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Long Island sorts through the patchwork of innovative ways to handle trash

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, Babylon Town Supervisor Rick Schaffer, Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, and Smithtown Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim at the Larry Swanson's 2023 Long Island Environmental Summit at Stony Brook University on March 15, 2023.
J.D. Allen
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, Babylon Town Supervisor Rick Schaffer, Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter, and Smithtown Town Supervisor Ed Wehrheim at the Larry Swanson's 2023 Long Island Environmental Summit at Stony Brook University on March 15, 2023.

Suffolk County town supervisors plan to meet next week to review a state proposal that would set new goals for waste management on Long Island and in the rest of New York.

The state released a proposed solid waste management plan on Wednesday, a top Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) official said.

“We need to know what our responsibilities are, and all work together as much as we can to get as creative as we can — within our structures — to help each other and move it along,” said David Vitale, the DEC’s division director for materials management.

Vitale joined the town supervisors at an environmental symposium at Stony Brook University on Wednesday that attracted private waste managers to collaborate with municipalities on solving the growing waste management crisis on Long Island.

The group weighed innovative ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover energy from 14 million tons of municipal waste generated each year on Long Island.

To build a sense of urgency, the Brookhaven Landfill handling the lion’s share of waste is expected to begin to close by the end of 2024. The landfill, one of two facilities operating in the region, will no longer accept construction and demolition debris — but will continue depositing waste that is burned into ash until capacity is reached.

Still, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine blamed the state for lacking a regional waste management plan for Long Island.

“We need partners. This isn't going to be with DEC as the regulator, instead of the innovators. We need them to move to be innovators and work with the towns, the villages and more importantly, the county,” he said. Romaine, a Republican, is running against Democrat David Calone, who served on Suffolk’s planning board, for county executive in November.

Under a 1989 state law, responsibility for waste management on Long Island falls to local municipalities — unlike counties in the rest of New York.

Vitale said Brookhaven and five other towns or villages have yet to update their expired waste management plans. This has impacted the environment and health of majority communities of color located around — a few municipal, but many privately owned — waste processing, transfer and storage facilities, according to Brookhaven NAACP President Georgette Grier-Key.

“Every community should do their share,” Grier-Key said. “And it shouldn't be on the backs of Brown, Black and Indigenous people.”

Grier-Key criticized Larry Swanson's 2023 Long Island Environmental Summit at Stony Brook University for hosting “whitewashed solutions.” Each panel was hosted by white industry leaders, environmentalists and politicians — Grier-Key said the lack of representation, including from residents of color impacted by their decisions, made her uncomfortable when the region’s waste crisis was viewed as a commercial opportunity or “marketing scheme.”

“This is very much a corporate viewpoint,” said Monique Fitzgerald, a member of the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group.

The imminent closure of the Brookhaven Landfill has rallied the nearby North Bellport community into pressuring the town to expedite shuttering the facility and adopt a zero waste strategy in its overdue management plan. “The problem with that is you're talking about the aggregate of ash. Ash is toxic to land, water and air we breathe,” Fitzgerald said.

Other community members in attendance were concerned about four private waste transfer stations — in Yaphank, Brentwood, Kings Park and Medford — in various stages of approval and development to haul waste off of Long Island by rail. Grier-Key challenged the piecemeal approach by companies determining how many facilities are needed to replace the landfill.

Stony Brook University is being granted $250,000 from the state agency to begin studying to “find solutions to Long Island’s impending waste crisis,” said Frank Roethel, director of the university’s Waste Reduction and Management Institute. The towns of Brookhaven and Babylon, which also has a facility that accepts ash deposits, are expected to coordinate with the researchers.

“To stay ahead of the plan that Brookhaven has set in motion, local towns are taking action,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rick Schaffer said. “We are not hiding in the corner and saying we can't move ahead with this.”

Schaffer, who is also the leader of the Suffolk County Supervisors Association, which will discuss the state solid waste management proposal next week, said rail transfer stations are only part of what’s under consideration. He highlighted panels from earlier in the symposium around adding large-scale food waste composting, financial incentives for new solid waste infrastructure, including an Extended Producer Responsibility law, and waste-to-energy facilities — the burning or processing waste to create energy or fuel.

“The towns, while they're separate and distinct towns, all have a share. We all share common problems,” said John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

“We always pride ourselves on ‘home rule,’” he continued. “But sometimes what strengthens us also weakens us because that home rule can actually turn into balkanization… Frankly, garbage, and waste management, is everybody's problem.”

The draft state solid waste management plan through 2032 will undergo a 60-day public comment period. Vitale said the plan “builds upon sustained efforts to reduce waste and advance New York state's transition to a circular economy.”

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.