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Garbage In, Garbage Out

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For some years, the City of New York has been planning to construct a marine transfer station (MTS) on the Manhattan side of the East River, with an entrance and exit at 91st Street and York Avenue. There was such a facility on that site until 1990, when it was closed. In the twenty years since, the neighborhood has become increasingly high-rise residential and Asphalt Green, a recreation center with a swimming pool and substantial play areas for children, has been built east of York Avenue, immediately adjacent to the site.

The transfer station would be a large building which trucks loaded with garbage that would enter and then drop their contents into scows. When filled, the scows, pulled by tugboats, would travel down the East River and bring the garbage to freight cars which would carry it by rail to rural sites where the city had purchased rights to deposit solid waste.

The site, a couple of blocks from Gracie Mansion, has stirred neighborhood controversy. Local elected officials, led by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, are strongly opposed to the location. Mayor Bloomberg supports it. Indeed, he advanced its construction by a year, in an effort to lock in the site before he leaves office in December 2013.

Supporters of the site say that Manhattan should handle its own garbage, rather than ship it to other boroughs. They say the residents of the East Side who oppose the site are guilty of "environmental racism," dumping unpopular facilities in neighborhoods inhabited by poor people. This argument carried the day at the City Council, where in June 2005 an attempt by then-Speaker Gifford Miller to over-rule the mayor's solid waste plan which included the marine transfer station failed when the speaker could not muster the necessary two-thirds of the Council, and the vote was canceled. It was rumored at the time that Miller had rounded up 32 votes, but 34 out of 51 members were required for an over-ride.

The fact that Miller was running for mayor against Bloomberg that year did not help his cause. It enabled the mayor to appear as the defender of the outer boroughs against a councilmember from the silk stocking district who did not want a necessary sanitary facility in his backyard, even to take care of his own constituents' garbage.

Since that time, the project has spent six years wending its way through the bureaucracy. When approved, the decision was seen as the outcome of a political battle between the mayor and the speaker. Now, with Miller long out of politics, and Speaker Quinn a strong ally of the mayor as she seeks to become his designated successor, the old lineup has evaporated, and the transfer station appears to have clear sailing.

None of this has to do with the merits of the proposal, which have been challenged in the courts, so far without success. In general, the courts are supposed to decide on whether the city has authority to take a particular action, not to judge the merits of the proposed action. However, judges often insert themselves into local disputes, whether to make friends or avoid making enemies, or to attract attention to themselves and the power they can exercise, at least until the matter is taken to a higher court, which has no problem in reversing political decisions made by trial judges.

Disclosure: I live on East 84th Street, which is far enough away from the site for me not to be bothered by whatever smoke, noise, odors or fumes that may emanate from the plant. I do remember the old plant, and the problem there was that trucks waiting to enter one of the berths from which they dumped the garbage would line up on York Avenue, their diesel engines running, all the way down to 86th Street, five blocks south of the station. The trucks were often accompanied by flies, who feasted on the trucks' cargo whenever they could gain access.

The environmental elite is all for the project, out of belief that it will mitigate global warning, and the conviction that anything that discommodes rich people or reduces the value of their homes cannot be all bad. These groups have been under fire from minorities because they are overwhelmingly white, although composed primarily of volunteers.

Supporting this project is a good way for the richies to show that they favor justice for all, and are not troubled by any consequences that do not affect the underprivileged, or as they now prefer to say, the underserved, since they are not seeking privileges, but rights which they richly deserve but have never received in our unjust society.

Of course, rhetoric on both sides has next to nothing to do with the merits of the project. There are factors: length of truck routes, availability of sites on the Hudson River, the West Side of Manhattan (ships generally dock there, not on the East River). The effect on property values, and consequent tax revenue to the city, should also be considered. If $100 million in luxury housing declines in worth to $75 million because it now faces a huge garbage dump, that is a cost which will be paid each year when the city assesses the real estate that is its principal fixed asset.

There is also the issue of what to do if you build it and it doesn't work the way you wanted it to. Look at the Town of North Hempstead in Nassau County, which built a costly incinerator, only later to dismantle it and use the land for a golf course. This turned out to be a nine-figure blunder, but it was supported by the so-called experts. Of course, a transfer station is easier to build, small children employ its principles in sandboxes.

But with Murphy's Law in mind, do not underestimate the capacity of public officials (and their rivals and successors) to mess things up. This is particularly true when a noisy minority opposes the project from the start. BTW, why was the first transfer station built at that site to ship out truckloads of garbage abandoned twenty years ago? Why was the striking asphalt plant on the site, designed by the famous architects Kahn & Jacobs in 1944, recycled into a sports and arts center in 1982? Possibly because the manufacture of asphalt is a business historically operated by organized crime, with which the city was not competitive.

My prediction is that some day, not too far away, the experts will find a better way of getting the garbage onto the scows or a better place in which to do it. In the meantime, as they say, "there goes the neighborhood." Many communities have gone up and down over the years, often for reasons that were beyond the reach of government. The novelty here is that the city itself will pay to ruin the ambiance and the view, which will diminish the economic value of one of its finest local neighborhoods.

Let us make it clear that a lot of honest and intelligent people support this project in good faith. It is just that, based on my knowledge, experience with similar proposals, and stubborn intuition, I don't believe them to the extent of spending billions of dollars of tax money to do what they tell us. For example, what if the rural states reject our garbage, or make accepting it prohibitively expensive? Will the scows remain at sea in perpetuity?

The fact that this damage is being inflicted in the name of improving the environment reminds us of the words which sadly became famous in Vietnam: "We had to burn down the village in order to save it."

As Puck observed, "What fools these mortals be."