from the Center for Biology Systems at Queens College, supported by the September 11th Fund, set up a mobile van to provide free medicinal screening to such workers. In cooperation with the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, the physicians saw 415 workers over a five week period. Almost all had persistent respiratory irritation and/or systemic symptoms such as headache, dizziness and poor appetite -- even though they had completed their work assignments four to six weeks prior to the medical examinations.

OTHER EXPOSED POPULATIONS

Another at risk group includes those office workers and others who were caught in the extraordinary cloud of pollution and debris on September 11th. Little information on the health impacts of this group has been developed to date.

Residents who returned several weeks later to their apartments faced lower risks than groups such as those mentioned above, most experts believe. Nevertheless, sensitive subpopulations, such as those with pre-existing lung diseases, are more likely to have suffered adverse respiratory reactions when they returned to their homes or offices. (And many of the returning residents have been understandably frustrated by the pace and scope of the long-delayed indoor clean-up program which is still -- one year later -- in the design stage.)

Lower Manhattan is also the home to a handful of public schools and other learning institutions, and some students also experienced short-term health problems in the aftermath of 9/11. At Stuyvesant High School, the first local school to reopen, some students (as well as faculty members and staff experienced a variety of adverse heath reactions, which were probably exacerbated by the debris-hauling barge operation that was located across from the school.

In total, approximately 10,000 to 30,000 people or more suffered some short-term respiratory problems associated with the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, according to a forthcoming report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work). (This estimate is limited to pollution-related illnesses and does not include those who have experienced or may still be experiencing mental health problems in the aftermath of September 11th.)

There is much we still do not know about the environmental health consequ ences of the trade center's collapse and the subsequent fires. And the synergistic impacts of exposure to multiple pollutants makes the September 11th exposures extremely difficult to assess. For such reasons, it is essential that on-going health studies such as those underway at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health (tracking pregnant women and their offspring), and at Mt. Sinai, New York University, Johns Hopkins medical schools be fully funded.

The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, in addition to their unspeakable loss of life and huge economic dislocations, also constituted an unprecedented attack on New York's environment. Thousands have suffered or are still suffering adverse health impacts. And much work still remains to be done to provide indoor clean-ups in residences and small businesses in the World Trade Center vicinity and to insure follow-up medical care to all those who were exposed.

But even as the recovery process continues, New Yorkers can once again stand outside in Lower Manhattan and breathe freely.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

How did government agencies perform in response to the environmental health challenges posed by the September 11th attacks?

What lessons can be learned from their actions?

And what steps should government take now to address remaining environmental health concerns and be better prepared to handle future environmental health emergencies in New York?

These questions will be addressed in Part II of this article, in October.

9/11 and the Environment: The Government Response


The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center presented unprecedented challenges to our elected officials and their environmental and public health administrators.

As is now widely recognized, the response of Mayor Rudy Giuliani and other officials, their staffs and volunteers to the events of that day was, on the whole, magnificent and one for which New Yorkers remain proud and grateful.

Nevertheless, in the area of public health and environmental safety, shortcomings occurred in government's response to the World Trade Center attacks.

To be sure, in the hours and days after the collapse of the towers, the obvious priority were search and rescue operations. In addition, our nation was confronting not simply an environmental disaster but an act of war; there were numerous important concerns that demanded attention from government leaders. Moreover, the size and scope of the environmental and public health problems posed by the Trade Center's implosion and the ensuing fires, by themselves, consituted a unique set of challenges for understandably surprised agency leaders.

Despite such enormous difficulties, however, it must be acknowledged that public health and environmental officials made critical, though unintentional, mistakes in the days, weeks and months following September 11th.

