Ten Years After Closure, Fresh Kills Is Still a Landfill in Transition

Ten years ago Tuesday the last barge of garbage was delivered to Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. The closure of the dump — visible from space, taller than the Statue of Liberty and once the world's largest landfill — was a watershed moment for Staten Islanders, who had lived with its odor and stigma for 54 years.

But the repercussions of Fresh Kills' closure are still being felt by the rest of the city and its sanitation department. 

"It was always one of those things, 'Well, Fresh Kills will be around for a long time,'" Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty said. "And then, all of a sudden, it got the notice that it was going to close down. And that required a major change in the department's operation.  How are we going to get rid of garbage?"

Fresh Kills was not shut down because it was at capacity.  It was closed as a thank you from Rudolph Giuliani to the borough that helped make him the first Republican to be elected mayor since John Lindsey in 1965.  In 1996, two years after he took office, Giuilani and fellow Republican George Pataki signed an agreement to close Fresh Kills by the end of 2001.

 Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, remembered being pleased and puzzled by the move.

"There were many good things about closure," Goldstein said. "The removal of noxious odors, a significant decrease in local water pollution and a redefining of the borough's identity and a restoration of community pride. But we were concerned because there was no comprehensive, long-term plan for what to do with the city's waste."

The sanitation department scrambled, and came up with an interim plan that relied on private waste companies and their out-of-state landfills. It's still in use today. 

City sanitation trucks drop trash off at 13 privately owned waste transfer stations located in a handful of neighborhoods that are mostly populated by minorities: Red Hook, Hunts Point, Greenpoint, Jamaica. From there, long-haul trucks take our garbage far away from Fresh Kills to landfills in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Disposal costs have soared from $43 a ton to dump at Fresh Kills to $60 a ton when the interim plan went into effect in 2001. Now it is $97 a ton. Multiply that by the 11,000 tons of trash the sanitation department collects every day. Doherty, the sanitation commissioner, said this is the biggest negative consequence of closing Fresh Kills.

"Eventually, the people have, in New York City,  to recognize what the cost is of getting rid of garbage," Doherty said. "I mean, we have a billion dollar budget, and we probably have a third of that budget is for exporting waste."

And what did it use be?

"Oh, probably less than 20 percent," he said.

And then there are what NRDC's Eric Goldstein calls the true costs: the environmental consequences of switching from barges, to trucks.  Instead of three barges a day taking our trash to Fresh Kills, about 600 18-wheelers head out of the city every day from those 13 transfer stations.

Annette LaMatto, who spent part of the last decade fighting the city's interim plan, said the closure of Fresh Kills transformed the streets in her neighborhood of Greenpoint into a conga line of trucks, and she's still waiting for a reprieve.

"We're still inundated with a large amount of truck traffic," LaMatto said. 

There were already private waste transfer stations handling commercial garbage in Greenpoint, but the closure of Fresh Kills created a deluge of residential garbage, too.  

"It increased the flow [of trucks]," LaMatto said.  And, 10 years later, "basically, it hasn't changed. They closed it and we suffered the burden of it."

Ten years later, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is trying to tackle the truck problem. His solid waste management plan relies on packing garbage into containers, and moving those containers out of the city by barge and train.  Already, three waste containerization facilities are in operation in the Bronx, in Greenpoint and at Fresh Kills. Five more will eventually be built — three have been stalled by litigation.  Once complete, the city promises the system will eliminate six million miles' worth of garbage truck trips a year.

But Doherty said there are still landfills at the end of those truck trips, and all the problems that come with them: smell, drifting waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

"As far as the environmental issues for landfilling, we’re still faced with that," he said. "We have to continue to look for a better method."

Doherty said waste-to-energy, or burning garbage for electricity, won't work here because of stiff public opposition. The sanitation department plans to issue requests for information for new trash-ridding technologies.

Goldstein, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the city should be spending more effort on improving the rate of recycling, which has dropped since Fresh Kills was closed, from 20 percent to 16 percent.  

"Ultimately, we save the most money and do the best for our planet if we reduce the amount of waste we generate," Goldstein said. "We've got to do more to get an effective recycling program as part of our waste management.  That should be the cornerstone rather than out of state landfills be the cornerstone of solid waste management policy here."

Doherty said the city's taken big strides in recycling, signing a long-term deal to have Sims Metal Management handle metal, glass and plastic.  Sims is building a processing facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, that will take the material by barge, which will get even more trucks off the roads.

And as for Fresh Kills, it, too, is being recycled. Over the next 30 years, it will be turned into a park — one nearly three times the size of Central Park. But already, the project is encountering problems.

The first segment — several soccer fields near the edge of the garbage mounds — has been put on hold because the foundation is sinking. But Doherty said the landfill has great potential, and its man-made mountains of garbage, now covered with dirt and vegetation, are already attracting wildlife.

"We have at least one red fox out there now, which is incredible," Doherty said, with a smile.  "A whole herd of deer out there. A lot of ticks!"

He added: "You know, it's a whole new world out there."

Doherty, Bloomberg, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe and others will hold a ceremony at Fresh Kills to mark the 10-year anniversary of the beginning of that whole new world.   

Doherty says it will take a while for Staten Islanders to reorient themselves to a world where Fresh Kills is a park, not a landfill, an asset, not a nuisance.

"My grandchildren, if I asked them, if I said to them, 'Fresh Kills,' they wouldn't know what I was talking about," he said. "But my children, they would know.  So, it's two generations of forgetting about it."