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New York NAACP Joins Fight To Keep Trash Out Of Brookhaven Communities Of Color

Image by RitaE from Pixabay

The New York State NAACP has condemned a plan to haul garbage out of Long Island at a proposed waste transfer station in Yaphank. The push follows months of action by local NAACP chapters and environmental groups to keep the region's trash out of communities of color. Together, they will consider legal action against the town of Brookhaven and the developer.

Hazel Dukes, president of the statewide NAACP, said the proposed waste transfer station would disproportionately hurt low income and communities of color on Long Island.

“They said ‘not in our neighborhood,’” Dukes said, “and so they have the political will and the power and so they don't get it. But we are going to put every ounce of energy and muscle and leg work that we have to defeat this.”

Dukes, the Brookhaven NAACP and environmental groups are alarmed by court records that indicate years of private meetings between developers and the town. They said the behind-the-scenes work with developers silences low-income and communities of color from weighing in on the process.

“The NAACP is well intentioned but mistaken on a fundamental level,” said Rob Calica, the special environmental counsel hired by the town.

Records show the town has been in mediation with the developer, Winter Bros, about coordination with the federal Surface Transportation Board, which handles the economic regulation and developmental approval of certain railroad expansions.

The property has been locked in years of court action between the town and a different developer for a similar project that went awry when construction crews ripped up the land for sand mining. 

Winters Bros, which operates similar waste transfer stations and recycling centers across the region, recently acquired access to that project and the rail spur off of the Long Island Rail Road. The developer intends on hauling away 6,000 tons of garbage a day from the proposed waste transfer facility, possibly by rail. Winters Bros is in the middle of a year-long federal environmental review process with the board.

Will Flower, general manager of Winters Bros, said their plan is necessary for when the nearby Brookhaven landfill closes. That facility handles more than 700,000 tons of solid waste and 350,000 tons of garbage that’s burned into ash deposits.

“Society needs these types of facilities to manage waste. It's not our garbage. This is society's waste,” Flower said. "Blaming me for the waste problem is like blaming the fire on the firemen that come to put it out. I'm there to provide solutions. And that's exactly what we do.

“There are plenty of examples across Long Island where these facilities have been established in the wrong communities. And that becomes a problem for those communities putting a burden onto populations. This is the perfect location because it doesn't and will not put a burden onto people.”

Brookhaven NAACP president Georgette Grier-Key is concerned that the developer is seeking an exemption that would preempt the town’s land use control. She said that would silence communities of color from attending public hearings to continue months of fighting to get regional trash collection out of their neighborhoods.

“It's just that we're not heard,” Grier-Key said. “That's the problem. We're not heard.

“And so we definitely see this as an environmental injustice issue. It is just that we cannot combat these big companies and their oppression of our voices, and the fact that we do not matter to them. And we're just the small piece in their bigger picture, and it really tells us that our lives and our children's lives do not matter,” she continued.

Calica said the work between the developer and federal regulators to establish the rail service will not impact Brookhaven’s ability to hold public hearings on the planning of the proposed waste facility. Winters Bros anticipates building warehouses and other facilities that could employ 3,600 people in construction and operational jobs.

Only the rail spur has gone through the state’s environmental quality review process, which the town is bound to follow unless taken over by a larger jurisdiction such as the state Department of Environmental Conservation or federal agencies.

More importantly, Calica said it is in the town’s best interest to hold control over the project.

“The town is doing everything it can to protect the environment of this area,” Calica said. "The one thing they're afraid of is that we could lose and the federal government could decide to say, ‘This is a needed federal rail supported project. And we're going to take over jurisdiction.’”

He said the town cannot further comment on pending legal proceedings before the federal railroad regulator.

Still, the community is concerned.

Kerim Odekon with the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, a grassroots organization of neighbors and progessive activists, has tried for months to meet with the town to discuss what happens when the nearby Brookhaven landfill is scheduled to close in 2024.

He said he and the group had been dodged and ignored by town officials. Correspondence between Odekon and the town has been limited to email with Calica and freedom of information requests for water and air quality surveys of the area around the landfill and planning documents about proposals — instead of town meetings with public input. Odekon called the entire process “secretive.”

“None of those are being talked about in a public transparent way,” he said. “We have no real regional waste planning going on in Long Island, except that which is being done by the waste haulers themselves.”

Odekon is worried the town is colluding with the developer to bypass its authority to regulate the project as a way of keeping the nearby community out of the discussion. He said he sees the federal regulators' involvement in the town’s work with Winters Bros behind closed doors to redraw an easement to preserve open space as illegal.

“When there is no equitable planning process, that creates the condition for environmental injustice to flourish,” Odekon said. “At the end of the pipeline, when the project is going into permitting, the town will then consider environmental justice complaints. But this is a very myopic view and actually really doesn't understand the entire concept of environmental justice of us being involved in the process.”

Winters Bros’ proposal is one of three waste transfer facilities in the works to handle much of central Suffolk County’s trash when the Brookhaven landfill closes in two years. Brookhaven officials rejected a proposed expansion of the ash landfill following a town environmental committee in February, which recommended that the town should outsource solid waste collection and disposal to a private industry while the town retains fiscal and regulatory control over the process.

“If the NAACP wants to focus on environmental justice communities, there's an exact similar project in a 100% minority community that the NAACP has said zero about,” Flower said, referring to proposals in Brentwood and Medford. “Why are they focusing on this particular project? And what's the motivation, because we want to talk about this project.”

Flower described his proposal as “the worst kept secret in America,” spending thousands of dollars of outreach and marketing on his project. Frustrated, he said he is open to meet with the NAACP and the community environmental groups to discuss concerns about their proposal.

He did so weeks ago to discuss a community benefits agreement. Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group responded that it would not meet without town officials present.

"We were clear: No new waste infrastructure without an equitable, sustainable and transparent plan for waste management," Odekon said.

Meanwhile, the Brookhaven NAACP is looking at all of its options to block the proposal, including potential legal action, according to Grier-Key.

“They have no consideration for Black and Brown communities where we have all the health problems that environmental causes,” said Dukes, the statewide chapter president. “It's what's in the air. It’s what comes into the system. And so we're going to fight.”

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.