BACKGROUND

As we reported in last month's Gotham Gazette "Environment" column, medical and environmental experts believe that the September 11th attacks triggered one of the worst air pollution episodes in New York City's history. An intense and dangerous cloud of pollution was produced from the avalanche of debris when the two 110-story office towers collapsed. Noxious fires, initially ignited by thousands of gallons of jet fuel, continued to burn at Ground Zero for more than three months. Tens of thousands of firefighters, other first-responders, fleeing office workers, building clean-up crews and downtown residents were among those who suffered adverse respiratory impacts. Independent medical specialists believe that at least a small portion of the thousands who experienced coughing symptoms, breathing difficulties, new-onset asthma and other respiratory and systemic conditions will suffer long-term health problems as a result of their exposures following September 11th.

Various city, state and federal environmental and public health agencies responded to the massive challenges posed by the September 11th attacks. While there is much that these departments and their dedicated staffs did to assist New Yorkers in need, at least five significant actions taken by top officials now appear to have been in error.

FIVE MISSTEPS

One of the first and most troubling missteps occurred in the first days after September 11th, when the nation was still reeling. On September 18th, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman issued an official statement in which she said: "I am glad to reassure the people of New York . . . that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." Other statements from federal and city environmental and heath agencies couched their own statements during the month of September in similar terms, following the administrator's lead.

The desire to put the minds of New Yorkers at ease and get the city up-and-running was understandable. But such blanket statements over-simplified a complex situation in which different people faced different risks, depending on the intensity and duration of their exposure to Trade Center pollutants. And by serving to falsely reassure workers, for example, that the air was safe to breathe, such pronouncements probably decreased the number of rescue and recovery personnel who utilized appropriate respirators during their activities at Ground Zero. The reassurances may have also convinced some Lower Manhattan building owners, businesses and residents to delay professional clean-ups or to take fewer precautions when undertaking their own clean-up work.

A second shortcoming at the federal level involved the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ("OSHA"). That agency, which is responsible for insuring work safety at locations such as the Trade Center site, had agreed to forego its normal enforcement function and instead settle for an advisory role at the site. As a result of that agreement, OSHA was unable to enforce the basic safety requirement that workers confronting contaminated dust and toxic fires at Ground Zero be required to wear protective respirators.

Again, one can sympathize with the unusual situation that OSHA officials found themselves in and recognize their desire (which all New Yorkers shared) to do everything possible to help expedite the search for survivors. But even weeks and months after 9/11, when the prospects for rescue had diminished, OSHA's failure to insist upon respirator use by at-risk Ground Zero workers continued. As a result, at least hundreds of workers were confused about health risks and procedures, and were unnecessarily exposed to potentially dangerous air and dust.

A third error was New York City government's unwillingness to request as much help as was needed from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and federal health units such as the Centers for Disease Control. The U.S. EPA had available signficant expertise and a dedicated staff capable of assessing and addressing wide-ranging air quality issues. Nevertheless, the Giuliani Administration did not specifically request federal help on such issues as air pollution testing and clean-up in Lower Manhattan residences or in the neighborhood's public schools. Nor did top city officials reach out aggressively to secure federal medical assistance in assessing public health problems, such as the "World Trade Center cough," when these problems first emerged.

The Giuliani Administration's response -- assuming full command and seeking to control all phases of the September 11th rescue, recovery and restoration efforts -- served the city well in many areas. But in the case of the public health problems posed by the Trade Center-generated air quality problems, it meant that the city did not take advantage of federal experts and resources that were needed to supplement overburdened city environmental and health agencies. A major reason why the U.S. EPA did not get involved until the late spring in addressing indoor clean-up issues in Lower Manhattan, for example, was simply that the Giuliani Administration had failed to request such assistance.

A related shortcoming involved the city's decision to avoid a direct role in issues related to pollution clean-up and reoccupancy of residences and commerical establishments in the World Trade Center vicinity. The city's Department of Environmental Protection, under then Commissioner Joel Miele, essentially left to building landlords the task of insuring that dust and pollution were safely and completely removed from their buildings. The agency neither established specific clean-up tests and protocols, nor required building owners to submit proof that residences and common areas had been appropriately cleansed prior to reoccupancy. To make matters worse, the city's Health Department initially posted confusing and in some cases incorrect information for how residents should perform self clean-ups of their apartments.

