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Advocates Clash Over What To Do With Long Island's Trash

Long Island has a trash problem, according to environmental and community advocates. However, they don’t agree what should be done about it.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE) endorsed this week trucking in over 1,900 tons per day of construction and demolition debris to a waste transfer station proposed in Medford. The trash would then be hauled away by railway. It’s one of three transfer stations proposed, including Brentwood and Yaphank. But CCE does not support the other two because of potential health hazards.

Progressive grassroot organizations, including the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, are concerned that the transfer station, as well as two other similar proposals in Suffolk County, disproportionately affect low-income and communities of color. They call for the Town of Brookhaven to consider environmental justice in their approval process of permitting what to do with trash in central Suffolk County when the Brookhaven Landfill is expected to reach capacity, and then close in 2024.

The group claims CCE has turned its back on accountable, responsible environmental action. They argue that no new waste infrastructure should be without a plan in place to combat environmental injustice.

“We insist that there should be no special waivers/permits made for new waste infrastructure in Brookhaven Town until our town has committed to creating a sustainable and equitable waste management plan that seeks to preserve human life, clean water, and clean air,” the group said.

That means over 700,000 tons of solid waste, including 500,000 tons of construction debris, and 350,000 tons of ash deposits will need to go somewhere else. Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine had said he wants to see innovative ways for residents to dispose of garbage rather than just burning or storing in landfills. The Long Island Regional Planning Council has said there needs to be a regional plan to address the growing trash problem in the county following state environmental law.

Last week, a Brookhaven Town environmental committee recommended that the town not try to expand the landfill, which converts trash into energy by burning waste into ash.

“The history of the Brookhaven Town Landfill makes it clear that Yaphank, Bellport and Brookhaven did not volunteer to be the garbage capitol of Long Island," executive director of CCE and committee member Adrienne Esposito said, echoing the recommendations to the town.

The committee explored four possible trash alternatives. They turned down the proposed ashfill expansion, were hesitant to support the transfer stations, and were skeptical in a progressive proposal to reduce residential and commercial reash to “zero waste,” which they called ambitious but perhaps unrealistic.

Esposito said there is no silver bullet. But CCE would support the Medford transfer station because it is proposed in an existing industrial area. There would be no need to clear trees, change zoning or contend with an environmentally sensitive area. And that’s different from the other sites.

“The Brentwood site is clearly in an area that is low- to moderate-income, communities of color,” she said. “It just seems to me that that is an unjust and unfair burden to place once again on that community.”

The proposed transfer facility in Brentwood would handle over 1,500 tons per day of construction and demolition debris and over 800 tons per day of solid waste. The trash would be again trucked in, processed, and then hauled off by rail — in a residential community.

The project still needs approval from the state Department of Conservation. The local school board and community members have sent several petitions to the DEC to stop the project.

Suffolk County Legislator Samuel Gonzalez said on the steps of Islip Town Hall on Thursday — a town adjacent to Brookhaven — that the “daily traffic disruption” to the facility will destroy the roads and could have “disastrous” potential health impacts for neighbors and the school district.

Community members had fought to prevent the property from changing zoning to allow the project. The town plans to allow the zone change for the project with some concessions made in an agreement.

“What I feel is that there's something rotten rotten in Denmark,” Gonzalez said. “And I'm not going to push away from this whatsoever. [Because] I did not sign that document. Nor did these leaders sign that document. Now the 1,600 army of mothers and fathers, grandparents, people, students, our veterans, our seniors, they didn't sign that.”

Those leaders are business leaders and community members who are concerned, like the progressive group in Brookhaven, that the transfer station would pollute the streets, air and waters.

“This is really bad for Brentwood,” said Jorge Guadron, president of Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce. “This is bad for our children. This is bad for our aging adults...”

“This is real,” Gonzalez continued. “This is the lives of our kids. These trucks are going to be going through our schools near our schools.”

That’s why the Medford location is a better spot for a waste transfer facility, Esposito told Romaine, the Brookhaven Town supervisor, in a letter this week. She called the backlash against her and CCE unfair by the misinformed.

“This is the reality: we live on an island,” Esposito said. “The choices are limited. It's not a magic wand to be a sustainable island, we need to manage our solid waste. And honestly, we generate a lot. So, it's got to go somewhere and has to be managed properly, and in a sanitary, effective manner…"

“I think they're well intentioned. But I think they have a lot to learn,” she continued. “I would challenge them to offer some viable, real, reasonable, doable solutions within the timeline that we're up against. I'm open to their ideas, or we'd love to hear them. I haven't heard one.”

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.