By Courtney Dentch
The Federation of Civic Associations teamed up with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to take a handful of people on a “toxic tour” of Jamaica to illustrate how these businesses operate in residents' backyards and pose health risks to the community, said Crystal Ervin, secretary of the federation.All the senses were assaulted as the bus tour wove through the streets of Jamaica and Ervin told participants about how the businesses could be hazardous to the people living in homes that were, in some places, right up against the plants.Tour-goers could smell the rot of decaying garbage, hear the motors of the 18-wheelers, buses and cement mixers grinding, feel the bumpy roads battered by truck traffic and see garbage piled high inside a station and streets covered with dust from the cement plants or marked with large potholes filled with water that was used in handling the trash.”That's water that's been steeped in garbage,” said Gavin Kearney, an environmental justice lawyer with NYLPI, as the bus stopped on Douglas Avenue. “It contains all the toxicity of garbage. That's not supposed to be coming out of the facilities.”The tour started in a pocket of cement-mixing plants on Liberty Avenue and just north of the Jamaica Industrial Park. Regulations allow these facilities to use just four walls – without a roof – to enclose the powdered cement mixes, Ervin said. At some facilities tour participants could see that the piles of mix were taller than the walls.”On a windy day the breeze picks up particulate matter, which is dust that gets inhaled,” Kearney said. “It gets in your lungs and exacerbates respiratory conditions.”Southeast Queens has a long history of asthma problems, but the asthma rate has risen nearly 20 percent over the last two years, according to the American Heart and Lung Association. Jamaica's bus depots, where diesel engines sometimes idle, can also add to asthma problems, Ervin said.The bus passed several recycling and waste transfer stations, and some were working with their doors open, a violation of the city Department of Sanitation rules, Ervin said. Sanitation requires that the doors be closed unless a truck is making a drop.”The smells get out more easily, the dust gets out more easily,” Kearney said. “Stuff just goes flying out the doors.”At one recycling plant that had its doors open, tour participants got out to get a closer look and were met by the general manager of the company, Giove Recycling. John Giove assured the crowd that the paper being handled was clean.”It's never been part of the garbage,” he said. “We sort it, bale it and get it out to the paper mills.”Participants also got out of the bus outside the Douglas Avenue waste stations to get a good whiff of the smell. Bruce Brown, president of the Federation of Civic Associations, described it as “rot or a deceased person who hasn't been embalmed left outside on a hot summer day.”The smell has deterred some from using Liberty Park, just a block away, Ervin said.”The Little League does not even practice here anymore,” she said. “They stopped because of the odor.”The tour was a part of the groups' campaign for the city to switch from a land-based trash solution requiring the waste transfer stations to repackage garbage and ship it to landfills in Pennsylvania to a water-based answer, where garbage would be moved on barges from marine transfer stations. Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) has been working with the Council's Sanitation Committee and has secured $200,000 for a study to counter a city report that found there were no adverse environmental effects from the waste transfer stations.”We have a real chance to impact how the city handles waste for the next 20 years,” said Comrie, who was also a host of the tour.The groups are also looking for stricter regulations from the city and state agencies on how the businesses operate and where they can set up shop, Kearney said. Many of these facilities are located in M-1 zoning, which allows for light manufacturing.”M-1 is supposed to be a buffer zone to protect homes from more intense manufacturing, but in southeast Queens M-1 is where you find the waste transfer stations,” Kearney said.Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.