As a result of such policies, unsupervised indoor clean-ups varied widely in quality and many Lower Manhattan residents remained perplexed for months about the safety of their apartments. To be sure, large commerical building owners were generally successful in providing their office tenants with space that had been thoroughly cleaned and tested for remaining contamination. But thousands of residents felt abandoned by the city, as they tangled with insurance companies and building owners while trying to become experts on such technical issues as asbestos and particulate matter measuring.

A fifth shortcoming in government's reaction to the unprecedented challenges posed by the September 11th attacks was an environmental health leadership gap. City, state and federal environmental and public health agencies met frequently at the staff level. But top officials failed collectively to designate a single person or agency to lead the overall environmental health response. No single spokesperson emerged to speak definitively to the public regarding respiratory problems, air quality levels or pollution clean-up issues. More than a dozen agencies were involved in addressing some aspect of these problems, but no single unit of government seemed to be in overall charge of these issues.

This led to long-lasting public uncertainly. It often seemed as if physicians in non-governmental institutions, such as the city's leading hospital facilities, were doing a better job at communicating risk and clean-up information than the numerous public officials who were ostensibly charged with performing such duties. This situation, combined with earlier governmental pronouncements that air quality posed no real problem, led many New Yorkers (including those experiencing respiratory symptoms) to mistrust the environmental health information that government was providing, even in situations where the government pronouncements were broadly shared by independent medical experts.

GOVERNMENT'S RESPONSE IN CONTEXT

These five missteps do not, of course, tell the whole story of the government's response.

For one thing, the problems stem from leadership decisions of top officials and do not for the most part reflect the performance of staff at the various governmental agencies. There are many examples of dedicated environmental and public health staff level employees who worked long hours to help alleviate the unprecedented environmental problems. Scores of EPA personnel, to cite just one example, set to work bringing in equipment from around the nation to clean contaminated debris from the streets, collect hazardous waste, test the air, and wash off workers who were leaving the Trade Center site.

In short, there were staff people at virtually every agency who worked in heroic fashion to help New Yorkers recover from this environmental attack.

We should also not forget the many elected officials who sounded the alarm about environmental health problems and who, led by Congressman Jerrold Nadler and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, did much to advance long-delayed remedial action.

New Yorkers and their elected officials must now reassess that response honestly and fairly, correct remaining difficulties, and revise their plans and practices to assure that New York City and the nation will be better prepared for any future environmental health emergency.

Big-Boxed In on the Waterfront


 

Just as the waterfront is coming into focus for many people, the vision of a Big Box store on the bank of Erie Basin in Red Hook, Brooklyn is evoking grave concern in one of New York's last maritime communities. A windswept swath of asphalt where a drydock should be, traffic clogging neighborhood streets, gigantic bags of dog food, cat litter, or laundry detergent blocking sight lines, the all-too-familiar chorus of car horns... Get ready, New York - IKEA is coming!

IKEA is the Swedish purveyor of contemporary classic furniture, like natural-finished wall units and kitchen tables, with huge stores mostly in the suburbs. The potential arrival of an IKEA on Erie Basin will change even more radically a rapidly-changing neighborhood that stretches between the blue-collar Gowanus Canal and the Pioneers of "Liberty Heights."

This will be only the latest Big Box store on the New York waterfront. Big Boxes started springing up nearly 30 years ago, with the opening of a new Macy's at the King's Plaza Shopping Center. Today you can find more than a dozen Big Boxes along the waterways, each instance of which poses challenges to neighborhood residents, city planners, and economic development agencies.

"The traffic in itself creates a whole host of other issues," said John McGettrick of the Red Hook Civic Association, pointing out that the site of the proposed IKEA is on New York State's Open Space Acquisition list. "With up to 10,000 vehicles per day we risk degradation of the quality of the park space by trying to stuff thousands of vehicles down this local street."

