One of the reasons I moved to New York was that I wanted to ditch my car. The first few times I set foot on the M14 bus, I felt comforted by the idea of saving future generations by preserving fossil fuels. The feeling didn’t last long, as I was jolted from my romantic notions by a little black cloud trailing behind the bus on 14th Street — that’s diesel exhaust, and it’s bad.
Upper Manhattan has one of the highest levels of asthma hospitalization in the country, thanks in no small part to the MTA. Six of the eight bus depots in New York City are located above 96th Street, where buses sit and idle all day, and the bus traffic is consistently heavy. Until 2005, the MTA’s bus fleet ran completely on diesel fuel — not all that fuel efficient, stinky, and full of carcinogens like cadmium, along with many other poisons (formaldehyde!). Besides contributing to high rates of asthma, diesel exhaust fumes are also linked to emphysema, bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks and reduced life expectancy.
Ten years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that Upper Manhattan’s air was 200% more polluted than the national standard. The Environmental Justice action group WE ACT launched an awareness campaign that proposed the conversion of bus depots to clean-running natural gas and clean-fuel buses, and in 2000 the MTA responded by purchasing lower-sulfur diesel and some low-grade filters: an improvement, but not enough. WE ACT filed a Title IV discrimination suit against the MTA, concerned that the diesel buses were harbored in Harlem above 96th Street because it was a largely low-income, minority neighborhood.
WE ACT is still struggling with New York City Transit and the MTA. Of the 20 bus garages in New York, only two, in Brooklyn and the Bronx, have been converted to natural gas, with the promise that Upper Manhattan will receive a majority of the hybrid buses; so far, however, it’s mostly still the old buses on the roads. By the end of the first quarter of 2008, one-third of New York City buses will be hybrid buses, but it remains to be seen what proportion of them actually end up idling in any of the six Harlem bus depots.
ON A TRAIN TO NOWHERE:
THE SECRET LIFE OF NYC TRASH
Trains are a great transportation option for those who want to reduce their carbon footprint on longer journeys, and while a riverside trip up the Hudson can be picturesque, passengers would do well to take a closer look at some of the rail yards: many of them are actually illegal garbage dumps.
Anhthu Hoang, the General Counsel for WE ACT, tells me that garbage “transfer stations,” a delicate term for illegal dumps, are springing up all along the private sections of railroad tracks, as a way for private rail yard investors to make some easy money. Since New York City closed its own garbage dumps and incinerators, all of the trash created in New York is exported to states in the Midwest and South, via diesel trucks and railroads. Some of it is sent to incinerators in New Jersey, which does little good for Manhattan, since it shares a common air shed with New Jersey, but the rest of the garbage, while on its way out of state, often gets re-routed to private transfer stations before it even exits the city limits. And there it remains — in some cases for years. This has become another major, seriously unsexy issue for New York, especially in the Bronx and suburbs of New York City, like Middletown and Orange County. In Maspeth, Queens, a development site around the doomed St. Saviour’s Church has become a “temporary” dump, as trucks cart in huge railway containers of garbage at all hours of the night. So, not only are developers planning to tear down the historic church, built in 1847, they’re using the blasted heath to store trash.
How does this happen? Like all things governmental, it happens through a loophole. Railroads are federally controlled, and waste management is a state and local issue. So, insofar as the “transfer stations” (illegal dumps) are on privately owned railroad property, which is federally regulated, the dump owners can prevent state and local regulators from inspecting.
This problem isn’t a new one, especially to federal government officials. Congressman Maurice Hinchey spent considerable time in 2006 battling a proposed solid-waste transfer station in Middletown, which would be privately owned on railroad property. Hinchey’s work paid off in 2007 when a successful amendment to the Transportation-Treasury Appropriations Bill condemned the loophole, but Ms. Hoang tells me it’s happening anyway, as the bill simply states that the Federal Government never intended for rail yards to be used as transfer stations, and allows for the possibility of state and local inspection, but does not mandate it. It’s a wagging finger with no follow through.
Illegal dumping grounds are hot spots for bacteria and parasites, but it’s often difficult to show a direct relationship between garbage and disease, as the majority of infections are carried by children, dogs, cats, mice and rats who unwittingly transfer the bacteria into your home or food. One of the most serious health problems commonly linked to illegal dumps is leptospirosis, which has had an alarming increase in prevalence among urban children across the country. Leptospirosis is often misdiagnosed because it presents in a variety of ways: flulike symptoms, severe abdominal pain or, alternately, no symptoms at all. Leptospirosis can lead to meningitis and kidney disease, and is just one of a thousand health problems linked to trash.
BROWNFIELDS IN BROOKLYN:
COAL TAR CONDOS AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE
While diesel exhaust from a hundred idling buses and midnight garbage “relocation” are bad enough, there is, sadly, a point at which the average person usually stops paying attention — but when the problem’s bubbling at your feet, in your very neighborhood, it’s hard to look the other way. I was walking my friend’s dog in Williamsburg when we came upon a construction site surrounded by a fence. Of course, the view of the lot was blocked off, but I could see a sinister, sludgy puddle-pond near the edge of the sidewalk. The dog pulled me toward it to have a sniff — alarmed, and uncertain about what the puddle contained, I yanked back on the leash. On the way home we passed other fenced-in lots with who knows what bubbling to the surface.
As soon as I got to my apartment, I looked up my zip code on the EPA website to see what I could find out about the mystery muck, and soon discovered that the EPA has posted a long and open-ended page of hazardous waste handlers (183 of them!) all on streets near my Greenpoint home. I’d always known Greenpoint was toxic, but I thought it was just from the oil spill.
