airing differences

Private Trash Carters on Road to Missing Emissions Upgrade Deadline

Private garbage carting companies are up against a Jan. 1 emissions upgrade deadline.
Private garbage carting companies are up against a Jan. 1 emissions upgrade deadline. Photo: Nitikorn Poonsiri/Shutterstock

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Scores of privately owned garbage trucks operating on city streets aren’t likely to make it to the finish line in time to meet new emissions requirements, data from the city’s Business Integrity Commission suggests.

Under the city’s Local Law 145 of 2013, 6,000 heavy-duty vehicles have until Jan. 1 to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2007 diesel emissions standards.

The commission said that about 30% of trucks covered under the law don’t make the grade. While most trucks that have to meet the new emissions standards handle construction materials and debris, among them are about 1,850 that collect commercial waste, recyclables, medical and food waste, and junk.

Companies are eligible to apply for financial hardship waivers that would extend the time they have to comply.

“It’s a delay tactic,” said Tok Michelle Oyewole, an organizer at the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance.

“I think it’s because they knew that they could get away with it,” she added. “They knew that there was a loophole in the legislation allowing them to kick the can down the road, I guess.”

Kendall Christiansen, executive director of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, a group of about 50 private carting companies, said the subset of trucks that collect commercial waste from businesses are almost all already compliant with the law.

Christiansen estimated that three in four commercial-waste carters have met the new emissions requirements, and says the law’s implementation on Jan. 1 threatens to run smaller operators out of business.

“Upgrading trucks is expensive,” said Christiansen. “It’s unlikely that a small hauler will be able to do it.”

A new, compliant truck, Christiansen said, could run upwards of $300,000. Retrofitting the engine on an older truck so it meets city guidelines could cost around $30,000, he added.

A Business Integrity Commission spokesperson said in a statement that the agency, along with the Department of Environmental Protection, was working to help private carters comply with Local Law 145.

Environmental justice and labor advocates lobbied hard for the law, which aims to reduce the levels of unhealthy fumes in communities like the South Bronx, where data shows more residents are affected by asthma and related illnesses than in most parts of the city.

‘A Huge Concern’

Some activists argue the 2007 standard is hopelessly outdated.

“It’s a huge concern because a 2007 diesel truck is, first of all, not a very rigorous standard for an industry to meet,” said Justin Wood, director of organizing and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. “The standard doesn’t really move us far along in terms of climate change and local air pollution.”

And with some carters likely requesting extensions, the city’s progress will fall further behind those of other large metropolitan areas, said Alex Moore, a spokesperson for Teamsters Joint Council 16, whose ranks include private sanitation workers.

“Having a truck that was compliant with what the regulations were that were set during the [George W.] Bush Administration is a pretty low bar,” Moore told THE CITY.

In Los Angeles, for example, every private garbage truck is required to be “clean-burning,” using fuel like compressed natural gas.

If the same standard were applied in New York City, less than 0.1% of private garbage trucks — only five of nearly 6,000 — would be street-ready, Moore said.

“They’ve had six or seven years to comply,” he said of the carting companies.

The city Sanitation Department’s garbage collection trucks are all in compliance with the 2007 standards, an agency spokesperson said.

Vote on Waste Zone Law

Private carters and environmental advocates also are facing off over a City Council vote expected Wednesday on legislation that aims to decrease truck traffic by dividing the city into at least 20 fixed “commercial waste zones.”

Each zone would be serviced by up to three carting companies — selected through a Department of Sanitation bidding process — cutting the distance trucks would have to travel and reducing emissions.

Some city estimates suggest such a system could curb the emission of some of the pollutants most closely linked to respiratory illnesses by between 34% and 62%.

Private garbage haulers also would need to adopt additional rules — including using zero-emission vehicles by 2040 and providing safety training for all workers. The industry was the subject of a ProPublica investigative series last year after a string of fatal accidents and reports of brutal labor conditions.

The legislation also is the product of years of effort by the Transform, Don’t Trash coalition, a group working to reform the carting business, and negotiations between city lawmakers and agencies.

Christiansen’s group formed three years ago in protest of the zones proposal, which he called “misguided” and predicted would further contract a shrinking industry.

“It will be a disaster for the city,” he said of the “very simplistic” legislation, which he believes will drive up garbage collection costs citywide.

South Bronx Hard Hit

Traffic reduction would be welcomed by many residents of the South Bronx, where about 150 trash-carrying trucks travel the streets during peak hours, according to research by Transform, Don’t Trash. North Brooklyn and southeast Queens also see higher-than-average waste truck traffic, the group found.

“One of the biggest issues in our city regarding environmental justice is the clustering (of waste facilities) in communities that are serving black and brown residents,” said Oyewole. “We have a system where over 75% of the waste is going to a few communities.”

Coalition members found that dangerous pollutants were “between two and seven times higher than the average rate” in the South Bronx, where asthma rates are elevated. “You can relate that directly to the amount of trucks that are driving there,” Oyewole said.

Hunts Point in The Bronx has some the worst asthma rates in the city.
Hunts Point in The Bronx has some the worst asthma rates in the city. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Research has repeatedly illustrated the extent of the South Bronx’ air quality woes, noted Councilmember Rafael Salamanca, who has had asthma since growing up in the neighborhood.

Part of his South Bronx district includes what some health advocates have dubbed Asthma Alley. It is home to the heavily trafficked Hunts Point Market, as well as a sewage treatment site.

‘Stop This Madness’

There and in neighboring Longwood, air pollution levels are higher than both the city and borough averages, city Health Department data shows. Children living there are rushed to emergency rooms with asthma attacks at nearly double at the citywide rate.

The Council bill, Salamanca said, would help “stop this madness.”

“Adequately addressing the issue begins with identifying the leading sources of pollutants,” Salamanca said in a statement.

Councilmember Rafael Salamanca developed asthma while growing up in The Bronx.
Councilmember Rafael Salamanca developed asthma while growing up in The Bronx.

Private garbage trucks travel more than 23 million miles in the city every year, a 2016 city Department of Sanitation and Business Integrity Commission study found.

“Many existing routes are geographically dispersed, often serving several neighborhoods across multiple boroughs,” the study said. “Routes from the same and different carters often overlap along key routes and neighborhood streets, creating duplicative services across the city. For many routes, garages and transfer stations are far from the core service area of the route.”

This story has been revised to add details from an industry spokesperson on compliance with the emissions law by commercial waste carters.

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