As more than 200 children sang songs, a crane hoisted away the smokestack of the city's last incinerator yesterday, marking the end -- for now, at least -- of what was once one of New York's most popular methods of disposing of garbage.
"We have ushered out the era of incineration," Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Borough President, proclaimed. "It's gone and unlamented."
The incinerator was relatively small, disposing of at most 48 tons of medical waste a day, compared with more than 1,000 tons of garbage at many large incinerators, but the city's Sanitation Department said its dismantling meant that for the first time, no waste would be incinerated within the five boroughs.
New York City's first incinerator, the first in the nation, was erected on Governors Island in 1885, and over the next century, incinerators burned much of the city's waste. By the 1960's, the city was burning almost a third of its trash in its 22 municipal incinerators and 2,500 incinerators in apartment buildings. But a combination of environmental problems, particularly disposing of the ash, along with steep capital and operating costs, made incinerators less attractive by the mid-1980's.
In 1990, the last working municipal incinerator stopped burning, and city regulations shut the few remaining apartment incinerators in 1993. In 1996, state legislation squashed city plans to build new larger incinerators, the first of which would have been at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
That same state law ordered the closing of Staten Island's giant Fresh Kills landfill by Dec. 31, 2001, leaving the city for the first time with no place within city limits to bury or burn its garbage. The city is scrambling to put together plans to export most of its garbage to landfills in other states while recycling and composting some of the rest.
"This means we have a lot to do," said John P. Cahill, the State Commissioner of Environmental Conservation. "Recycling is a better alternative than incineration. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us in handling municipal solid waste."
But incinerators, which require a huge front-end investment, do not seem to be part of anyone's answer for the future. "At this point in the city's environmental and economic life," said Jim Tripp, counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund, "I don't see a role for incinerators."
Yesterday's event was the denouement of a battle that began with a lawsuit against the medical waste incinerator more than a year before it was opened in 1993. Community leaders, environmental advocates and church groups had feared that pollution from the incinerator would lead to respiratory problems among its neighbors. Yesterday, Marion Feinberg, health coordinator for the South Bronx Clean Air Coalition, which led the fight, said the private incinerator was cited for more than 500 violations of its permit before being closed in 1997.
The incinerator, at East 138th Street and Locust Avenue, was operated by Browning-Ferris Industries for the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center, which processed its own waste as well as that from 12 other hospitals in New York City. Since closing the incinerator, it has used the building in which it was situated as a transfer station to process medical waste to an incinerator in Sheridan, in Chautauqua County, near Buffalo.
The fight against the Bronx incinerator involved demonstrations, lobbying and politicking by members of a largely impoverished community. "They were really clever and really tenacious and never took no for an answer," said Larry Shapiro, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group, which has fought many battles against incinerators.
As part of its agreement to shut down the incinerator, Browning-Ferris had agreed to make a public display of the dismantling. Busloads of children from nearby public and parochial schools came, many waving hand-lettered signs, with slogans like "It's About Time." A singer led the children in a chant. "Who made history?" he yelled. The children roared back, "We did!"
Gazing through the fence at the now-horizontal smokestack, Lisa Westberg, a longtime opponent and leader of the Cherry Tree Association, an arts and environmental group, smiled broadly and played "This Land Is Your Land" on her accordion.
"The fight for clean air is not finished," she declared. "There are still a lot of waste transfer stations here."