The concerns relating to the proposed IKEA are larger in scope than the length of the line of Volvo station wagons waiting to make the turn off Columbia Street. At issue in this now decades-old struggle is the fact that Big Boxes are not only anti-Mom-and-Pop, but that the sheer scale of these stores are wholly anti-urban.

To see this in reality one only need walk or bicycle along the Shore Parkway toward Coney Island, where the esplanade is swallowed up by a Toys R' Us parking lot. All of a sudden dramatic views of Lower New York Bay are subsumed by the vista of a loading dock.

The physical size of Big Boxes makes them an awkward fit in almost any urban site, much less a maritime hub such as Erie Basin. With this concern in mind, the Park Slope Civic Council has asked the Department of City Planning to "consider alternate sites for the IKEA store."

Perhaps the greatest concern with the Erie-Ikea proposal is that it plucks the tension wire between the seemingly immovable post of waterfront industrial neglect and the irresistible cannonball of gentrification.

Erie Basin is homeport to the Hughes Brothers Barge Basin, the largest concentration of hulking open-topped containers that carry bulk cargo like oil or gravel up and down the waterways, relieving city bridges and tunnels of millions of pounds of wear and tear each year. A new arrival in the Basin is New York Water Taxi's svelte yellow boats, who now call Red Hook their home port.

To some it's a deja-vu all over again. It was only two years ago that IKEA was seeking to build a new facility on the east side of the Gowanus Canal at the former US Postal Facility on 9th Street. That proposal died under the weight of traffic concerns and the same Mom-and-Pop defensive stance that has met similar proposals for 30 years

"It's tough," said one local economic development official, speaking anonymously since their organization has not yet reviewed the IKEA idea, "they are talking about a significant number of jobs - maybe 300-400. As much as 60 percent might be full-time, with good benefits including tuition assistance and dental. Half of our constituency is working people from Red Hook."

And the Big Box game goes on. No proposal has yet been filed with the Department of City Planning, who will have to decide whether to re-zone the parcel from heavy to light manufacturing to accommodate the Big Swedish Box. Councilmember Sara Gonzalez is brokering a meeting in the next couple of weeks to discuss IKEA and neighborhood concerns.

For now, you'd be better off just shopping by catalog.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance

New Plan to Safeguard New York's Water Supply


With New York facing significant fiscal challenges and concerns about terrorist threats, it may seem like an unusual time for citizens to launch a new campaign to preserve New York City's upstate reservoirs and their watersheds.

Yet that is exactly what is happening. Twenty-one groups, including some of the region's leading environmental and civic organizations, have unveiled a forward-looking plan that envisions expanded programs to safeguard watershed farms and forests and protect the lands that drain into New York's upstate reservoirs from sprawl that generates pollution.

In a recent letter to Governor George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, representatives from the 21 groups noted that, despite progress over the last several years, "far too many acres of watershed lands are not permanently protected, and significant portions of the watershed are confronting intensified threats from haphazard development."

The letter outlined ambitious measures that the authors say are necessary to secure New York City's drinking water supply for future generations. The environmental and civic groups believe that implementation of an enhanced watershed protection plan will not only protect the public health of roughly 9 million water consumers, but will help avoid multi-billion dollar city expenditures for water filtration facilities.

In addition to the Natural Resources Defense Council (where I work), the other groups sending the letter are: Audubon New York; Arbor Hill Environmental Justice; Bronx Council on Environmental Quality; City Club of New York; Civitas; Environmental Advocates; Environmental Defense; Federated Conservationists of Westchester County; Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir; Friends of Van Cortland Park; New York League of Conservation Voters; New York Public Interest Research Group; Open Space Institute; Regional Plan Association; Riverkeeper; Scenic Hudson; Trout Unlimited - Croton Chapter; Trust for Public Land; West Harlem Environmental Action; and Westchester Land Trust.