The next day I called Walter Hang, a former engineer and now an independent researcher. Hang is the founder of Toxics Targeting, a company that researches the toxic history of specific locations on individual request, using information compiled thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. He laughed when I told him about the EPA website.
Hang told me that to be included in the EPA’s listings, a company must fit very specific criteria beyond toxicity, and the investigation requires vigilance and cooperation on the part of the alleged polluter, which greatly limits the number of toxic sites listed. Essentially, companies must serve in part as their own watchdogs. Also, the databases aren’t always up to date because the EPA has limited funding for investigation. Hang recently collaborated with PropertyShark.com to create a New York City mapping device: enter an address and it returns all the toxic events that have ever occurred nearby. According to Hang, the major issue in most areas of New York, especially Brooklyn, is in this historical data.
“New York City has a long history of industrial activity,” he explained. “Many of those industrial operations have generated an incredible legacy of environmental waste that will affect us for the rest of time.” Major industries in Brooklyn’s past include paint factories, lead smelting factories and manufactured gas plants, which converted coal into cooking, heating and lighting gas for hundreds of years until natural gas became widely available in the 1940s and 50s. The byproducts of these industries, particularly lead and coal tar, do not go away.
Dr. Allen Hatheway is a geological engineer with a special passion for manufactured gas plants. He too warned me about the EPA standards, stating that while the term “brownfield” has spurred community action, it simplifies the issue of historic pollution. (Brownfield is a catchall term for underdeveloped, formerly industrial-use urban property that’s environmentally suspect.)
Hatheway explained that the brownfield system is based on a concept by Carol Browner, an EPA administrator who focused on air, not terrestrial, pollution. The system is developer-friendly, and does what it can to promote a toxic clean-up for the developer’s benefit, at a much lower standard than a citizen would want for their own health. Furthermore, the cleanups are conducted by consultants paid for by the developer — or municipality — that wants to build on the land. The EPA, perpetually underfunded and understaffed, is unable to provide adequate oversight of these cleanups.
Tidy phrases like “brownfield” and “coal tar” fail to capture the essence of the problem, instead conveniently simplifying it for popular consumption. Coal tar can be comprised of up to 3,000 different compounds, and it will never decompose. It’s frequently carcinogenic and may contain ammonia, cyanide, sulfur and heavy metals like arsenic. There are over 50 sites in Brooklyn that were once manufactured gas plants (and, thus, the site of much coal tar and lead production), including the area under the Gowanus Pathmark grocery store.
And the old coal tar isn’t idling in the ground — it’s bubbling up through the surface. Last year, Gowanus Lounge (gowanuslounge.blogspot.com), a blog about development in post-industrial Brooklyn written by Bob Guskind, reported that an oil-like substance had been seen oozing up from North 11th and Roebling Streets in Williamsburg. The coal tar sewage began to percolate after the site was excavated for development. (The construction crews wore no protective gear when they handled the toxic bilge.) Local residents told Guskind that oil had seeped out of the ground at other sites, but had gone unreported in what many speculate was an attempt to avoid costly cleanups. As of the end of 2007, Guskind reported that almost no environmental testing had been done in the area.
The site at Roebling and N11th? It just opened up as Warehouse 11, billed as “Williamsburg’s most anticipated new development.” A commenter on the real estate blog Curbed wrote, “If it were that dangerous they would have never been allowed to build the thing, don’t you think?”
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Though the toxicity of any given area can be uncovered in public documents, developers are not going to fall all over themselves revealing it to the public, and aren’t legally bound to do so. If you’re buying a condo or a co-op, New York State Law does not require environmental disclosure on the site, so you could be buying a million-dollar share of luxury and brain cancer, if you’re not careful. Fortunately, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, with a little effort you can take a look at the documents yourself, or you can hire companies like Toxics Targeting to find them for you. But ultimately, condo-buyers are buying at their own risk.
This all seems pretty bleak, but the information is out there, and it’s up to the concerned citizen to get angry and get vocal.
Don’t let abstract visions of the future distract you from the problems that are facing us locally, right now. Bloomberg is running on a big campaign called “PlaNYC 2030”, which is all about making New York a sustainable city, including brownfield cleanup. It’s important to make sure Bloomberg does all he can to clean up the mess that already exists, and that — love affair with developers notwithstanding — he makes sure the bulk of the cleanup costs are passed on to the condo barons and not the tax payers. This is something worth getting angry about.
Don’t assume that information “for your own good” will be automatically given to you. If “your own good” compromises someone else’s prosperity, you most likely won’t hear of it unless you research it yourself. If people make enough noise about a neighborhood’s toxicity, it will encourage developers to take cleanup seriously. Use the mapping tool at Propertyshark.com before you rent or buy, to investigate the toxic history of the neighborhood, and look for active sites in the area through the EPA’s website — and on foot!
Support activist groups like WE ACT and let the MTA and other city organizations know that it’s not just important to “go green,” but to watch out for the health and safety of all our citizens.
Also, support the unsung politicians who take on these issues, like Congressman “Garbage Warrior” Maurice Hinchey, up for reelection this year in his district, which includes Ithaca, Middletown and Poughkeepsie. Ask your local representatives what they’re doing to protect your neighborhood. Eliot Spitzer, between visits to the brothel, actually did a considerable amount of work for the environment, including a bill that reforms the ways in which ground contamination is cleaned up.
Images of polar bears stranded on ice floes in the Arctic Sea help sell magazines, and apocalyptic renderings of lower Manhattan half underwater are fun to look at, but there are a lot of very local environmental problems that can be dealt with here and now. Going green is great, and everyone should be conscientious about their lifestyle choices, but we need to take a little time to clean up our own backyards before we can save the planet.