Matthew Chapman
RE: Repermitting of 91st Street MTS

Dear Commissioner Martens,

On September 23rd, 2014, Mayor de Blasio spoke at the United Nations Summit on Climate Change. He said: “Two years ago Hurricane Sandy left 44 dead in our city. The storms to come will be far more lethal.”

Why, then, is he building a massive garbage dump on the waterfront of a residential neighborhood, right in front of public housing, next to an athletic facility used by 34,000 city kids and in a really bad flood zone?

And why is he building it five and a half feet below the level suggested by FEMA!?

During Hurricane Sandy, the whole area flooded. Two nearby NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority) buildings, where 2,200 people live, are still being repaired two years later.

The 91st Street Marine Transfer Station (MTS) is in Yorkville just south of East Harlem. It will be close to ten stories high, cover two acres and operate 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. One hundred to 500 trucks a day will enter and exit the site.

The public housing units are so close to the dump that were it not for a technicality, it would be illegal. Nearly 25,000 people live within a quarter mile of the dump, including 6,755 members of racial minorities, 1,059 children and 1,532 people living in poverty. Thanks to progressive urban planning and the ethics of modern zoning laws, even Republicans are usually opposed to building large industrial facilities this close to so many people. 

Under the current garbage collection and disposal system, trucks pick up trash in an area north of 14th street, east of 8th Avenue and south of 131st Street on the east side. When they are full, they drive across the narrowest part of the city to the nearest bridge or tunnel and deliver directly to waste-to-energy plants in industrial zones in New Jersey.

Under the new plan, a truck picking up on 16th Street and 3rd Avenue, say, will drive northeast – in the opposite direction of the garbage’s ultimate destination — up through Gramercy, Murray Hill, Midtown, Lennox Hill, up congested 1st Avenue, past Bellevue Hospital, the NYU School of Medicine and Memorial Sloane Kettering, past the Midtown Tunnel, the UN, the 59th Street Bridge, enter Yorkville with its record number of schools, zigzag through residential streets, lumber across a sidewalk where kids pass back and forth between the two halves of the athletic facility, drive its load alongside the playing field and all those panting young lungs and, finally, after who knows how many hours in traffic, dump onto a barge.

The truck, now weighing ten tons less, will then turn around, roar back alongside the playing field and the wheezing children thereon, once more drive over the sidewalk it shares with the children and drive all the way south back down through the city along 2nd Avenue.

Some trucks will have to drive an extra 160 congested city blocks (80 each way) to get to and from the MTS. Advocates for building the dump say trucks will drive fewer miles than if they went to New Jersey. This is an environmental half truth, even a swindle.

A truck driving a mile in a traffic jam in the most densely populated urban area in America does infinitely more damage to humans than a truck driving a mile along an open highway.

Research linking traffic related air pollution to autism, asthma and other health problems is very clear. The city kids at the athletic facility will suffer worst, but everyone in Manhattan will be put at more risk.

Having come north 80 blocks, the garbage picked up on 16th Street is now put on a barge headed back south. Towed by a tug boat that is many times more toxic than the truck it now parallels, it grinds back south, back down the narrow East River, through the even narrower channel by Roosevelt Island, past schools and more hospitals, past Queens on one side and the UN on the other, past where it was picked up many hours ago; passes under the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges and then chugs around the southern tip of the island, west to Staten Island or to New Jersey.

Imagine a woman standing on 16th Street and 3rd Avenue. Imagine her name is Kathryn Garcia. She desperately needs a bathroom and knows there’s an excellent one a mile west on the Hudson River. So she walks four miles north to the Mayor’s Mansion on East 90th Street, briefly locks herself in the bathroom, exits carrying a plastic bag, jumps in the East River and swims south, possibly against a swift current, past where she was originally, splashes on another three miles around the bottom of the island, then decides to swim even further to Staten Island so she can sling her waste onto another form of transportation which will then convey it several hundred miles to be disposed of in some poverty struck neighborhood in Pennsylvania or Upstate New York.