BACKGROUND

New York City's water supply constitutes what may well be the region's single most important capital asset. The network, which has 19 reservoirs, is composed of three inter-related systems. The oldest, dating back to 1842, is the Croton system, located primarily in Westchester and Putnam counties. Beginning in the early 1900s, construction started on the Catskill and later the Delaware systems. Together, these two systems have six reservoirs, all west of the Hudson River, and send water downstate from as far as 125 miles away.

These 19 reservoirs and the watersheds that feed them supply roughly half of the state's population with more than 1.2 billion gallons of water every day. City water officials accurately describe this remarkable supply, often overlooked by most New Yorkers, as an engineering marvel.

But although New York City water quality still meets state and federal tap water standards, the long-term outlook for this supply remains uncertain, environmental watchdogs believe.

More than 100 sewage plants discharge treated wastewater in streams that flow into city reservoirs (the plants are now being upgraded). Over 110,000 individual septic and other subsurface systems in the watershed system also could pollute the water supply.

Of concern too, say environmental groups and drinking water officials, is stormwater runoff from roads, driveways and other paved surfaces, and from lawns, farms and golf courses. Rainwater picks up contaminants as it washes over these surfaces, and can flush pollutants into watershed streams and reservoirs.

They note that more than half of the 19 reservoirs have been found to be eutrophic, a condition that occasionally leaves green slime, caused by nutrients entering reservoirs from treated sewage and stormwater runoff. Eutrophication can lead to changes in the taste or odor of tap water, and the process to remove it can produce carcinogenic byproducts.

ECONOMIC THREATS FROM WATERSHED POLLUTION

In addition to the public health imperative of keeping contaminants out of our drinking water supply, there are strong economic reasons for watershed protection.

Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, water suppliers – in this case New York City -- must filter drinking water from reservoirs unless they can meet all water quality standards and demonstrate a comprehensive watershed protection program, including ownership or control of watershed lands.

A controversial federal court order already requires New York City to filter its East-of-Hudson Croton watershed system. The much larger Catskill and Delaware systems are unfiltered, and New York City has a five-year waiver from having to build filtration facilities for them. But unless watershed safeguards increase, it is quite possible that this system will face a filtration order. Mayor Bloomberg recently estimated the cost of Catskill and Delaware system filtration facilities at $6 billion.

"From both a public health standpoint and to avoid the huge economic burdens of Catskill/Delaware filtration, it is essential that New York State and City continue enhancing and making more robust their watershed protection program in all three reservoir systems," says Natural Resources Defense Council water specialist Robin Marx.

NEW THREATS FROM SPRAWL DEVELOPMENT

In l997, Governor Pataki, New York City and officials from upstate watershed communities signed an agreement that broke a political logjam and advanced a cooperative upstate-downstate partnership for watershed protection. Among other things, that program has allowed the city to purchase 40,000 acres of undeveloped watershed lands from willing sellers.

Despite this, though, sprawl development has continued unabated and is racing ahead of state and city efforts to protect watershed wetlands, forests and meadows that are essential to a healthy watershed ecosystem. The trend is most obvious in the east-of-Hudson Croton system reservoirs and the Kensico basin, the 21-group letter warns.

"New subdivisions, corporate and business 'parks' and even strip shopping developments have been transforming the East-of-Hudson watershed for years," the environmental and civic groups write. They note that Putnam County is the fastest growing part of the state, with a 69 percent population increase between 1970 and 2000.

Around the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County, development pressures have mounted. Planned expansion of corporate headquarters, new subdivisions and runway expansion at Westchester Airport are the kinds of projects that, according to watershed watchdogs, threaten water quality in the reservoir that serves as the funnel for the entire Catskill and Delaware system.

While the West-of-Hudson watersheds have seen less dramatic changes so far, the threats to that mostly rural watershed area are also intensifying. Moving ahead in 2003 is the largest Catskills development project in memory -- the "Belleayre Resort," a mega-project with two 18 hole golf courses, two large hotels, hundreds of condominium and time-share units and related commercial facilities, proposed for 600 mountainside acres in Ulster and Delaware counties. Three new gambling casinos, to be built in Ulster and Sullivan counties, also could affect growth and land-use in the nearby watershed areas.

