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This is an English translation by ALIGN of the Spanish original in El Diario.

The city is starting to take steps to improve the management of commercial waste, which is currently concentrated in three neighborhoods where most residents are from minorities .

La basura es de todos pero los latinos la sufren más

Patricia Lopez complains of harmful conditions in her neighborhood because of the waste transfer station

Luis Velázquez remembers hurrying to school holding his nose to block out the smell of trash.  “I would run across the roads through a constant flow of trucks,” said the Mexican resident of Bushwick, North Brooklyn, looking back to his five-year-old self.  Now he is 21, and the smell and heavy traffic persist because one of the city’s biggest commercial waste processing facilities has been in his neighborhood for the past 25 years.

“I would be worried about having a family here,” he explained, citing the exhaust emissions from the garbage trucks, the danger of traffic, the noise, the chemical emissions, etc.  “Now that I’m grown up it’s my nephews I worry about,” he admitted while saying that he knows many neighborhood children who suffer from asthma and does not know what long-term impacts the toxins in the area might have on everyone’s health.

The waste transfer station is in Thames Street, where there is a constant flow of garbage trucks.  “Sometimes they come in every two minutes,” he explained, adding that “it’s only quiet on Sundays.”

The largest commercial waste transfer facilities are in minority communities

Nothing to celebrate

For the local residents there will be nothing to celebrate this Earth Day, given it will be just one more day of smoke, traffic and emissions at levels experienced by very few people in the city.  Although everyone generates garbage, it’s the residents of this area of Brooklyn, another area in the South Bronx and a third in Southeast Queens who live alongside the centers that manage the daily transfer to dumps outside the city of almost 80% of the garbage from stores, restaurants and other businesses.  Most of the residents of these neighborhoods are Latino, and the people who manage the collection of waste – whether commercial or residential – are also minorities.

Patricia López arrived at this Brooklyn neighborhood in September 2016, and when she was shown the apartment that she and her husband had decided to make their home she entered the building though a door from which you could not see the waste facility and constant movement of trucks.  Soon afterwards she realized that she couldn’t open the windows in Summer because of the smell and the noise.  Now the young Mexican says that if she was to have children she would have to think twice about staying in the zone, as she knows people who are suffering from respiratory illnesses.  

“One of the things that bothers me is that these are purely Hispanic minority neighborhoods, this is environmental racism,” says López.  “This area has not gentrified and people don’t speak up,” she explained.  But this has now changed.  Velázquez and López are two of the people who are protesting and looking for solutions together with members of the organization CleanUp North Brooklyn.

López also claims that in the area surrounding the waste transfer facility a spray is being used to eliminate the bad odor, but this is not working because now the neighborhood smells of garbage and the spray.  Velázquez adds that this combination gives him headaches.

Hope of change

However, given the action of these neighbors, groups like ALIGN which works with trade unions and community organizations, council members such as Antonio Reynoso and Carlos Menchaca, and interest from the Mayor’s office, things are beginning to move in the direction of certain change;  whether this change is sufficient will be for time and the affected communities to tell.

For starters, Velázquez said that for the first time the neighbors sat down with the company that manages the transfer station and since then they see that someone is overseeing the truck traffic and that the workers are using reflective jackets, hard hats, and gloves.

Meanwhile, the Department of Sanitation of New York (DSNY) is finalizing the contracting of a consultant who will help the Mayor’s office, starting this Summer, to map out a plan and implement a zoning system for commercial waste.  This plan will be made public next year.  The zoning will mean that private waste firms will have to win concessions through a competitive process for each zone.  At present, and according to a study that the City conducted last Summer, there is an open market system in which around 90 companies (many of which are not profitable) compete to service around 108,000 clients throughout the five boroughs, taking routes that overlap, and with little transparency on pricing.

In that study, Reynoso, President of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee, described the sector as inefficient and un-regulated, operating like the “wild, wild West.”

Benefits of zoning

Maritza Silva-Farrell, Executive Director of ALIGN, affirmed that a zoning system is the first step to organize the sector and improve the service.  Farrell said that this would reduce the mileage of each truck, there would be fewer overlapping services, and therefore a reduction in traffic.  The DSNY study estimated that the trucks would do between 49% and 68% less mileage than now and that exhaust emissions would reduce by 64%.  

“This zoning system is the first step,” to de-congest the current operation, said Silva-Farrell.  The ALIGN director explained that as well as doing that it would improve working conditions for garbage collectors.  There have already been some improvements in that regard.  

At another transfer station, this one for residential waste, José López, who works for SIMS (a company contracted by the City) said that in March the workers formed a union with Teamsters.  This is bringing improvements to a company that either way already had better working conditions than the other companies.  “The safety measures are obligatory but I see that in other centers, not all the owners comply with the rules,” said the Dominican.  López added that 70% of the workers at the company are Latino and black.

The other step that council member Reynoso is trying to take with the support of many affected residents in these zones is to spread out more transfer stations throughout the city, so that it’s not just three centers processing centers processing 80% of the commercial waste.  Next year one will be opened in Hamilton Avenue in South Brooklyn (without trucks), which is opposed by the council members of that area but the Mayor’s plan is not overlooking the need for a greater distribution of these transfer centers.

Patricia López said there needs to be more equity.  They do not want centers that will affect the lives of other people, “but they should distribute the  currently disproportionate load.”  Velázquez added that he does not want to impose more suffering, but that people share his and his neighbors’.  

Reynoso does not have enough support to move his proposal forward but Velázquez says, nevertheless, that he is more optimistic than two months ago.

To read the full article, visit El Diario