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Urgent Long Island trash study headed up by veteran Stony Brook researcher

Frank Roethel, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University, is the lead author on a state-funded study of Long Island's waste future.
J.D. Allen
Frank Roethel, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute at Stony Brook University, is the lead author on a state-funded study of Long Island's waste future.

The weight of the 14 million tons of waste that Long Island generates yearly might be said to rest on the shoulders of one Stony Brook University researcher.

Frank Roethel, director of theWaste Reduction and Management Institute, is the lead author on a state-funded study that will make recommendations for the region’s 13 towns and two cities in charge of local waste management. His team is on a rapidly approaching deadline as the Brookhaven Landfill, which handles the waste of over two million Long Island residents, is scheduled to close over the next few years.

“We're going to start developing some new technologies that are going to really make a change in the way we manage our solid waste on the island. And so the closure of the landfill is going to force us to do that,” Roethel said. “And I think that's probably a good thing.”

In many ways, Roethel is an obvious choice for the job. By trade a chemical oceanographer who landed at Stony Brook University in the 1970s, he long ago made a name for himself in researching the effective reuse of municipal solid waste combustion ash blocks, and tracking the long-term environmental impact of burning waste for energy.

But to communities of color with a vital stake in the outcome of the study, his many decades of experience represent an old way of thinking – and not one that engenders trust.

“In Suffolk [County] and in the Town of Brookhaven, it is almost exclusively run by white men. As a Black and Indigenous woman, it is alarming to have so many white men in charge of every aspect of my life and the lives of the people who are forced into segregated community on Long Island,” said Monique Fitzgerald, a climate justice organizer who lives in the North Bellport neighborhood in the shadow of the Brookhaven Landfill.

“So with this matter of waste management, it is the same story,” she said. “We are here unprotected.”

Marching orders

The ash blocks which helped to make Frank Roethel’s reputation scatter his office. Made from combusted municipal solid waste, they have been used across the country to bolster coastlines and to construct artificial reefs. He even commissioned the university’s boathouse to be built using ash blocks in 1990; it’s still in use.

And beyond that very tangible history with the repurposing of waste, he also advised on several local and regional waste management plans after state law forced the closure of nearly all of the landfills on Long Island to protect its drinking water source before 2000.

Roethel’s team is now the latest in a series of public and private stakeholders to attempt to get ahead of the changing landscape of waste management on Long Island and in the rest of New York. A draft solid waste management plan the state works on every 10 years will push local governments to consider waste “as a concept of the past” in an effort to protect communities and mitigate the effects of climate change.

“I think we needed to move in that direction, and now we're gonna be forced to do it,” Roethel said. “There's gonna be growing pains, no doubt about it. But I am encouraged that we're going to have, 10 years from now, a strategy that is superior to what we see today.”

The pressure to find ways for local governments to reduce, reuse and recycle waste — the 720,000 tons of construction and demolition debris that will be rejected from the landfill in Yaphank by 2025, and the 350,000 tons of trash that is currently being burned into ash until capacity is reached approximately two years later — has been intensified bycorporate proposals already in different stages of development and mountingenvironmental justice concerns, including nearly 30 lawsuits related to the environmental and health impact of waste infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

The last island-wide solid wastestudy by the Long Island Regional Planning Council was abandoned due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Roethel is being tapped to pick up the mantle — but circumstances have changed with the closure of the Brookhaven Landfill drawing near.

“It was difficult to try to get people to change when things are [different] from their perspective,” Roethel said. “Why create a problem if one doesn't exist? But now we have a problem.”


Waste makes up 12% of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions. By 2030, the state goal is to reduce the total greenhouse gas emissions to 40% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 85% by 2050.

The state also wants to protect disadvantaged communities and environmental justice areas that are disproportionately burdened by pollution and waste facilities, including around the Brookhaven Landfill.

