Staten Island Has Had Its Fill of Nation's Largest Landfill

Residents file suit to stop New York garbage barges

Nick Drytryszn gestures towards a row of trees. Hanging from the budding limbs are hundreds of plastic bags. It is not some new horticultural invention. The bags were blown into the area from nearby hills of trash - some nearly as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

The garbage mounds are part of the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, the largest dump in the country - and the sole one for 7 million New Yorkers.

At over 3,000 acres, the dump is six times the size of LaGuardia Airport and four times the size of Disneyland. But this is no theme park.

This spring residents of Staten Island, enraged over the dump's odors, have announced plans to file a lawsuit in federal court to get the city to stop depositing 13,000 tons of garbage per day. "It has grown intolerable over the last year or so," says Guy Molinari, Staten Island Borough President. "As the height has gone up, the odors are stronger. They carry for miles and desecrate our neighborhoods."

The suit poses more than just a potential problem for New Yorkers looking to discard old bagels. It raises touchy questions of property values, pollution, and traffic - issues surfacing at many of the nation's 4,800 landfills.

"Most people resist mightily the siting of a landfill near them," says Lannie Hickman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, who notes there is also a major trash fight going on in Riverside, Calif., over a "mega" landfill that will take much of Los Angeles's solid waste.

The amount these sites contribute to smog and methane pollution alone is substantial.

"Those emissions are projected to increase over the next few years; it is not an inconsequential problem," says William Becker, executive director of the State and Territory Air Pollution Program Administrators.

Pollution problem

Emissions, in fact, are a major concern of the Staten Island contingent. They complain about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) escaping from the dump. These are chemicals such as benzene that contribute to smog forming pollutants.

"Landfills represent probably close to 2 percent of our total inventory of VOCs, or about the same amount that comes from gas stations or pollution control devices on cars," says Mr. Becker.

According to Mr. Drytryszyn, an environmental engineer for the borough of Staten Island, the dump here produces 5.7 percent of the total US methane and 1.8 percent of all the methane produced globally.

"Clearly if you put a smokestack on top of Fresh Kills and called it a factory, the government would have shut it down years ago," says Craig Donner, a spokesman for Mr. Molinari.

The city has started to tap the methane gas. Currently about 25 percent of the methane is sold to Brooklyn Union Gas as fuel. Within the next year the city will be mining 75 percent of the gas.

"This should alleviate the odor problem tremendously," says Lucian Chalfen, a spokesman for the New York Sanitation Department.

The city, in fact, is working to try to minimize some of the other problems associated with the dump

During a tour of Fresh Kills, an operations supervisor, Steve Violetta, points to fences to capture flying plastic bags and boats skimming the water for garbage that falls off barges loaded with 600 to 800 tons each.

Spray on the deodorant

The city also sprays pine oil deodorant on the site each day, and trucks with giant vacuums clean debris from the roads.

Yet dealing with such a volume isn't easy. A fleet of 103 barges brings garbage in 24 hours a day. A steady convoy of trucks - each carrying 50,000 pounds - ferries in and out.

An hour after the city's tour, Drytryszyn shows the down side of the dump. Only a short distance from one of the active dump sites is a large mall. He says merchants and shoppers complain bitterly over the smells. "This summer it's only going to be worse," he spits out.

At least some politicians in New York are listening to the complaints. There is a resolution before the City Council requiring the dump to close by the year 2002. It is supported by 31 out of 51 Council members. A hearing is scheduled for May 1.

This week Molinari met with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani about the issue. "I learned the mayor is conducting his own internal study to determine what they can do if Fresh Kills closes and the relative costs," says Molinari.

Mr. Chalfen says the city has budgeted money to export some of the solid waste from the Bronx to other locations. He says Giuliani and the Sanitation Commissioner "will be concretely addressing the issue in the near future."

Closing the lid

US Rep. Susan Molinari, the borough president's daughter, is also trying to find ways to attack the dump. "She's looking for a vehicle to mandate closure," says Mr. Molinari.

If the city does agree to close the dump, it's not clear what will happen to the 14,000 tons of garbage it produces each day. "There is no silver bullet to make the trash go away," says Hickman.

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