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following excerpt is from a new book by Benjamin
Miller, "Fat of the Land." It describes
a critical period in the battle against the Brooklyn Navy Yard incinerator
proposal. The book is available through Amazon.com or Four Walls Eight
But by the time the Mobro's [the "garbage barge"] most famous load had gone up in smoke, NYPIRG's new toxics organizer, a graduate of Oberlin Conservatory of Music named Arthur Kell, whose full-time assignment was stopping the Brooklyn Navy Yard [incinerator] project, with the help of his colleagues and hundreds of student volunteers, had made the words "toxic" and "ash" as tightly linked in the popular imagination as "orange juice" or "Love Canal" . . . .
. . . . while the parties waited patiently for the conservation commissioner's decision, NYPIRG's Fresh Kills strategy came to full bloom. Early in 1988, Governor Mario Cuomo began to receive a stream of letters from Staten Islanders begging him not to allow any ash to be sent to their giant landfill straddling the meadows where the Fresh Kills emptied into the Arthur Kill . . . . the commissioner's negative ruling [denying the city's ash dumping proposal] came as a great surprise not only to city officials . . . it "surprised the hell out of everyone" on [State DEC Commissioner] Jorling's own staff (according to one of them). But no one seemed more surprised by this second successive unexpected victory than NYPIRG's Arthur Kell, protector of the Arthur Kill, who had feared the game was almost over.
Three months later (in March 1989), having devised what seemed like a fool-proof solution to the Arthur Kell problem--a signed agreement to send the ash to a legal landfill outside the city--the city asked Commissioner Jorling to reconvene the Navy Yard permit hearing. Wheelabrator, which several years before had become a subsidiary of Waste Management, Inc., the world's largest refuse-handling corporation, recently had signed an "air-rights" agreement with Waste Management that gave it access to a third of the parent corporation's millions of cubic yards of space in landfills across the country. All were in compliance with all local permit regulations, Wheelabrator told the parties to the hearing; any one of them therefore would be a permissible disposal site according to the new state regulations.
Kell saw the last few feet of rope slipping from hands. He quickly went back to read the regulations again and found a phrase everyone else had apparently missed: the applicant must identify "the landfill or landfills that will receive the residue." Not "could" or "might," Kell insisted in a phone call to the judge. Two weeks later, Wheelabrator identified the landfill where the Navy Yard ash would go, the new, ash-only, Fairless facility in Falls Township, Pennsylvania. Discouraged that Wheelabrator had overcome the technical flaw he had found and proposed a facility that apparently complied fully with the state's regulations, Kell could think of nothing else to do but to go have a look at it for himself.
The next Saturday morning he found Falls on a map, got into his eleven-year-old van, drove across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, down the expressway through the former Fresh Kills meadows, across the Arthur Kill, past the giant landfills, aptly named GROWS, where Waste Management piled thousands of tons of waste a day from locations up to hundreds of miles away, but could not find its little sibling, the Fairless ashfill. As he circled the spot where it was supposed to be--somewhere behind the closed gate and chain-link fence surrounding a USX steel plant--he realized that there was nothing there: it did not yet exist. Before leaving, he picked up a copy of the local paper ("one of the first things any organizer does anywhere"), then drove home, not yet aware of what he had.
The next week he called up the Bucks County Courier Times. The receptionist passed him to a reporter named J. D. Mullane. Kell told Mullane that New York City was planning to send his little town a thousand tons of toxic ash every day--a twenty-ton truck-worth rumbling down the two-lane road to the steel plant every ten minutes every hour of every business day. He faxed him the hearing papers that Wheelabrator had filed, along with some information about toxic ash. Then he sat back and waited. And waited. Three weeks later, the story finally hit.
The front page of the Courier Times announced that none of Falls Township's elected officials, who had just concluded negotiations giving Waste Management permission to build the ashfill, had ever heard of Waste Management's agreement with Wheelabrator and New York City. Nor had any state environmental officials--who had yet to receive a final permit application for the facility. The fact that the town supervisors had approved the landfill as the place to put their own ash when their new Wheelabrator-built incinerator started operations in 1994--ash that would be indistinguishable from the Navy Yard's--did not mean that they would accept toxic ash from New York City, they hotly told Waste Management. One of the supervisors volunteered to go to New York "to tell Mayor Koch what he can do with his ash." Five days later, Waste Management apologized for the "communication failure" and promised that it would never happen again.
With a strategic tug--one which simultaneously implied that Staten Islanders should prefer the landfilling of raw garbage to the landfilling of ash, and that reducing the volume of material deposited at Fresh Kills was an insufficient cause to justify shipping New York's waste out of the city--Kell had pulled back a lot of rope. Now it was Wheelabrator and the city who were down to their last two hopes . . . . All but single-handedly, Arthur Kell had made common currency the magical belief that landfilled ash is more dangerous the raw garbage and made politically correct the notion that exporting ash outside the city was not an acceptable alternative. Accepting these premises left no logical alternative but to recycle everything the city's 7.4 million citizens threw away.
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