Kathryn Garcia is the head of the Department of Sanitation, and presumably this is what she would do because this is what she wants to do with your waste.

It is insane.

This craziness is not just a local issue. Not local to Manhattan, not local to the five boroughs. The garbage that has gone up and down Manhattan like a Yoyo, spinning off pollution into at least three boroughs, ends up hundreds of miles away to be burned or buried in or near the low income neighborhoods of Niagara Falls, New York, and Chester, Pennsylvania. Needless to say the residents of these two places don’t like it. Their voices go unheard too.

This outdated, geographically-challenged environmental lunacy is rationalized as “environmental justice.” It is neither. The solution to New York City trash problems does not lie in building massive, expensive 19th Century industrial structures next to children and homes and then sending it hundreds of miles to poor communities. It lies in changing behavior across the city.

By the time the MTS is built, New York — currently one of the more backward cities in America when it comes to source reduction, recycling and composting — will be one of the most advanced. The genuinely progressive aspirations of Mayor de Blasio and the City Council will make sure of this.

And then an MTS as dangerous as the one at 91st Street simply won’t be needed.

I cannot emphasize this enough: this is NOT a local issue. Everyone in the five boroughs (and beyond) will pay for this mistake, environmentally and financially.

Budgeted at 44 million, the 91st Street MTS is now projected by the Independent Budget Office to come in at 240 million. In other words a forty-four million dollar project will end up being almost 200 million dollars over budget!

And the cost to New Yorkers doesn’t stop there. If it becomes operational, this one MTS will increase the cost of shipping garbage out of Manhattan by about a 100 million dollars over the next four years.

This money will be extracted from residents of all five boroughs. This is your money not going to our Mayor’s admirable plans for street safety, better education and housing and a cleaner environment. The environmental stupidity and wastefulness of this project is a scandal. It will come back to haunt you if you issue another permit.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has to approve the permit renewal for the 91st Street MTS under this understanding:

If there is “newly discovered material information or there has been a material change in environmental conditions” the request for renewal must be treated as “a new application”. In that case, the project has to be looked at again.

The last permit was issued in 2009. Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

In a recent interview Mayor de Blasio said, “Global warming was much more of an abstraction to New York City until two years ago. There’s a moral imperative to act.” At the UN, he said “Two years ago Hurricane Sandy left 44 dead in our city. The storms to come will be far more lethal.”

He’s right — and clearly confirms there’s been both “a material change in environmental conditions” and “newly discovered material information.”

The “material change in environmental conditions” could not be more material. Climate change, according to recent scientific research, is happening much faster than we thought. This means more severe storms and therefore worse flooding.

The “newly discovered material information” was provided by Hurricane Sandy. The new information was just how damaging such a storm can be to New York City. 44 people died and there was 19 billion dollars worth of damage.

On the basis of de Blasio’s statements alone there should be a new application process. Given that the MTS is not just being built in a flood zone but almost six feet lower than FEMA mandates, I’d say it would be almost criminal not to do this.

But there is more.

1. Since the last permit was issued, information provided by new pollution monitors in the city shows that the area around the dump has possibly the worst air quality in the entire city and consequently has the worst asthma rates in the city.

2. Since the last permit was issued, research linking traffic related air pollution to autism, asthma and other health problems has grown exponentially.

3. Since the last permit was issued, the World Health Organization classified diesel as a carcinogen

4. Since the last permit was issued, thousands of new apartments have been built in the area.

5. Since the last permit was issued, 1st Avenue, the main route for loaded, inbound garbage trucks has been narrowed by two lanes in many places since 2009, and is already far more congested than it was even a year ago.

6. Five new schools have opened in the area, including three large public schools and one special ed school.

Given all of the above, it is clear that a new permit application is mandatory under the law; that citizens and scientists deserve to be heard, openly; and that, ultimately the dump should be stopped.


Matthew Chapman
Author, Journalist, Film Director, President of, resident of Yorkville.