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NAACP again intervenes to protest Yaphank waste transfer facility

Landfill workers bury all plastic except soda bottles and milk jugs at Rogue Disposal & Recycling in southern Oregon.
Laura Sullivan
A truck transports waste.

A bill that would allow the Town of Brookhaven to eliminate a zoning requirement that protects open space to allow for a rail spur extension faces pushback from the New York NAACP and local chapters.

Eliminating a conservation easement would allow a proposed waste transfer station in Yaphank to connect to the freight system on the Long Island Rail Road. State NAACP officials warn that hauling away “thousands of tons of trash” by rail would disproportionately harm nearby communities of color.

“We're going to be told what to do at the expense of marginalized people's health and livelihood,” said Georgette Grier-Key, president of the Brookhaven NAACP.

The state NAACP opposed the same bill, proposed by Assemblymember Joe DeStefano (R-Medford), in 2021. At the time, the waste management company Winter Bros., which proposed the waste transfer station, also applied to federal authorities to make an exception for the rail spur. The company withdrew its application from the federal Surface Transportation Board amid objections from the NAACP and environmental groups.

“It’s time for Winter Bros. to stop playing games and trying to make an end run around the community to build its massive dump in a potential Environmental Justice Area,” State NAACP President Hazel Dukes said in a statement.

DeStefano and State Senator Dean Murray (R-Patchogue), who sponsored the legislation in his chamber, did not respond to requests for comment. “These Republicans all caucus together here on Long Island,” Grier-Key said. “They went above and beyond Brookhaven control to create this wraparound law that would not allow for civic engagement, and impact only the parts of the town that are considered to be Brown and Black.”

In recent years, two more waste transfer stations run by different companies have been permitted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Brentwood and Medford, while another in Kings Park awaits approval from the federal board.

These sites are an industrial response to the imminent closure of the Brookhaven Landfill. The facility will no longer accept more than 500,000 tons of construction and demolition debris by the end of 2024, and will continue to take 350,000 tons of garbage annually that’s burned into ash deposits until capacity is reached.

Grier-Key notes the Brentwood transfer station handles 1,500 tons of construction debris and 800 tons of municipal solid waste per day, and the Medford site hauls over 800 tons of construction debris and 1,900 tons of trash daily, which she said is more than enough.

“We have the capacity now, there's no crisis. Saying there is this crisis is to the benefit of the Winter Bros.,” Grier-Key said.

“Winter Bros. are trying to usurp us and they're using our very own elected government to usurp us,” she continued. "So, I feel it's a disservice to people and to public service to have this [state] law wraparound happen.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said this week at an environmental symposium that Winter Bros. has no application for any rail facility before the town at this time. Still, Winter Bros. said the rail improvements are needed.

“I am shocked that anyone would be opposed to cleaner air, less congestion on our roads and economic development and job creation,” Winter Bros. Vice President Will Flower said. “That said, the rail improvements are needed to decrease truck traffic which will reduce air emissions and improve air quality.”

Flower said using garbage trucks for long hauls would also reduce congestion and decrease wear on roads and other infrastructure.

He points to a 2022 December report from New York State’s Climate Action Council that supports improving the statewide freight system with federal partners. “These improvements will provide New Yorkers with additional low-carbon options for longer-distance travel and improve the environmental sustainability of the goods movement system,” according to the report.

The symposium at Stony Brook University on Wednesday turned heated when Grier-Key and members of the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG) confronted Flowers, Romaine and the room full of nearly all white industry leaders about the ramifications of more waste infrastructure situated in communities of color.

“There are places where this waste crisis is impacting life and death,” said Monique Fitzgerald of BLARG. “And I feel like this is where that conversation needs to be taking place, and that those questions need to be uplifted.”

“We're being overburdened by these facilities and we don't even have a seat here at this table,” she added.

Adrienne Espositio, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, also questioned how many waste transfer stations are needed as Long Island moves toward additional zero waste strategies.

The Yaphank waste transfer station would accept another 6,000 tons per day from more than 350 trucks, six days a week — leaving more capacity for more municipal waste than is generated on Long Island, which is around 14 million tons per year. Grier-Key echoed that she was concerned “Winter Bros. plans to make Brookhaven the home of New York City garbage.”

John Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, defended Romaine and other town supervisors for working with the private sector to envision a regional waste management plan beyond their responsibilities under state statute. A 1988 law requires towns on Long Island to figure out their own waste management plans.

“We're talking about a major challenge here for Long Island,” Cameron said. “We're trying to talk about overall how we address this. I don't think it's productive to start focusing on any one specific project at all.”

New York environmental officials also released a draft solid waste management plan, which includes reducing waste through an Extended Producer Responsibility law, by restoring scrap materials to productive use and diverting waste from landfills to avoid harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The plan also includes language from the 2022 Climate Action Council report that states that greenhouse gas emissions from the waste sector represent about 12% of statewide emissions, including landfills and the exporting of waste to landfills in other states.

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.