OPINION: Private sanitation is disfiguring black and brown neighborhoods in Queens

By Joy Bryce

 When I first moved to Jamaica, Queens in 1989, I fell in love with the neighborhood. Every morning I would wake up to the smell of freshly baked bread, wafting from the bakery a few blocks away. My house had a big backyard and I could walk to the park around the corner. 

In the years since, my beautiful neighborhood has been disfigured by the private sanitation industry. Instead of waking up to smells from the bakery, I am kept up by smells from the waste transfer stations where commercial garbage trucks dump trash every night.

Mayor Giuliani closed the Fresh Kills landfill in 2001, freeing the residents of Staten Island from the unfair burden of handling the whole city’s waste. But the trash had to go somewhere. In the place of Fresh Kills, private companies opened transfer stations for garbage trucks to dump trash on its way to landfills outside the city. Most of these sites were built in Black or Brown neighborhoods of the South Bronx, North Brooklyn, and Southeast Queens. 

Every day, about 350 garbage trucks bring over one thousand tons of rotting garbage to facilities in my neighborhood. I can no longer enjoy my yard, or a walk in the park. I keep my windows closed to block out the smell and we drive to another neighborhood if we want to breathe fresh air. 

Many of my neighbors have had enough. One moved her family to Texas, after her daughter started having trouble breathing. Away from the daily parade of diesel garbage trucks, her respiratory issues have disappeared. 

Another couple hoped to grow old and enjoy retirement in their home, but after too many trips to the hospital because of the air pollution, they too have left. 

Neighborhood kids have to dodge the trucks as they cross Liberty Avenue to go to school. In May, a private garbage truck was driving in reverse down a local one-way street when it hit and killed a motorcyclist.

None of these facilities comply with existing laws that require them to be fully enclosed to reduce smells and dust from escaping. One dump is across the street from Detective Keith L. Williams Park, where kids play basketball, run track, or swim in a cloud of diesel exhaust and garbage fumes. 

We need the city to take action to protect our community. 

The first step is implementing the Waste Equity Law that was enacted last year. It will reduce the amount of trash that some waste facilities are allowed to accept and cap the amount so it will not increase in the future. 

The Department of Sanitation has stopped dumping residential trash at private waste transfer stations that rely on diesel trucks to move garbage out of the city. That was supposed to help neighborhoods like mine, but unfortunately private commercial carters have sent more garbage to the transfer stations to make up the difference. 

Legislation currently before the City Council would reduce the number of garbage trucks in every neighborhood by making one private carting company responsible for waste collection in each commercial district. It would also encourage waste haulers to dump their trash at the transfer station closest to where they are picking it up, rather than driving across the city to dump in someone else’s neighborhood. The bill should go further and require that private carters only use waste transfer stations that fully enclose their buildings and follow other laws. So far, 23 council members have signed onto the zoned-waste-collection bill, but unfortunately my Council Member, Daneek Miller, is not among them. 

Every New Yorker should be able to breathe the air and enjoy a walk in their neighborhood. It’s not acceptable that three communities of color are burdened with the whole city’s trash. Our elected officials need to act and bring environmental justice to the whole city.

Joy Bryce is a resident of Jamaica, Queens