Monday, March 20, 2006

Trash on the streets? New buildings not required to containerize garbage (but they should)

If one thing was clear from a discussion on garbage at the Atlantic Yards project, it's that trash from 7,300 new residential units shouldn't be put on the street. Carmen Cognetta, Counsel to the Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee of the New York City Council, last Thursday urged members of the Brooklyn Borough Board Atlantic Yards Committee to pressure city officials and the developer. "Nothing in the building code requires that buildings set aside space for trash," he said. "You need to work with the developer. It needs to be containerized in the building."

Cognetta said that the City Council committee has been urging the Buildings Department to require storage space and trash compactors in new residential facilities.

Assemblywoman Joan Millman picked up on that. Garbage bags on the streets could pose hazards: "It's going to be incumbent on us to talk to the developer" so inhouse garbage storage is part of the building.

"I think that's a reasonable 'ask' for us," Millman said. (This was another exchange in the Atlantic Yards Committee hearings which could have been clarified with input from developer Forest City Ratner or the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC), which is conducting the environmental review.)

While the Sanitation Department, Cognetta said, is required to accept trash from large private buildings, many high-rise buildings pay for private trash collection, for convenience regarding the scheduling of pickups.

The final meeting of the Atlantic Yards Committee addressed issues of land use, sanitation, and hazardous materials. (Land use coverage here and here.)

Where does it go?

An arena that attracts thousands of people would inevitably create additional waste, both inside the arena and on the streets outside. How does the city deal with other sports facilities?

Arena trash is often picked up by private carters. "I'd suggest you visit Madison Square Gardens, the Meadowlands, Yankee Stadium," Cognetta said. "Some do it better than others."

Borough President Marty Markowitz pushed Cognetta to give an example. "I think Shea Stadium does it best," he responded.

Vincent DiPolo, a superintendent in the Department of Sanitation, said the city was prepared. "We'll assign additional cleaning personnel, and additional equipment."

How would recycling work? "I'm not sure how arenas set up recycling," DiPolo said, pointing out that many sports facilities are served by private carters. "If they work with us, we work with them."

Where would the residential trash go? "To our existing sites," DiPolo said. Typically the trash is taken in city trucks to waste transfer stations, where private vendors take it out of state, usually by road.

However, the city aims to revive and rebuild marine waste transfer stations that were decommissioned after the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island was closed in 2001. Brooklyn has three such transfer stations; the closest would be Hamilton Avenue station on the Gowanus Canal.

Cognetta added, "Hopefully, marine transfer stations would be built by the time this is built." He added that Council Member Michael McMahon, chair of the Sanitation Committee, said he would be happy to have a hearing on issues raised by Atlantic Yards.

New burdens?

Jerry Armer, chair of Community Board 6, observed that truck traffic would increase in an area that already is quite busy. Cognetta downplayed the issue: "A trash truck holds 12 tons. Probably one truck could handle what comes out of those buildings every other day. One, possibly two trucks."

Kate Suisman, legislative aide to Council Member Letitia James, wasn't convinced: "One truck can carry the trash for 7000 units or 18,000 people?"

Cognetta said it depends on the lifestyle patterns of residents--whether they eat at home or not--and how well they recycle.

"Seven thousand new residential units would seem to put a heck of a strain on existing equipment and manpower," added Armer. "What will it cost the city? Assuming this is built, we're going to have to live with the cost."

DiPolo said, "We'll allocate additional resources to do this." Cognetta added, "I know 7000 residential units sound like a lit, but there are 8.5 million people in the city. They really can adjust to that pretty quickly." The cost question was unanswered, though the Independent Budget Office in September tried to assess it.

Shirley McRae, chair of Community Board 2, said she was worried about existing residents, who might be vulnerable to fines because of garbage left by arena attendees. "Will Sanitation keep that in mind as it's enforcing rules?" she asked.

"We have to use our discretion," DiPolo replied. "I can't answer yes or no."

