Twelve years ago, a huge crane pried the stacks off the South Bronx Medical Waste Incinerator on the eastern end of 138th Street where it meets the East River. Hundreds of Bronxites who had protested that it was poisoning the air they breathed cheered as the last incinerator in New York City was dismantled.
Now a multinational company owned by some of the wealthiest investment houses on Wall Street wants millions in taxpayer subsidies so it can build new incinerators. If the company succeeds, you can be certain that its smokestack will tower over a poor community, and the South Bronx will be in the bullseye.
Covanta Holding Company, which operates incinerators around the world, including the scandal-scarred Hempstead incinerator on Long Island, is marketing its technology as green, and has rebranded its facilities as waste-to-energy plants. Covanta, which is on track to earn more than $1.5 billion this year, wants the state to designate burning garbage as a source of renewable energy, so it will be eligible for public subsidies.
But an incinerator is not a solar panel. Burning at high temperatures concentrates toxic substances, including cancer-causing dioxins, lead, arsenic and mercury. Some of this rises in minute particles from the smokestack, and later lodges in the lungs.
Despite the claims of the industry that filtering systems minimize the impact of burning on air quality, sulfur from incinerators contributes to acid rain, and nitrogen oxides cause breathing problems and trigger asthma attacks.
The more efficient the filters, the more toxic the ash left after burning, which must be transported to landfills, where its poison may leach into the water supply.
Moreover, to be profitable, incinerators need a large and continuous supply of garbage, so they become competitors for the metal, glass, paper, wood and plastic targeted by recycling programs. Since recycling holds the promise of green jobs for residents of communities like ours, inflicting an incinerator on our neighborhoods would do double injury.
When millions of dollars in government subsidies and contracts are at stake, political payoffs are inevitable. The Hempstead incinerator that Covanta points to as a model of what it hopes to build in the city was born in cronyism, its path to approval greased by Senator Alfonse D’Amato and his Republican machine after the developer hired the senator’s brother Armand as a lobbyist.
So it’s important to let elected officials and regulatory agencies know that we’re watching them, and we expect them to safeguard us, not the profits of Sam Zell, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and the other big stockholders in Covanta.
The New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, an umbrella organization that includes Nos Quedamos, The Point Community Development Corp., and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, has already spoken out. Its efforts deserve widespread support.
The lesson of the South Bronx incinerator is that when ordinary residents come together and stick together, they can change things. But the work is hard and long. So it would be best to start now.