With a deadline looming, Long Island towns evaluate how they collaborate on trash
Most residents put their garbage out for collection at least once a week on Long Island. As long as it is picked up on time, their relationship with their trash ends there.
“We all know that it is ‘successful’ because the system works each and every week. Millions of Long Islanders put out the garbage at the curb, and somehow it disappears — or at least it seems to disappear,” said John Cameron, the chair of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.
Behind the scenes, municipalities are working to make sure that trash is transferred, sorted, and disposed of in a complex network of deals between local governments and the private sector. But it’s a network that is under increasing pressure from the impending closure of its largest trash-receiving facility.
In mid-March town officials from Smithtown, Babylon, Islip, Brookhaven and other municipalities joined waste management companies and other industry leaders at an environmental symposium at Stony Brook University to begin planning ahead of the expected closure of the Brookhaven Landfill in the next few years.
The facility, one of the last remaining landfills in the region, handles hundreds of thousands of tons of trash on Long Island. It is expected to stop accepting construction and demolition debris by the end of 2024, and afterwards, accept only municipal waste that is burned into ash until capacity is reached.
Understanding how the waste stream works will better prepare New Yorkers for an even bigger-picture exercise: the statewide waste management planning that happens every 10 years. This effort helps inform municipalities in designing their own local programs. A draft of the state plan is online, and the public comment period has been extended from May 15 to June 14.
“Waste has to go someplace,” Cameron said. “So we should be working on siting and getting solutions implemented, reducing the waste stream.”
“Collaboratively, the 10 [Suffolk County] towns should get together and find what we can do,” he continued.
A patchwork of existing town agreements and new proposals from private companies have sought to respond to the anticipated service gap created by closing the landfill, but Cameron said for the moment, it’s a chicken-and-egg situation.
“It’s supply and demand,” he said. “If you don't have a sufficient supply and you say, ‘I'll let the private sector do it’, they're not going to build a facility on-spec and never have anybody show up,” Cameron said. “They're going to go out of business. So, you need to have contracts in place.”
Meanwhile an ongoing study at Stony Brook University seeks to recommend regional strategies for reducing, reusing and recycling over 40 million tons of waste that is generated on Long Island — following New York’s guidance for mitigating greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, especially in environmental justice areas.
Clamoring for a seat at the table at all of these discussions is a community of color that has a different relationship with their garbage. Trash that is put at the curb elsewhere disproportionately ends up in waste facilities in their neighborhoods.
“We need a zero-waste regional waste plan that achieves environmental justice,” said Monique Fitzgerald, a climate justice organizer and resident of North Bellport — a community that lives in the shadow of the Brookhaven Landfill.
The roots of this crisis go back a long way.
A regional push towards localizing solid waste management plans began with the Long Island Landfill Law, passed by the state legislature in 1983. By the early 1990s, the law ordered the closure of dozens of landfills across Long Island that accepted municipal solid waste, which consists of everyday items that are thrown away, to protect the sole-source aquifer that supplies the region’s drinking water supply.
The law designated the region’s 13 towns and two cities as planning units to manage garbage — unlike in the rest of the state, where counties are in charge of garbage. This required cities and towns to issue new 10-year local waste management plans, resulting in a complex network of inter-municipal agreements to handle solid waste, recyclable materials and organic waste. That landscape is opaque to the average resident.
“Many people I speak to in opposition to things we do, quite frankly, don't even know where their trash goes, if you ask them. They have no idea,” Smithtown Town Supervisor Ed Wehreihm echoed. “It magically disappears.”
Here’s the way it works today: local governments send municipal solid waste to a pair of combustion facilities in Hempstead and Huntington, operated by Covanta, a private waste management services company headquartered in New Jersey. Those facilities burn around 80% of the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash accepted annually, before the resulting ash is sent to a landfill. Islip also operates a Resource Recovery Agency that generates ash.
The last remaining sites on Long Island to deposit this ash waste are the Brookhaven Landfill and a smaller Babylon combustion and landfill facility — for now.
David Vitale, division director for materials management at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said the agency has invested $100 million since 1990 to help Long Island municipalities implement their agreements, based on a statewide solid waste management plan. Brookhaven, alone, has received over $12 million.
Six of 13 towns on Long Island have yet to update their expired local waste management plans. “These plans expired in 2009-12, [including Brookhaven] and they're still not in place,” Vitale said.
“We're going to step in and take a lead role with our towns,” Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine responded. “Because together we're stronger and we have to convince the state to change their approach to help us in a gradual program to zero waste.”
Brookhaven’s landfill accepts construction debris, and ash from burned municipal solid waste from the towns of Huntington, Smithtown, Islip, and Brookhaven, as well as Hempstead and North Hempstead in Nassau County. Babylon and Brookhaven also support dozens of smaller village governments in the transfer and disposal of their waste.
Brookhaven, for example, signed an agreement in April with the Village of Lake Grove. Starting in June, the town will receive nearly $37,000 over the next year to accept 500 tons of recyclable material, 250 tons of street sweepings, 100 tons of construction and demolition debris and other waste. The agreement may be extended past the landfill’s 2024 deadline, “as ability to process exists.”
The latest attempt to expand ash deposits was fiercely opposed in 2020 by the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG), a newly formed community group of environmental activists and nearby residents in North Bellport.