Hazardous materials

The issue of city responsibility for a state project was raised as Robert Kulikowski, director of the city Office of Environmental Coordination, discussed the remediation of hazardous waste. The presence of such materials ordinarily could trigger a remdial action plan from the city, but because this is a state project, there are other solutions. Developer Forest City Ratner, could act voluntarily, using funds from a state grant program for brownfields. Alternatively, the state environmental agency could supervise the cleanup.

What kind of materials might be found in the railyards, asked Greg Atkins, Markowitz's chief of staff.

Kulikowski said the cleanup of the High Line in Manhattan offered some hints: creosote, several heavy metals, organic compounds, and petroleum.

How difficult is it to mitigate them? "They're not," Kulikowski responded. "Pretty much anything these days is mitigatible. It depends on how much money you want to spend."

"The bottom line is to protect health and safety," he continued. "The important thing is you want to prevent further contamination," to protect groundwater.

Kulkowski acknowledged that Forest City Ratner does not have the legal responsibility to clean up the site if the company did not put the contaminants there. At the same time, he said, he thinks that FCR has applied to the brownfields cleanup program--"but don't quote me." (This was another exchange in which the presence of the developer could have clarified things.)

He clarified the issue: "While they're not legally bound, the state could say, 'We can't find the responsible party. You bought it; you've got to clean it up.'"

Another incentive for the developer, he said, might be to clean up the site because, otherwise, "your bank won't lend you the money" to build.

Armer pointed out that, even with tax credits, the cost of cleanup could be hefty. Kulikowski responded, "The developer knows the financial considerations and is willing to do this."

Armer pointed out that part of the site is covered in concrete and used as a "dead bus storage yard." Would contamination form buses, such as battery acids, also be investigated? Kulikowski said yes.

Would there be different standards for cleanup of the site that would be used for the arena, as opposed to the new railyard? Kulikowski said yes, as standards depend on the end use.

Millman raised a practical concern of constituents; what happens if the water gets turned off on nearby blocks, as had happened during the recent reconstruction of Smith Street. "It's a valid question," Kulikowski response. "You can't answer until you know more specifics." But he said the city, state, and developer would all have to work together on such issues.

"This is just a very large construction project," he said.

Millman continued, "It'll be asked again, until we get an answer."

Making a difference: Marty, Millman, Tish, and the CBs

It was the last of nine meetings of the committee. Borough President Marty Markowitz and his chief of staff, Greg Atkins, generally led off the panels with useful questions, though occasionally leading ones. Among public officials, Assemblywoman Joan Millman stood out as usual on Thursday, asking several forceful questions. She also brought an aide. Assemblyman Roger Green didn't come or send an aide; neither did State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, though she usually sends a staffer. An aide to City Council Member David Yassky attended, as is typical. State Senator Carl Andrews, whose absence was so consistent that I forgot to include him in a preview article, this time sent an aide. In my previous article, I also neglected to include Council Members Al Vann and Bill DeBlasio, who have been largely absent.

Besides Millman, however, the only elected official (or aide to an elected official) who asked questions was Kate Suisman, an aide to City Council Member Letitia James. The leading public official opposing the project, James (and her surrogate) have been generally skeptical.

The Community Board representatives consistently inquired about practical issues, during the process in general, and on Thursday. Among Community Board representatives, Jerry Armer, chair of CB6, asked several challenging questions, as is typical. Shirley McRae, chair of CB2, and Robert Matthews, chair of CB8, weighed in consistently.

There were more than a dozen people around the table, with fewer in the audience. Along among the press, News12 showed up to shoot some excerpts and later interviews. In the audience were representatives of the Municipal Art Society and the Prospect Heights Neighborhood Development Council.

Some conversations among participants continued in the hall as Borough Hall staffers folded tables and moved chairs. The cameras moved outside. Once it was feared that the ESDC's Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS)--whose provisions this process was supposed to track--might emerge before the last committee hearing. Now that the disqualification of an ESDC lawyer has been appealed, it's unclear how long it will take. What is clear is that many questions surround this project, and answers--whether in the DEIS or in another form--are needed.

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