A 21st CENTURY PLAN FOR SAFEGUARDING WATERSHED LANDS

The 21 environmental and civic groups that outlined an enhanced watershed protection program in their recent letter to the governor and the mayor envision three major areas for stepped up activities.

First, the groups are urging a continuation and enhancement of the city's existing watershed land acquisition program. Their proposal calls for the city to purchase an additional 80,000 acres of watershed lands over the next 10 years by the city from willing sellers. This proposal would essentially continue the 8,000 acres-a-year pace that the city has been achieving since l997.

Second, the proposal envisions a greatly expanded program to acquire conservation easements on farms and forests in the watershed. These easements allow landowners to sell the development rights to their property, while providing the owners with continuing rights to live on, farm or harvest, and sell (but not develop) their parcels. The easements would be held in perpetuity by the city, state or land trust to protect the land.

Such easement programs also offer significant water quality benefits since they can preserve existing watershed land uses at roughly 60 percent of the cost of buying the properties outright. The environmental and civic group letter proposes that a combination of federal, state and city funds be utilized to secure 150,000 acres of farm and forest easements over the next decade.

Third, the 21 groups call upon the governor, the state legislature and local watershed communities to adopt and implement new strategies to advance "smart growth" and prevent haphazard development on Catskill, Delaware and Croton system watershed lands.

"There is no single greater threat to our way of life in New Jersey than the unrestrained, uncontrolled development that has jeopardized our water supplies, made our schools more crowded, our roads congested, and our open space disappear," said New Jersey's Governor James E. McGreevey in a remarkable discussion of sprawl and its adverse impacts, part of his recent 2003 State of the State address.

New Jersey, like Maryland, Oregon and a handful of other states, has been moving aggressively to protect their environment from the consequences of haphazard development. New York's water quality activists believe that similar actions are needed here.

To accomplish this, they propose ending highway expansions, as well as subsidies and tax breaks for developers seeking to build on sensitive watershed lands. Instead growth should be channeled into existing cities, towns and watershed hamlets. Also being proposed is state legislation that would give localities the option of placing a small surcharge on real estate transfers, with the proceeds being used to preserve open space in their communities.

OUTLOOK

According to New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Christopher Ward, the risk to New York City's water supply from a terrorist attack is small. The huge volume of water in the city's 19 reservoirs makes it extremely unlikely that toxins could be added to the water supply in sufficient quantity to harm the public without the perpetrators being detected, Ward and other environmental officials maintain. And city and state agencies have recently stepped up efforts to safeguard reservoir dams and other water system infrastructure from attack.

But the 21 environmental and civic groups who wrote to the governor and mayor remain concerned about the long-term, insidious threat to our reservoir network from ill-advised watershed development and the pollution it generates. Although far less dramatic than the threat of terrorism, this issue deserves recognition by all who care about the future of our city.

If Governor Pataki, Mayor Bloomberg and New York's other top elected officials take further steps to safeguard New York's priceless and irreplaceable watershed landscape in 2003, they will insure a lasting legacy that benefits the health, economy and public safety of New Yorkers for the remainder of the 21st century.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Battles Of 2003


New York environmental public policy debates in 2003 are likely to be dominated by fights over money.

In a year in which both the city and state budgets are facing gaping deficits, expect to see bruising battles over funding for wide-ranging programs from recycling to superfund/brownfields clean-up to air pollution reduction. Every environmental initiative will be scrutinized in terms of its economic impact on this year's budgets, and proposals that require major new expenditures will be in for tough sledding.

Among the money pots that will be watched most closely is the State's Environmental Protection Fund. This dedicated funding mechanism created in l993 to finance such statewide programs as open space preservation, landfill closures, waterfront revitalization and urban parks is a possible target of raids from cash-strapped Albany officials. Convincing Governor George Pataki to protect $125 million of these dedicated funds will be one of the first environmental challenges of the new year.

