THE BLOG
01/29/2015 01:31 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Five Years Too Late, The New York Times Admits A Mistake and Boldly Supports a 'Workaround'

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

The New York Times published an editorial Monday under the inspiring title, "A Promising Garbage Workaround."

After many years of unqualified support for it, the paper now admits there is one serious problem with a lethal garbage site under construction in a residential neighborhood in Manhattan: the ramp leading to it bisects a sports field where 34,000 New York City kids from every borough go to play year round.

Though this Vision Zero nightmare has been obvious for years to anyone with actual vision, it is only one of ten or more equally obvious problems. (For example, putting aside the ramp, is it really okay for over 1,000 daily tons of garbage to be dumped 50 feet from where children play?) Moving the ramp a block north -- the "workaround" -- partially solves one problem, and an important one, but only by moving the pain elsewhere. This is symptomatic of the whole Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) of which this dump is a part.

The New York Times editorial describes the SWMP as a "veritable trash Enlightenment." Actually, it's more toward the end of the Middle Ages, at best. It spends heavily on expensive infrastructure that locks in antiquated methods of handling garbage for a very long time, and is riddled with concessions to forces that have nothing to do with the environment and much to do with greed.

It's time for reporters to stop dutifully repeating how wonderful the SWMP is and actually look at it from a modern environmental perspective.

Crafted under Bloomberg and billed as Environmental Justice, it is actually Environmental Just-Shift-This, barging and hauling the city's garbage to distant impoverished communities of color to be burned or buried at the cost of their health. This "externalizing" was antithetical to environmental thinking ten years ago when the plan was conceived, it's even more so now. It's "greenwashing", environmentally dubious bragging, like New York City proudly proclaiming its air is cleaner because of natural gas, which it is, but only as a result of fracking that damages Pennsylvania's water.

When it comes to strategies for handling garbage, a lot has changed just in the last five years. You only have to look at the way progressive cities like San Francisco handle trash to see what the future holds. Who knows what solutions new technology will offer five years from now? An aggressive national campaign to bring about source reduction would change everything completely. The Bloomberg administration, however, negotiated a 20-year contract with Covanta, a garbage-hauling/burning company that has been accused of both labor and environmental violations. (Reporters at the New York Times might be interested to know that the Chairman of the Board of this company is Sam Zell, notorious for his "let's take out the garbage" attitude when he bought the LA Times. Here is an article that will send shivers down your journalistic spines.)

The 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (MTS) is a place where 100 to 500 trucks a day will come to dump their loads into barges. It will be huge, a vast 24-hour, 6-day-a-week garbage churning factory with a footprint only slightly smaller than that of the Empire States Building. It will be in Yorkville, perhaps the most densely residential neighborhood in the city, five blocks south of East Harlem in an area already more severely polluted (and asthmatic) than many, if not most, of those it's supposed to relieve.

Its proximity to public housing is shockingly worse than anywhere else. There are six similar garbage sites in the five boroughs. Only one of them has any public housing within a quarter mile, 33 units at the West 59th Street MTS. The 91st Street MTS has 1000 units of public housing (over 2,000 people) that close. You could throw a stone from the backyard of one building and hit the dump. I am not kidding. Google-map or Circle-line your way around Manhattan's shoreline and see if you can find a worse place for a dump than East 91st and the river. There isn't one.

Under the new "workaround" ramp plan suddenly supported by the Times, trucks would drive alongside the 1,000 units of public housing to reach the dump. After years of scathing damnation of any objection to this lethal site, the Times at last acknowledges the child safety issue. But it unwittingly does far more than that. Once you admit this problem, the whole thing soon looks insane. If the only way to reach a garbage dump is by either driving through 34,000 children or alongside 2000 people living in public housing, a reasonable human being must conclude that it's clearly in the wrong place.

In truth, not since the 19th Century has New York city government placed such a huge industrial facility in the heart of such a large and vulnerable residential population. It's freakish. It's the kind of thing a cold-blooded industrialist might do, not an allegedly progressive city government.

The Times editorial proclaims that, "Fairness in this case trumps not-in-my-backyardism." If it weren't so silly and tragic, this would be funny. The environmental justice movement which was involved in designing the SWMP plan was almost entirely motivated by not-in-my-backyardism. And rightly so. The desire to limit or stop private garbage trucks driving to private transfer sites too close to the backyards of low income people of color is commendable. But to claim that building a new garbage facility in another backyard even closer to even more low income minority residents just so garbage can be dragged even further than before to blight yet more even poorer people is not "fairness," it is either political expedience, corruption, or lunacy.

If you, the writer of the editorial, really believe what you write, I invite you to come with me to Stanley Isaacs Houses and John Holmes Tower (the housing developments that will be blighted) and tell the residents to their faces that they are guilty of NIMBY-ism. I'll hold your coat and help you find your missing teeth afterwards. In this context, an accusation of NIMBY-ism is tantamount to racism, and anyone who has looked at the incredibly close dump construction site from the windows of public housing knows it. Trust me, this is not Park Avenue.

Most galling of all about this debacle? This suffering is for no purpose! Manhattan residential garbage does not go to any outer borough, and the economics of the dump are such that private commercial garbage trucks won't use it! It will change nothing for the better and make many already vulnerable lives far worse.

Everything about the project stinks. Supposed to cost under $45 million to construct, it will now, according to the Independent Budget Office, come in almost $150 million overbudget. It will triple the cost of getting garbage out of the city for the length of the Bloomberg-negotiated 20-year contract. Everyone, including people in the outer boroughs (even New York Times employees), will have to pay for this. I could go on (it's in the worst kind of flood zone, it's at the wrong end of the city, it will add to congestion, it's already outdated, it is incredibly ugly, it's up against a public park of which there are few in Yorkville and East Harlem, it's next to a historic building, etc), but if you have the slightest interest, read the report, "Talking Trash," which explains it all.

Well, not quite all.

How was this ever allowed to happen in the first place? Why in Yorkville just south of East Harlem? Why opposite public housing? Why does de Blasio support it? Who financed his electoral campaign? Who profits from the dump's location? How can it have got so far? Why has the New York Times been so timidly supportive of such an obvious social wrong?

Go up to 91st Street and York Avenue and take a look. Then tell me this is not crazy. Or worse. In its own way (and maybe in a not very different way), it is as crazy as the Sheldon Silver matter, another in-plain-sight scandal the press "missed" for years.

We should be grateful that, after years of snobbish resistance, the Times finally changed its mind about one aspect of the 91st Street MTS. But the admission is shamefully late and falls far short of what's needed. Eventually this lethal, expensive, environmentally embarrassing boondoggle will get cancelled, converted, or knocked down. The longer it takes, the more it will cost. The New York Times should be a little more inquisitive and the Mayor and the City Council should be a lot braver.