In addition, before work on the study began, several companies planned to build four waste transfer stations to haul tens of thousands of tons of garbage off of Long Island by rail every day. While state regulators have permitted a Medford station to operate, sites at Yaphank and Brentwood are challenged with legal action from the NAACP and local community members.

“I think that's a very valid question and it needs to be examined,” Roethel said. “How many do we need, where to where logistically does it make the most sense to have them placed, and then what is the future hold for [construction and demolition debris] as the island’s population grows.

“In my bones I feel this is another challenge… where are we going to put storm debris?” he added, acknowledging that climate change will continue to bring more intense weather and coastal flooding.

According to emails obtained between Roethel and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, “February 8, 2023 and August 8, 2024 may be considered the start and end dates” — meaning the study is three months behind schedule.

“We only have a year-and-a-half, so we need somewhat of a game plan by the end of this year, because it's gonna take almost the next year to really refine that game plan,” Roethel said. “That's my hope.

Administrative delays

In March 2021, then-State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) met with the Brookhaven Action and Remediation Group (BLARG), which was formed by the North Bellport community, to begin planning for Long Island’s waste future. Englebright, the former chair of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, then sought to include a budget item of $500,000 for the state Department of Environmental Conservation to do a regional study of Long Island’s solid waste disposal process.

The committee in 2022 negotiated thelegislation’s funding to "$250,000 for regional municipal solid waste management and waste transportation planning, including for impacted environmental justice communities associated with impending landfill closures."

It took until early this year for Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences to be tapped “to develop strategies and recommendations to optimize solid waste management functions,” with Frank Roethel named as the project director.

In January, Roethel provided a scoping document, which was approved on Feb. 9.

“We still await the uploading of the required documents by Stony Brook University,” David Vitale, the division director for materials management at the Department of Environmental Conservation said in an April email. “Once the final documents are uploaded into the contracting system, DEC will move the contract forward towards execution.”

To date, those documents are not finalized.

“To my knowledge, everybody's happy. I guess I'm just waiting for someone to turn all that paperwork into a contract and send the money down here,” Roethel said. “But that doesn't mean we haven't accomplished anything.”

Roethel’s department convened an environmental symposium in mid-March to begin discussions between town officials from Brookhaven, Babylon, Islip and Smithtown and the private sector vying for building approval, management contracts and millions of dollars in state and federal climate resiliency funding.

“We wanted to find out from their perspective what they see as the major issues they'll have to handle in the next few years dealing with solid waste,” Roethel said. “And it's interesting because as you might imagine different towns have different different challenges.”

Organizations representing local residents, including the Brookhaven NAACP and BLARG, criticized the March symposium for pandering to corporations, offering “whitewashed” solutions without public transparency or community input. Roethel noted “the NAACP was invited” to the event, which was almost entirely attended by mostly white businessmen. Community members trying to get tickets to the event were denied access online when the conference became full. An overflow room with a livestream also had be opened. The university made a video of the conference available afterwards.

In stark contrast to the symposium, the NAACP and Citizens Campaign for the Environment even filed a lawsuit in April against the Town of Brookhaven for expediting the review of the Yaphank waste transfer station without community input.

“We do work in solidarity for one common goal,” Brookhaven NAACP Georgette Grier-Key said. “I've been in a situation where our voice was not heard and we had no recourse. So the chickens have come home to roost as far as I'm concerned.”

Complicated relationships

Beyond their apparent exclusion from the March symposium, community groups are also concerned about the contents of the preliminary scoping document obtained by BLARG through a freedom of information request. In it, the term “environmental justice” has been removed from the project’s name and description. This study’s “focus on the relationship of environmental justice and community concerns” is the only mention in the December document.

This seems to mark a shift in emphasis from the project's initial conception in the 2021 meeting between Englebright and BLARG, and the legislative language directed from the State Assembly.

The groups also point to thestudy’s proposed budget, also obtained by BLARG through public records, allocating more than $13,000 to a technical working group focused on environmental justice, as compared to other items in the budget.

