For decades, residents of Staten Island have viewed the Fresh Kills landfill as a malodorous emblem of their relationship with the other four boroughs. But despite years of complaints, lawsuits and even a move to secede from the rest of New York City, Staten Islanders and their political leaders say the landfill is smellier than ever and offers conclusive proof that they are being treated as the city's forgotten borough.
Yesterday, they tried something new, asking a Federal judge to shut down the landfill permanently.
Prompted by increasing complaints that odors from the 3,000-acre dump have become unbearable, the political leaders said they hoped that suing the state and the city in Federal court would help take the fate of the nation's largest landfill out of the local political arena and into more objective hands.
They said that emissions from the landfill had got so bad that this year the dump could be smelled even in the dead of winter, a time when residents used to get some relief.
Borough President Guy V. Molinari said odors and health hazards caused by the landfill were overwhelmingly the most important issues to Staten Island residents. "You wouldn't believe the pressure on the elected officials right now," he said. "It's more than ever before. They want us to do something, so we did."
The lawsuit reiterates many of the sentiments expressed during Staten Island's 1993 secession movement, when residents voted 2 to 1 to break away from New York City because they felt Staten Island's needs were being ignored.
The Federal District Court suit charges that the landfill violates the Federal Clean Air Act because of the five tons of methane gas it emits daily. It also contends that because Fresh Kills receives 100 percent of the city's residential garbage, it violates provisions in the City Charter requiring that the five boroughs share equally in the city's burdens.
Joined by City Councilmen Vito J. Fossella and John A. Fusco and Representative Susan Molinari, Mr. Molinari said Staten Island's political leadership finally decided to file a suit because it had become apparent that the city had no intention of seriously pursuing other ways to get rid of the 14,000 tons of residential garbage produced daily.
"It's kind of a sad day that elected representatives from one of the five boroughs of this city have to sue our own city to get action," Mr. Fusco said. "It hurts all of us to go into our courts to have something decided which we're entitled to. It's our birthright. What have we done wrong?"
Since the landfill opened in 1948, a series of lawsuits has been filed in state courts to try to get the city to take specific steps toward cleaning up the dump or to force the state to better regulate it. Environmental experts said yesterday that the politicians' unity and their decision to file a Federal lawsuit was a sign of the landfill's worsening conditions.
"As much as anything, this lawsuit reflects the utter frustration people are feeling," said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They've clearly been driven to the point where they think this is the only way they can get the government to respond."
Larry Shapiro, a lawyer with the New York Public Interest Research Group, said the lawsuit's claim that Fresh Kills violates Federal law and must therefore apply for an air quality permit was a decidedly different and potentially effective strategy. "Taking it into Federal court, which is pretty well shielded from day-to-day politics, should make it more difficult to just have deals negotiated between state regulators and the City Department of Sanitation," he said.
Michael F. McKeon, a spokesman for Gov. George E. Pataki, would not comment on the suit beyond noting that the state was in the process of completing an environmental review of the dump in order to grant a solid-waste-management operating permit.
Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said he had discussed the landfill with Mr. Molinari on several occasions. "It's something we're very sensitive to," the Mayor said. "I understand the problems that people in Staten Island have about the dump getting larger and larger, and it's going on what appears to be endlessly, and we'll work with them to try to find a rational solution."
Mr. Molinari said he was encouraged by the Mayor's concern. "Some of our mayors were not aware of the problem or didn't give a damn," he said. "This Mayor does, so I am hopeful that at some point maybe we'll be able to reach an understanding."
The Borough President said there were many options that the city could pursue to slow the tide of garbage into Staten Island, including long-term contracts to export garbage out of the city and a stepped-up recycling program.
But he said the city had not had the will to pursue the other options because it has always seemed cheaper and easier to continue dumping at Fresh Kills.