Recently I was preparing notes on the regional economy and its outlook in the near future when I spoke with a friend in the carting business in Suffolk County. He indicated that the increase in recycling awareness and the decrease in retail and corporate consumption had dramatically reduced the overall output of commercial and residential refuse. While this is a positive environmental development, it is yet another “Main Street” indicator that the economy is still muddling through the Great Recession. He noted that the suburban haul, however, was less affected than the urban outflow of garbage, pointing out that the five boroughs were down considerably. These are the types of real-world indicators I find fascinating and the ones you won’t hear on the morning market reports.
In researching this claim I came across an interesting report that has sparked a debate in the city between the Department of Sanitation, the aviation industry, private carting companies and several other government agencies: the construction of a Marine Transfer Station (MTS)—these are the facilities where garbage is moved from truck to containers bound for incinerators, landfills or recycling plants—located somewhere between 1,850 and 2,200 feet (depending upon whom you believe) from the end of the runway at LaGuardia Airport.
The MTS is only one of several large-scale initiatives set forth in New York City’s Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP) first proposed in 2006 as a response to Mayor Bloomberg’s request that the city develop a long-term strategy to handle waste in a more economically efficient and environmentally sensitive manner. Long Island’s counties and towns should take note of the forward-thinking manner of this plan to ensure the problem of waste management isn’t punted to future administrations like so many of Long Island’s infrastructure issues. But the MTS in the harbor off College Point in Queens also highlights the inherent danger of a single authority managing the whole forest while neglecting individual trees along the way.
In August 2010, a committee—formed in response to criticism of the MTS—issued a report titled “Evaluation of the North Shore Marine Transfer Station and its Compatibility with Respect to Bird Strikes and Safe Air Operations at LaGuardia Airport.” According to the report, “LaGuardia Airport ranked ninth for the total number of wildlife strikes reported between 2004 and 2008.” Moreover, it ranks second for “Gull Strikes.”
The agitation over this issue is quite obviously a result of the now-famous Miracle on the Hudson in January 2009, when captains Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles captivated the nation by safely ditching their US Airways Airbus in the Hudson after striking a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia. The MTS committee was charged with re-examining the potential for increased danger from bird strikes such as these by rebuilding a transfer station near the end of the LaGuardia runway. The committee members chose to use the Staten Island Transfer Station, an enclosed facility like the one proposed in Queens, as the model for determining risk associated with bird strikes.
When the committee observed birds at this facility, they noted that one half were house sparrows, which “do not present a substantial bird strike risk.” The other half were European starlings and pigeons, both of which “raise aviation safety concerns because they commonly collide with aircraft.” They determined, however, that the bird population was too small to present any significant difference in risk and concluded that the project should move forward.
Kenneth Paskar, a vocal critic who is suing the city to halt the proposed Queens MTS, is a pilot who objects to several of the conclusions drawn in the report and questions the qualifications of the committee members. One of his primary arguments is that the enclosed Staten Island facility “should not have been used because that facility is a land-based transfer station.” Essentially, Paskar argues that a waterfront transfer station will attract a greater bird population as it is a more natural habitat for birds and that any attempt to remove them “will entail a lengthy and expensive—and probably a futile—battle.” The Air Line Pilots Association, International agrees with this assessment, as does retired U.S. Air Force member Dr. Russell DeFusco, who further argues that while the enclosed station may offer greater safety, the departing barges themselves will be more difficult to monitor.
Randy Mastro, of city-based law firm Gibson Dunn and lead council for the case against the city, describes the project as a “public safety nemesis” saying plainly “garbage attracts birds.” The suit essentially asks the city to undergo a new permitting process to take this one facility out of the equation of its master plan since the Miracle on the Hudson clearly illustrated the danger of bird strikes.
Here’s the upshot, or the rub, of the scenario. Long before the Miracle on the Hudson and before the global economy imploded, the Bloomberg administration took decisive action by evaluating the current waste management infrastructure of New York City and proposing changes that would help sustain growth in the volume of garbage in an economically and environmentally beneficial way. I love that. As Long Islanders we are inexorably tethered to the goings-on next door and watching how they proactively deal with waste is helpful for our municipalities.
What bothers me about the proposal is the shift from private contracts to municipal facilities in three of the five boroughs. Perhaps some of these initiatives are necessary but any time government goes further in debt to consolidate private resources into public entities, it’s troublesome. The ability to control costs and procedures through carefully designed RFP’s and oversight is nearly always a better solution than government attempting to administer and manage the process throughout. This debate is entirely analogous to the raging national debate over free markets versus regulated markets; the answer is always in the middle. Having a free market where private contractors are allowed to operate efficiently in the marketplace but within sound guidelines and a proper regulatory framework that protects taxpayers is what made this country great. In this case the city is right to enact and enforce strict regulations that deal with the waste stream to protect the health of the local ecology and the residents. But it must also be willing to allow the market to determine the most efficient way of doing so.
The bigger problem with this plan is actually a very little one: birds. Regardless of what comes of the larger plan to handle the city’s garbage, we are all stakeholders in LaGuardia Airport and now that we fully recognize the danger of a bird strike, is it really necessary to tempt fate by building a transfer station 2,000 feet from the end of the runway at LaGuardia? This is when we should let common sense guide the way and listen as it whispers “better safe than sorry” in our ears.
From our vantage point on Long Island, this site would be yet one more reason to head east and use MacArthur. And if Jet Blue decides to take up residence there, the only flocks LaGuardia will need to be concerned with are the flocks of humans taking flight from Islip.