Private trash hauler faces backlash over safety violations

Protesters in front of the office of the Business Integrity Commission in Manhattan on May 9, urging the agency to suspend the license of a Hunts Point trash hauler. Photo: Joe Hirsch

Traffic death in Melrose prompts outcry for revocation of company’s license

A private waste hauling company based in Hunts Point is taking heat from unions, workers, and environmental, neighborhood and immigrant groups, after one of its trucks ran over and killed a pedestrian in Melrose in April. It was the second time in six months that a pedestrian was run over by a Sanitation Salvage truck in the Bronx.

Adams Houses resident Leo Clarke, 72, was struck as he crossed East 152nd Street under the Jackson Avenue overhead 2/5 stop on April 27th at 8:15 p.m.

Adams Houses’ tenant president Ronald Topping remembers Clarke as “a talkative, polite neighbor” who liked to take walks in the area all times of day. Clarke’s neighbor at 720 Westchester Avenue, Willie Bolton, said Clarke was a respectful presence who will be missed.

Last November, a Sanitation Salvage truck operated by the same driver ran over 21-year-old Mouctar Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, on Jerome Avenue. The driver was later found to have lied to police about Diallo’s death, telling them that Diallo was a homeless man who had jumped on the back of the truck before falling off and getting crushed. It was later discovered that Diallo was an uncontracted worker the crew had hired off the street to help them finish their route that night.

A recent report by the federal transportation department found Sanitation Salvage has one of the worst safety records among the city’s private trash haulers. Between 2016 and 2018 its trucks were inspected 12 times. Ten of those inspections led to violations dangerous enough for the trucks to be taken off the road. Violations included trucks lacking antilock brake system, operating with bald tires or defective brakes, and leaking or failing cargo.

In all, Sanitation Salvage’s trucks had the second most violations per vehicle from among 20 private haulers included in the report, with three violations per vehicle. But advocates say that the city agency tasked with overseeing and disciplining the city’s private waste haulers, the Business Integrity Commission (BIC), is toothless and lacks the political will to rein in the industry.

At a rally in front of the BIC’s office in downtown Manhattan on May 9, a half-dozen City Council members joined several dozen trash industry workers and immigrant advocates to pressure the agency to revoke Sanitation Salvage’s license and tighten regulations within the industry.

City Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who spearheaded the rally, said, “We have an oversight agency that [has never] suspended a license. This industry is toxic and we need comprehensive reform.” Reynoso’s North Brooklyn district is among three neighborhoods that process 80 percent of the city’s trash. The South Bronx is another one of those three neighborhoods. Some of the city’s biggest commercial carters are headquartered along the local waterfront, including Sanitation Salvage, at 42 Manida Street.

Sanitation Salvage is fighting back, saying that it is being unfairly targeted. In an email statement to The Express and Herald, the company said through a spokesman, that “we believe that our safety standards and our drivers’ record over the course of millions of miles traveled since the founding of our company in 1984 merit a continuation of our practice and do not warrant a revocation of our license.”

“While we recognize the great tragedy these fatalities represent, our commitment to safety means we are constantly incorporating the latest industry best practices, and we will continue to serve our customers, the community and the general public by meeting the highest standards,” continued the spokesman, Lee Silberstein.

Through a spokesperson, the company added that it has suspended the driver of the two Bronx incidents without pay, and says that it pays its employees for every hour worked.

On May 3, a coalition of South Bronx groups and watchdog organizations calling themselves Transform Don’t Trash NYC, sent a letter to the BIC’s commissioner, Daniel Brownell, urging the agency to suspend Sanitation Salvage’s license. The letter states, that the company “creates an imminent danger to life or property.” The coalition includes The Point CDC, Mothers on the Move and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, along with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and Transportation Alternatives.

A Mount Vernon man who worked picking up trash for Sanitation Salvage from the back of its truck between 2005 and 2016, testified before the City Council last fall that a typical shift for him would run from 4 p.m. until 8 or 9 the following morning. Workers, he said in a phone interview, were not given the safety gloves or other equipment that the law requires, and were paid for only a fraction of the hours they worked.

“They want you to work a massive amount of hours for no money,” said Orren Ewan, 43, adding that the company didn’t repair the trucks or the steps in the back. For 16-hour shifts, he was paid for just 10 hours—-about $500 per week after taxes. Despite those conditions, Ewan said, few of the company’s workers will speak out, fearing retaliation.

A bill making its way through the City Council, Intro 157—known in a prior iteration as Intro 495—includes measures that would cut the amount of trash private hauling companies can process. City Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr., whose district includes Hunts Point and Melrose, said that he is “waiting to see the language” on the bill, and is eager to see the results of the BIC’s investigation into Diallo’s and Clarke’s deaths.

“These drivers work long hours,” said Salamanca. “There need to be discussions in terms of safety.” In addition, companies should hire more drivers, he said.

Sean Campbell, president and principal officer of Teamsters Local 813, called the difference between the city’s tightly regulated sanitation department and the private hauling industry, “a tale of two industries.” Sanitation Salvage will “continue to play games until someone drops the hammer on them,” while “throwing their drivers under the bus,” instead of reforming its own industry, he said.

Campbell added that he is skeptical Bronx elected officials will support legislation to reform private trash oversight, noting that Sanitation Salvage and others have donated generously to their campaigns, including Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. There were no Bronx elected officials present at the rally.

In a written statement, Diaz’s communications director John DeSio responded that, “The borough president believes that all employees, regardless of their employer, should be paid for the hours they work. Any substantiated violation of labor rules by Sanitation Salvage must be addressed and remedied. Our office has urged the district attorney to investigate the circumstances surrounding the deaths of Mr. Diallo and Mr. Clark.”

In an email statement to the Express/Herald, the Business Integrity Commission’s Commissioner Brownell said that “Upon learning the driver lied to the City about the circumstances of this fatality, we requested the driver’s suspension and have been diligently investigating Sanitation Salvage and its practices. If this investigation finds that Sanitation Salvage should no longer be operating on our streets, BIC can initiate the process to revoke the company’s license.”

The BIC’s policy director Salvador Arrona, wrote that the  agency “has the authority to appoint an independent monitor to oversee daily operations, and if the results of the investigation merit these actions or any others, they will be taken immediately.” Although the Commission “does not have legal authority to make new rules in the area of safety in the trade waste industry,” he added, it is “working tirelessly to increase BIC’s authority to enforce safety regulations, which currently is limited. We are currently developing legislation that would allow BIC to promulgate safety rules.”