It's an island of contradictions. Although it could never again be described as rural, Staten Island does have lovely pockets of solitude that turn lush and green in the spring, hiding all kinds of wildlife. Many of the homes have lawns, even in the more-populated north of the island. And, according to local fishing enthusiasts, the waters off Staten Island's southeast shores are filled with fish and shellfish.
But not far away is the landfill.
Between 15,000 and 18,000 tons of garbage a day are brought to Staten Island from New York City's other boroughs. Unless politicians can decide where in the city to build resource recovery plants, the Fresh Kills landfill may reach the height of 500 feet by the year 2000, making it the highest spot on the Eastern shore between Maine and Florida. Right now Staten Island's residential Todt Hill holds that honor.
Then there is the pell-mell development on the island. Parts of the island do not have sewage systems, and some residents have been known to pipe water from washing machines to the street. Some builders have wanted to pipe sewage into the shallow waters off Staten Island beaches.
Staten Island has also been the victim of toxic dumping, fumes from New Jersey's petrochemical industry, and noise and air pollution from increased traffic.
''We have a very serious problem of garbage,'' says borough president Anthony R. Gaeta. ''We have the largest garbage dump in the world.'' Even with the ''fancy term'' landfill, it is still garbage, he adds.
One Staten Islander says some of his friends on the island are considering moving inland to New Jersey, to the ''other side of the pollution, congestion, and traffic.''
But Staten Island natives, content with their quiet life, and immigrants to the island, who left row houses and deteriorating neighborhoods in Brooklyn and other boroughs, have combined to form a tough front in the battle to keep Staten Island a desirable and environmentally safe place to live.
They have entered many skirmishes, and expect many more. But they have also won some impressive victories.
If one name is almost synonymous with environmentalism on Staten Island, it is probably Lou Figurelli, a colorful New Jersey transplant who takes on businesses and the local, state, and federal governments with glee. As president of the Natural Resources Protective Association of Staten Island, he has helped prevent the overfishing of menhaden from Raritan Bay, won a court ruling against an Army Corps of Engineers' proposal to dump dredge spoils in a sport and commercial fishing area, and prevented developers from spilling sewage onto Tottenville beaches.
''We are circled by water. If we kill the water, we are dead,'' says Mr. Figurelli, who looks a bit like Popeye the Sailor with his trademark captain's hat. He is as tough as Popeye, too, when he talks about improving the waters off Staten Island. He calls himself a fighter.
''Give me a copy machine, telephone, and the news media, and I'll beat you all.''
In fact, Figurelli sees an improvement in Staten Island's environment. And he is currently battling the United States Department of Interior over its decision to exclude two Staten Island beaches from becoming part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Interior Secretary William P. Clark has said the beaches were made unswimmable by polluted waters from the Hudson River. Figurelli and others dispute the finding, and point out the importance of increasing federal protection of such spots to ensure that they don't become polluted in the future.
On shore, it is not a question of who is or who isn't concerned about the environment, but who is most effective in battling the problems. US Rep. Guy V. Molinari calls the pollution of the environment one of the nation's most serious problems. He points out that even as a Republican, he has questioned the Reagan administration's stance on the environment. And some residents say they will go to Congressman Molinari's office first when they have a complaint.
His critics, such as new editor James Callaghan of the Staten Island Register , charge that Molinari is all words and no action. The Register conducts its own investigations. For example, the newspaper has questioned the US Navy about the contract for an environmental impact report that will study a plan to base a seven-ship surface action group in Stapleton.
Many Staten Islanders say they are tired of being ''dumped on'' by the rest of New York City. And some theorize that what the city likes most about their island is all the land available for projects such as landfills, utility projects, and the Navy's home port. Again, there is criticism of local politicians.
''There is no resistance (from the politicians) to these things until it's too late,'' says Mr. Callaghan. Some residents have become adept at organizing to protest what they consider environmental abuse.
A group of concerned families near the Brookfield landfill battled the city last year over the installation of sewage pipes through the landfill. The city was digging a trench for the sewer lines, and the fumes were causing health problems for nearby residents. IRATE (Island Residents Against Toxic Environments) pestered the city and environmental quality inspectors. The first line was completed and covered. It's ''pretty definite'' a second line will be built over the landfill, says a spokesman for the city's Department of Environmental Protection.
The tall landfills, even with a grassy cover, and the daily barges on Staten Island's west shore are the most vivid reminders of environmental dilemma.
''We have been pushing for resource recovery,'' says borough president Gaeta, referring to the high technology incineration that converts waste to energy. He points out that plans for such a plant in Brooklyn were foiled several years ago because of community and political opposition.
A spokesman from New York City's sanitation department says one plan calls for eight to 10 incinerators to be built throughout the five boroughs by the year 2000.
During the past 20 years, new residents who moved to Staten Island to find a bit of green grass created a demand for new housing. The new developments look foreign on the gentle Staten Island landscape. But, says one politician, after some years of helter-skelter development, the public is becoming more sensitive and is demanding responsible planning.
Gaeta, who has been borough president for almost seven years, admits that rapid development has left the island with some unpleasant problems. But he also says ''great strides'' have been made in improving storm sewers and sanitation services.
''The environment here is a tough problem, but not a disaster. There have been new allegations of toxic dumping at Brookfield,'' says Terry Golway, a reporter for the Staten Island Advance. ''But we are not a Love Canal,'' he adds , referring to the dumping by Hooker Chemical Company of toxic wastes near a residential area upstate in Niagara Falls.