FOR the past 12 years, officials have assured residents of a
predominantly bl TX:ack neighborhood in Albany, N.Y. that a trash-burning incinerator was not a health threat.
But less than three weeks after the incinerator's emissions blackened the snow at the nearby governor's mansion, the incinerator was shut down.
Until the day it closed last month, the plant burned approximately 350 tons of waste each day - sending arsenic, lead, mercury, and other pollutants into the air. It also provided steam to heat and cool the offices of Gov. Mario Cuomo and state legislators.
For Emily Grisom and others, the garbage-burning incinerator had been a longstanding irritant and an example of what they say is environmental racism.
Ms. Grisom has lived on the same block as the state-owned incinerator since it began burning trash in 1981. In the summer, she has had to close her windows because of the stench of burning garbage. She says she knows at least 10 neighborhood children with respiratory diseases, and she links their problems to the incinerator.
``[But] no one's looking at that,'' she says. ``They have not bothered, because this area is 99 percent black. They have never bothered. If it was in a white community, five or 10 kids, they would say `That's outrageous.' ''
While state officials had said they were sure the incinerator - dubbed the ``ANSWERS'' plant - an acronym for Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System - was not harming residents, they had concluded it was outdated. They said it would have been very costly to bring it up to the standards of newer plants. State officials had planned to close it in two years.
But a malfunction at the plant that caused a shower of unburned oil particles to darken the snow-covered ground in downtown Albany, including the governor's mansion, hastened the incinerator's shutdown date.
For some, the shutdown of the garbage-burning operation didn't come soon enough.
``If it was in any other neighborhood in Albany, it would have been shut down years ago,'' says Judy Enck, senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in Albany.
Ms. Enck charges that the plant was another example of ``environmental racism'' - a phrase that has become increasingly widespread as environmentalists focus attention on the disproportionate number of minority areas affected by pollution.
``That's absurd, absolutely absurd. I can't think of any conscionable person suggesting that,'' counters Thom Tubbs, a spokesman for the Office of General Services, which operates the plant.
The proximity to downtown government buildings, Mr. Tubbs says, was the key factor in the location of the incinerator.
ANSWERS is probably the most modern-looking and perhaps best-kept building on its block.
Originally a steam plant that burned natural gas, an incinerator was added to the facility by the state as part of a city-state waste disposal system. The energy the incinerator produced by burning garbage provided heat for many government buildings downtown, including the massive Empire State Plaza office, museum and convention complex.
Now that the incinerator has been shut down, the plant is relying again on natural gas to provide steam to the state buildings.
Enck contends that the incinerator's daily emissions exceeded the state's own pollution standards. Gary Strier, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, denies that.
NYPIRG and community organizations had fought to have ANSWERS shut down for almost as long as it has been in service. Some people left the neighborhood rather than wait to see when it would be closed.
``A couple of dozen [residents] have moved out of the area because they had health problems ...,'' Enck says. She had even suggested to residents that they move for their own well-being.
She says she had asked the state Department of Health and the Albany County Health Department to conduct studies on how the plant affected residents' health, but they refused.
A 1991 study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that most hazardous waste sites are in minority neighborhoods or in white, poor rural areas.
``It's a fairness issue. It's unfair that these communities bear a disproportionate risk burden simply because of their race or economic background,'' says Robert Knox, deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Environmental Equity in Washington.
Earlier this year, a bill to ensure that minorities were not disproportionately affected by toxic waste passed in the state Assembly but was defeated in the state Senate.