At the same time, 2003 will also present opportunities for advancing environmental proposals that can reduce government operating costs or boost government income. Among the ideas that are likely to receive attention are new initiatives for energy conservation at the city and state level; increasing tolls on the city's East River bridges; and recovering from the beverage industry millions of dollars of unredeemed five cent bottle and can deposits that New York consumers pay every year.

Of course, there will also be efforts to address other issues that could have long-term adverse consequences for public health or the state's ecology if they continue to be ignored. For example, the governor is expected to advance a major new initiative to reduce New York's contribution to global warming. Depending on the specifics of his proposal, this could be particularly significant -- especially given the mounting evidence that climate change resulting from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is the nation's number one environmental threat.

While many other environmental matters are likely to surface in the coming twelve months, here is a quick run-down of four issues certain to be the subject of forthcoming policy debates:

LOWER MANHATTAN REDEVELOPMENT

The most visible environmental issue of 2003 will probably be the rebuilding at the World Trade Center site and the reshaping of Lower Manhattan's infrastructure. Nine new design proposals have recently been presented to the public, and various public forums will be held during January and February (although, asyet, there is no official event comparable to the Civic Alliance's Listening to the City gathering that was convened to review the first set of design proposals last year). Meanwhile, the Port Authority and the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation have established an extremely tight schedule for the selection of a land use plan for the area by the end of February.

Of course, developing the concept and design for a meaningful memorial to the thousands who lost their lives on September 11th must be a top priority. And there will no doubt be much debate in coming months over the size and shape of the new buildings, as well as over the amount of open space and waterfront access.

But the scope of environmental issues involved in the rebuilding effort is much broader. How will the transit infrastructure be reconfigured and what impact will the choices have on future development patterns throughout the region?Will planners seize the opportunity to make these new buildings world-class models of energy-efficiency and green design?And what connection will there be between plans for the trade center site and Mayor Bloomberg's own provocative plan for reshaping Lower Manhattan with everything from new airport links to new parks?

"The world is watching what we do here," says Ron Shiffman, director of Pratt Institute's Center for Community and Environmental Development. "They watched the buildings come down, and they are watching to see what will go up," he continued." If we can rebuild lower Manhattan in a way that does not shift environmental burdens to other communities, that reduces dependence on fossil fuels and that becomes a model of green design, we can send a strong message to the region and the world" as to the future we envision for the urban environment.

SOLID WASTE AND RECYCLING

Turning to New York City's handling of more than 30,000 tons a day of garbage, the coming year will bring numerous challenges.

Last year, in a big victory for environmental justice advocates, Mayor Bloomberg announced a plan to upgrade the city's old waterfront-based garbage transfer stations for trash export. If implemented, the plan --similar to one advanced by the Organization for Waterfront Neighborhoods and other waste activists -- could dramatically reduce the amount of garbage now carried into and out ofland-based transfer stations(mostly in already overburdened neighborhoods of Brooklyn and the Bronx) by diesel-spewing trucks. The lengthy process for reconstructing the first few waterfront waste transfer stations is expected to begin in 2003.

On the related issue of recycling, the city's solid waste program is facing more hurdles. Last year, the mayor and City Council suspended the collection for recycling of plastics and glass. A governmental task force is due to report in Feburary on future prospects for restoring those materials to the city's existing collection program. (The Sanitation Department has continued to collect paper and metals and take them to processors who pay the city for each ton of recyclables received.)

Although some recycling is already cheaper for the city than exporting trash to out-of-state landfills, finding new ways to reduce the costs of other aspects of the city's recycling program will be a focus of policy-makers in 2003.

"The time has come to look for new mechanisms and new institutions to help the city implement a more cost-effective recycling program,"says Mark Izeman, solid waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A coalition of environmental and civic groups, as well as New York Sate Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who has already established his credentials as an environmental champion, are seeking to advance legislation that would, among other things, generate as much as 170 million dollars a year for recycling and other programs around the state. This proposal envisions recapturing the unclaimed five cent deposits that are paid by consumers who purchase beer or soda containers but do not return those containers for their deposits. Since the state bottle bill was passed in 1982,beverage distributors have kept more than one billion dollars of such unredeemed nickel deposits. Attorney General Spitzer, environmental advocates and friends of recycling in the state legislature agree that the time for this industry windfall to end has arrived.