A Brookhaven Town ad-hoc committee also recommended against the building of a new ash fill next to the existing landfill in Yaphank, making an environmental justice argument citing adverse impacts to the community.
The 2023 preliminary town budget shows approximately 20% of Brookhaven’s operating revenue comes from these waste management agreements. The town was unresponsive to a freedom of information request filed in late April requesting a breakdown of such inter-municipal agreements in effect since 2019.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation anticipated through its permitting process that the Brookhaven Landfill would reach capacity in 2024, but due to the pandemic, less material was dumped. Instead, the facility will stop accepting construction and demolition debris by the end of next year and is expected to close to ash an estimated two years after that.
“I worry about the construction industry,” echoed Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine at the symposium in March. He said there will be a “crisis” if Long Island cannot get rid of construction and demolition debris — and “mountains of storm debris” from extreme weather, like Superstorm Sandy in 2012, that he claims the towns are still dealing with a decade later.
There isn’t the appetite to keep a smaller Babylon facility open when its permit expires in 2031, Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said in mid-March.
“That's going to be something they're not interested in and our taxpayers aren't going to be interested in,” Schaffer said. “They want us to figure out how to deal with the situation.”
But Michael Van Brunt, vice president of environmental and sustainability at Covanta, said there are no plans to hurry the closing of the Babylon facility.
“What our jobs as waste practitioners are to reduce those impacts to the extent that we possibly can,” Van Brunt said. “There is no perfect solution, you know, we have goals and endeavor to sort of operate our facilities as well as we possibly can. But it does have impacts.”
Schaffer told the room full of waste management companies, “I think that the brains here can come up with how to utilize what’s out there now.”
Islip has agreements with Smithtown and Oyster Bay on recyclables and Brookhaven and Huntington on ash. “Individually, we're not coming up with the answers, but the answers are there,” said Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter. “The solutions are out there, the brain power is there, we just have to channel it.”
The towns are seeking answers from the private sector, including at least four proposed waste transfer facilities in Medford, Yaphank, Brentwood and Kings Park to haul waste off Long Island by rail, and the construction of one of the largest organic waste processing facilities in the country. These projects are in various stages of approval and development, but all were met with opposition from disadvantaged communities that live near these sites.
“I want to know when we are going to talk about closing some of these toxic facilities,” Fitzgerald, a co-founder of BLARG, asked the town supervisors. “And what's the plan for a regional plan that reduces our waste to zero waste so that we don't need all of this infrastructure, like the Brookhaven Landfill?”
BLARG and the Brookhaven NAACP confronted the room of white elected officials and private sector leaders at the symposium, saying they haven’t engaged communities of color that are disproportionately burdened by negative environmental and health impacts of living so close to these industrial facilities.
According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, more than half of New York state’s waste stream is managed in facilities located in disadvantaged communities.
“Waste historically has impacted disadvantaged communities,” responded Van Brunt, with Covanta. “But ultimately, we still have to meet the needs of the island in terms of waste generation.”
State data shows thousands of tons of municipal solid waste, organic solids, and construction and demolition debris are already trucked off Long Island each day. A portion of debris is also shipped off the island by rail for disposal out of state.
Cameron, with the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said he expects as the Brookhaven Landfill closes, much more waste will need to be transported out of the region, which “if all by truck, will result in increased congestion, greater air pollution and stress on our already burdened highway infrastructure — and, of course, at higher costs.”
In New York, excluding New York City, local governments are involved in around 16% of the municipal solid waste collection — with the rest collected and maintained by the private sector through contracts with counties, cities and towns.
“So that's a huge component for the private side,” said Vitale, with the state. “And so we need the privates as an integral partner as well.”
Fitzgerald said the problem is, with the private sector driving the conversation, community members like her are left out in the cold — and traumatized.
Vying for money
“We're not going to listen to one particular area or another,” said Schaffer, the Babylon town supervisor. “This has got to be a solution that's found, with everybody shouldering the burden, in order to accomplish it. Otherwise, we're going to be drowning in it.”
A life vest is expected to come in the form of federal and state climate resiliency and infrastructure funding, allowing the implementation of innovative ways to reduce, reuse and recycle the waste Long Island generates And towns, private industries and community groups all expect to have a slice.
The 80 U.S. census tracts identified as “disadvantaged communities” on Long Island by a New York working group are supposed to attract at least a third of state funding geared toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and developing clean energy.
“We have a mandate by the climate law that 35 to 40% of the benefits of any community or renewable energy systems need to go and benefit communities that are disadvantaged, such as North Bellport, Unkechaug Indian Nation and Gordon Heights,” said Fitzgerald, with BLARG. But I don't believe any of that was done.”
In addition, the federal Inflation Reduction Act passed last August is expected to pump more than $369 billion into clean energy production and various climate programs over the next decade. The private sector is interested in tax credits and grants for landfill gas mitigation projects, anaerobic digestion, emissions-reducing biofuel technologies, and electric commercial vehicle programs, to name a few.
The Town of Brookhaven is interested in renewable energy programs, such as large-scale solar arrays, to put on top of its landfill once it closes. Town officials tout that the program will provide zero-emissions electricity; however it is unclear how much will be made available to low-income residents and communities of color.
“We have a lot of money moving around,” Fitzgerald said. “But what we are seeing in our community is that the municipalities and industry are taking this money or preparing themselves to take this money. And they have no plan to invest in our community.”