Three years after the City Council passed a Waste Equity Law sharply reducing trash trucked to waste transfer stations in environmentally hard-hit neighborhoods, one lawmaker is pressing to roll back the change in his own district.
Councilmember I. Daneek Miller (D-Queens) is the sole sponsor of a bill that would lift the restrictions for transfer stations that deliver plans to ship out trash by rail — including in Queens Community District 12. The measure is scheduled for a pair of votes Thursday, while a key committee chair is out of the country.
While the existing law already exempts facilities that rely on rail as an alternative to long-haul trucks, Miller’s bill would fast-track the exception, lifting the restrictions for facilities that intend to begin using garbage trains soon, giving them four years to follow through.
“We want to make sure that there’s provisions in place where companies want to do the right thing,” Miller told THE CITY.
Among the trash station operators in the area, along the Long Island Rail Road tracks, are Royal Waste Services, Regal Recycling Company and American Recycling Co.
Not so fast, say Miller constituents who advocated for the Waste Equity Law’s passage.
They say that living alongside the waste stations in southeast Queens is a daily experience of environmental racism, with garbage trucks constantly rumbling down the streets and exhaust leaving them gasping for air.
Air reeks near the stations, they say, forcing them inside their homes and away from Liberty Park. A group of community leaders has even begun legal proceedings against two waste stations on Liberty Avenue in Jamaica.
“Clean air is something that we have to ask for on top of everything else,” said Oster Bryan, 41, chair of the St. Albans Civic Association, who held a sign with the slogan “We literally can’t breathe” at a Tuesday rally outside Miller’s office.
“We shouldn’t have to ask for that.”
Most of the city’s commercial waste is exported by long haul trucks via waste transfer stations in four community districts spanning North Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, and the South Bronx, all of which include lower-income communities of color.
In August 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio signed the Waste Equity Law, pressed by lead sponsor Councilmember Antonio Reynoso (D-Brooklyn), after years of advocacy by residents of overburdened communities. The law has survived industry opposition.
Local Law 152 mandated that no single community district would be responsible for handling more than 10% of the city’s commercial waste. After its implementation, the daily capacity of stations in the designated four community districts was slashed by a total of 10,137 tons daily, according to a 2020 city Sanitation Department report.
Miller told THE CITY that his bill accelerates environmental improvements for neighborhoods the law aims to benefit, by removing trucks from the street.
“In order to do better, we have to go rail,” Miller said.
Allowing increased capacity at the waste transfer stations will help the waste management companies generate the revenue needed to help build out rail infrastructure and make the shift from trucks, he said — something he says they are hard pressed to do under the strict capacity cuts.
Dominic Susino, American Recycling’s controller, told THE CITY that his company is looking to invest $30 million into building out rail capacity.
“We have been exploring this option for a long time,” he said, adding that they intend to partner with neighboring Royal Waste Services. “The exemption that we’re seeking here is to help us get the financing required to make it possible.”
Besides reactivating what he called a “dead rail line,” he added improvements will include a new facility with “advanced odor mitigation.”
The companies’ reasoning hasn’t convinced the constituents who protested outside Miller’s office and presented a staffer with a petition signed by more than 170 people.
“There is no waste equity in NYC, it is community abuse and neglect in disadvantaged areas,” the petition reads, adding that the bill only “benefits the elected official that gets funding from these organizations at the expense of the district they represent.”
City records show that waste stations based in Southeast Queens have lobbied Miller and other elected officials for years over legislation.
Most recently, Royal Waste Services paid a lobbyist to target Miller and Reynoso to amend the Waste Equity Bill. American Recycling spent more than $19,000 in total this year to lobby Miller and Reynoso, along with Councilmembers James Gennaro in Queens and Justin Brannan in Brooklyn.
Four years for stations to export by rail means four more years of keeping the windows closed and never entering the park, said Caroll Forbes, 74, who lives across the street from the stations on Liberty Avenue. She said she doesn’t recall the last time she set foot in Liberty Park.
“I can’t open my windows,” Forbes said, adding that her nine grandchildren were asthmatic when they lived in the neighborhood.
Her daughter Stephanie, 50, said she avoids the closest bus stop and frequents a park further away to avoid the stench and dusty air.
“We just want to breathe and enjoy the park, without getting asthma and respiratory attacks,” she said. “You are getting sick because you’re inhaling garbage. You’re smelling garbage, toxic waste on your skin, you’re inhaling it…. Why would you put a garbage thing by a park? It doesn’t make sense.”
The same week Miller introduced his bill, the group New York Lawyers for the Public Interest issued a notice of plans to file suit against two waste transfer facilities in his district, American Recycling Company and Regal Services, which is affiliated with Royal Waste Services, over what it alleges is illegal discharge of polluted stormwater. Melissa Iachan, senior supervising counsel for NYLPI, said she plans to file suit in federal court in mid-September.
“We looked into these allegations. We feel they are baseless,” said American Recycling’s Susino, noting that the facilities are regulated by the city and state environmental agencies as well as the city Department of Sanitation. “At the moment it’s unfortunate they are trying to use the current legislation and the timing of it to try to push a different agenda.”
On Express Track
Miller’s bill has fast-tracked through the City Council since its introduction a month ago. It is set to be voted out of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Thursday morning and be heard at the full Council’s stated meeting later in the afternoon.
An environmental assessment for the bill, released a day prior to the votes, found no potentially significant adverse environmental impacts. The assessment also notes a net reduction in truck traffic would be achieved if all waste is exported by rail.
Council staffers told THE CITY that the bill’s trajectory is atypical — especially given that the committee chair Reynoso is out of the country, following his nomination as Brooklyn borough president, and that the bill has only one sponsor, Miller.
Reynoso’s chief of staff, Jennifer Gutiérrez, who in June won the Democratic primary to succeed her boss to represent Brooklyn’s District 34, described Miller’s bill as “wildly irresponsible and disappointing.”
“I think back to 2018 when this bill was passed,” Gutiérrez said. “Fast forward to three years later…this bill that could potentially negate the progress we made.”