SUPERFUND AND BROWNFIELDS LEGISLATION

New York State's Superfund program, reponsible for cleaning up toxic wastes at hundreds of contaminated sites from Buffalo to Long Island, is stalled. This successful environmental program has essentially run out of funds. Last year, Governor Pataki proposed to spend $138 million per year to clean up all previously identified Superfund sites (as well as help fund "brownfield" clean-ups) over twenty years. But at the end of the legislative session only about nine million dollars were allocated. That was barely enough to retain the Superfund staff at the State Department of Environmental Conservation and to keep several partially completed clean-up projects moving forward. With current funds, the collapsing program can not support new investigations of toxic sites or take on new clean-up projects.

"Superfund and brownfields is the number one legislative environmental issue of the year in Albany," according to Jeff Jones, the ever-present communications director for the Albany-based watchdog group, Environmental Advocates. As has been true in the past several years, the legislative debate will center on appropriate clean-up standards for these sites as well as overall funding levels and the source of those funds ( e.g., the amount paid into the fund by businesses rather than by the general public).

While the number of state Superfund sites in New York City itself is relatively few, there are more than 5,000 abandoned or under-utilized properties, referred to as brownfields. These land parcels, frequently located in industrial and/or waterfront areas, are often not redeveloped due to concerns over possible on-site environmental pollution. Although these properties could be used for new businesses, homes, or recreational facilities, developers have also shied away from them because of pollution-related liability concerns and financial uncertainties. As a result, valuable city lands are lying fallow, in-city job opportunities are being lost, andadded development pressures are being placed on farms and ecologically valuable green spaces in the far fringes of the region.

For several years, legislative proposals have been kicking around in Albany that would attempt to accelerate brownfields clean-up by providing more formal and uniform standards for environmental clean-up and greater involvement by community groups in the planning process for brownfields redevelopment in their neighborhoods. Brownfields reform legislation has been tied to the state superfund issue, and it is likely that the two clean-up programs will once again live or die together in the 2003 legislative session.

LEADED PAINT AND CHILDREN'S HEALTH

Leaded paint remains the major source of high-level lead exposure to New York City children, and one of the oldest environmental disputes is expected to resurface again in 2003.

For decades, physicians have known of the mental and physical risks to children who mouth and chew paint chips that contain lead. (Although the federal government prohibited the use of lead for all interior and exterior paints in 1977, New York's older housing stock contains tens of thousands of apartments and residences where old leaded paint lingers as a problem.)

In l999, a new city statute took effect that altered the previous city law and weakened certain requirements on building owners and managers relating to leaded paint clean-ups. At the time the controversial statute was enacted, the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator warned that the new lead law omitted two critical steps-- requiring specially trained workers to conduct remedial lead-paint work and mandating follow-up testing for lead after remediation work is concluded. Public health advocates shared those and other concerns, and have been seeking to revise the law ever since.

"Though lead poisoning is entirely preventable, there were approximately 8, 000 new lead poisoning cases in New York City in the year 2000," says Queens-based City Councilmember John C. Liu, relying on official city statistics. (It is likely that this figure significantly underestimates the total problem.) Liu is one of more than 30 co-sponsors of Intro. 101, a new bill that would tighten leaded paint requirements for building owners and managers.

Manhattan Councilmember Bill Perkins, a primary sponsor of Intro.101, is spearheading the legislative fight for the new lead law. And with the New York Coalition to End Lead Poisoning, West Harlem Environmental Action, and an array of physicians leading the public charge,the push for reform of the city's lead paint law should reach a crescendo in 2003.

Eric Goldstein is co-director of the urban program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. 



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