“Where does the authority lie?” Fitzegerald, a co-founder of BLARG, asked. “It doesn't lie with our local government because if so, we're totally screwed. If it's the state and the DEC, again, we're totally screwed.”

“Where do we have a governing body that is actually keeping us safe? I haven't found it yet,” she added.

Roethel still says environmental justice is woven into his plan.

The regional waste management study seeks “to develop a metric that, [through] data collection and examination of various factors affecting the function of the waste management industry,” provides recommendations for construction and demolition debris management, ash reduction and management, and transportation of solid waste and recyclables on and off of Long Island.

“We want to pursue the bid with three more ancillary objectives,” Roethel explained. For every option, we want to know how that option interfaces with the recently passed Climate Action Plan. We want to understand the issues associated with environmental justice surrounding each and every option that we might consider.

“And finally, what's the economics? We come up with some great ideas, but can we afford it?” he asked.

The community groups also question which communities and organizations will be part of this research study — because months later, their groups have not been invited to participate.

“They're not doing proper public engagement,” Fitzgerald said. “It's a farce. The town holds meetings during the day when a large part of our community has to work.

“In North Bellport, we work three shifts: we work the morning shift, the evening shift, and the graveyard shift. … So what needs to happen is a better way to communicate with the community to make sure that everyone's involved,” she added.

Fitzgerald wants the Town of Brookhaven to work with the study to set up satellite sites throughout the disadvantaged communities. “We need the public engagement to happen at our convenience, not at the convenience of the governing bodies,” she said.

Ashfill history

In addition to the current concerns over the scope of the study, the North Bellport community and Roethel have history.

In 2020, Roethal was a member of the Town of Brookhaven Ad-Hoc Committee for Solid Waste Disposal, which wasexploring whether the landfill should expand the area where 350,000 tons of waste that is burned into ash is deposited annually.

More than 1.4 million tons of municipal solid waste is incinerated yearly in Hempstead, Babylon, Huntington and Islip. Much of what is left is hauled off Long Island to landfills in the rest of New York and out of state.

Roethal was among the Brookhaven committee’s minority that voted, and failed, to expand the town facility by building a new ashfill. In February 2021, the committee met with BLARG todiscuss the group’s findings. Roethal questioned if hauling the town’s 220,000 tons of municipal solid waste off Long Island was an “environmentally sound strategy.”

“That's the bottom line,” Roethel told BLARG in 2020. “If you've got a bit of strategy… I'm willing to listen to your organization, put together a game plan on how you manage that. I would love to read that. And I will help you.”

He argued that methane gas generated by disposing in a landfill is over 20 times more detrimental to the environment than carbon emissions from burning trash. He could not support the town sending municipal solid waste to “some distant landfill,” instead of burning the garbage at a waste-to-energy plant locally. In addition, even if Brookhaven opted to expand the ashfill, a portion of the ash would need to be trucked or freight railed off Long Island anyway, according to the report.

Eventually, Roethel agreed with the committee’s recommendation.

“Let's be honest when Long Island is the biggest cul-de-sac in the United States. We gotta ship this stuff off the island,” he said.

Crucial choices

With his town and private industry partners in place, the next step for Roethel’s study is to assemble his team, including those who will lead the technical working group on environmental justice.

A solid waste management flow chart for the Long Island trash study was submitted along with the preliminary scoping plan.
Frank Roethel
Stony Brook University
A solid waste management flow chart for the Long Island trash study was submitted along with the preliminary scoping plan.

BLARG questions if Roethel and the towns are qualified to prioritize environmental justice. They want to know if any of the researchers has experience working with environmental justice communities or who is locally-rooted in the affected communities.

For Roethel, he acknowledges times have changed, “requiring a new game plan, and how we approach that game plan must take into account how it impacts communities,” he said. His team is starting a month-long search to identify the person that's going to have the important role of leading environmental justice and outreach on this project.

“No matter where you try, you're going to get blow back,” Roethel added. “Nobody wants any kind of a solid waste management facility within a couple of blocks of home — I totally understand that.”

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.