Talking Trash

Let’s put the matter directly. We’re spending at least $200 million a year to send our garbage out by barge to Virginia and Kentucky. Meanwhile, the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, to which trash can be hauled at around two thirds the cost per ton of shipping it to Virginia, and which still has room for twenty or so more years of garbage, sits there closed. And now Mayor Bloomberg is cutting another $350 million from the public schools, curtailing weekend library hours, closing a few senior centers, and ending a recycling program that, while it may be costing the city money if Bloomberg’s calculations are correct, is nevertheless obviously the right thing to do and should be fixed, not defenestrated.

This makes no sense, which some people are beginning to recognize. Within the past week or so, both the Times and the Daily News have editorialized in favor of reopening Fresh Kills, which the Giuliani administration closed last year.

You can’t get people very worked up about garbage. It’s like water in that respect, although I would argue that New Yorkers are actually far less mindful of issues like these than most people, probably because, living as we do with the concrete and the clay beneath our feet, we have no connection to the physical world around us. In California, a drought on par with the one we’re experiencing now would be a civic crisis; here, few know and fewer care. So I’ll only say the following: The city’s waste-management plan is in crisis, too. In the Daily News on February 25, Michael Blood reported for the first time that the plan “has essentially collapsed.”

But if I can’t get you that interested in garbage, maybe I can get you interested in politics, because the garbage crisis is chiefly about that.

We’ve had two mayors in a row who, arguably, won the office because of Staten Island. In 1993, when Rudy Giuliani was first elected, he beat David Dinkins by around 88,000 votes on Staten Island, where the turnout was vastly higher than usual that year because a referendum was on the ballot asking Staten Islanders about seceding from the city. Those 88,000 votes were more than Giuliani’s overall margin of victory. Last year, Bloomberg won, of course, for a whole host of cosmically aligned reasons, but Staten Island was pivotal: He beat Mark Green there by 62,000 votes, which, again, was greater than his citywide margin over Green. Furthermore, Staten Island played a vital role in Bloomberg’s Republican-primary victory over Herman Badillo. Bloomberg did much of his primary campaigning on the island, and Guy Molinari, the outgoing borough president at the time, was one of his earliest Republican backers. Molinari turned out a big enough vote on the island to ensure that Bloomberg would thump Badillo. So, if there were no Staten Island, there’d have been no Mayor Rudy and no Mayor Mike; and consequently, no more garbage will be deposited there.

“It’s hard to make people understand this, but this has been a very grave failure of public policy,” says John Sabini, who until this year was a city councilman from Queens and has been a leading critic of Giuliani’s waste-disposal policies. “You can’t ask New Yorkers to quit making garbage for six years until we come up with something else.”

Sabini is not sold on the idea of reopening Fresh Kills. He told me a story of how he went out to Staten Island for a public hearing on the landfill in 1992, which lasted until nearly 2 a.m., and when he got in his car to drive away, his eyes were burning so badly he nearly had to pull over. He says that the city needs more options, and if it turns out, after study, that Fresh Kills is one of those options, “then so be it,” but he doesn’t just blithely say dump it on Staten Island.

Neither do I. If I lived there, I wouldn’t want it reopened. I understand the class-cultural conflict inherent in a bunch of liberals from somewhere else telling Richmonders that the scraps of our lamb shanks braised in red wine are their problem. At the same time, however, Staten Island is a part of the city. It has libraries and senior centers and schools, too, that are going to face cuts deeper than they might otherwise be precisely because of the extra millions spent hauling garbage down South. Besides, in politics things are always negotiable. If Fresh Kills were to be reopened, all of the rest of us would owe it to Staten Island to see that it gets something very good indeed in return. The option of reopening Fresh Kills should at least be on the table, and that it is not tells us something about our new mayor. (Governor Pataki would have a role in this process as well, but this is dynamite he obviously won’t play with in an election year.)

Bloomberg won on the strength of two main promises. The first was that, because he was financing his own campaign, he came in free of political debts and owed no one anything. The second was that his administration would be completely non-ideological and would seek only the most rational, technocratically sound solutions to the city’s problems. This is the man voters put in City Hall.

So far, Bloomberg has been pretty good about keeping those promises. But garbage is the one issue on which he’s broken them. He broke the first one because it turns out that he owed Guy Molinari. And he broke the second because considering Fresh Kills a closed case is clearly not a nonpolitical, rational, technocratic decision. Even his own sanitation commissioner, John Doherty, was quoted in that Daily News piece as saying that “Fresh Kills was closed without an awful lot of thought, you know, if the story be told,” which is kind of an astonishing thing for a commissioner to say on the record (though I suppose we should be thankful that, post-Rudy, we are now in an age when commissioners are free to say astonishing things on the record).

Trash is exactly the sort of issue – long-festering, seemingly intractable, politically knotted – on which Bloomberg has to exercise the apolitical, corporatist leadership style he advertised during the campaign, and the shared-sacrifice principle he invoked when he presented his budget. A reasonable long-term solution will require some barge shipping, maybe Fresh Kills, and probably some incineration. These last two are poison pills politically, although, at least with regard to incineration, technological advances have made it a more attractive option than it was some years ago.

Still, incineration, and all these options, will be tough sells. But Bloomberg may have a freer hand than most pols – he has the backing of the political class, broadly speaking, and the good will of voters, who don’t regard him as a nakedly political animal. He can do this, if he wants to.


Talking Trash