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Columbia Spectator Staff

When it rezones West Harlem, the City of New York will exclude from the rezoned area a tiny patch of the river bank at 135th Street. That patch is directly adjacent to Columbia's proposed Manhattanville campus area--but unlike that area, it can't be zoned for academic use, since it holds a now-defunct waste disposal station that may be about to reopen.

The marine transfer station is one of eight such waste disposal facilities around the city. When it was in use, the city's garbage was trucked to the transfer station and sat there until it was picked up by barges to be taken off the island. Although the reopening of the station would solve some of the problems of New York's current waste disposal system, the prospect of a reopened 135th Street station is causing concern within the Harlem community--and could lead to a line of garbage trucks driving straight through Columbia's proposed West Harlem campus.

The traffic congestion, environmental damage, and health hazards associated with the station are making its future a hot topic in the community and among Columbia administrators. So will Columbia oppose the station's reopening? Pressures from the University could prevent the city government from reopening it, but the University has not yet determined whether it will lay on those pressures.

Manhattan's high population density makes solid waste disposal in the city extraordinarily complicated. In the past, garbage trucks carried waste to the marine transfer stations and dumped it directly onto barges, which would then transport it to the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. But when Fresh Kills began to be phased out of use in 1997 closed in 2001, the city began to rely heavily on land-based removal of solid waste, trucking garbage to sites in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio. Unneeded, the stations were phased out.

But this method has caused more problems than originally anticipated. Traffic and pollution have increased. And even from the beginning, the plan was only intended to be a stopgap until a new plan was formulated.

The city is currently considering many plans for dealing with the problem, including using 900-foot long "semi-submersibles" to ship garbage to the Caribbean. But the leading plan, announced by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in July 2002, is to retrofit or rebuild the existing marine transfer stations for reopening.

The decision on whether or not to reopen the transfer station o bears directly on Columbia's plans for expansion. The station is located just two blocks north of the planned expansion site, so environmental and traffic issues would directly affect the university community.

 But Columbia's administration is approaching the question slowly and cautiously. According to Emily Lloyd, Columbia's Executive Vice President of Government and Community Affairs, the University is not rushing to make a recommendation. Although community members have been mostly outspoken against a possible reopening, Lloyd contends that "as a university, we have a responsibility to bring real knowledge" to the table before making a decision.

"We have to try to think about reasons why we wouldn't want it reopened, and alternatives to the plan," she said. While the ultimate decision will certainly have important consequences, there is still a "very long and complicated process ahead," Lloyd said.

Lloyd added that community groups, city government representatives and Columbia administrators have been working together to determine what to do about the transfer station. One such organization is West Harlem Environmental Action, a community watchdog group concerned with environmental and public health issues in the area. In the past, it has been dedicated to combatting such issues as lead poisoning and asthma in the Harlem area. Now, the prospective reopening of the transfer station has become a major issue for WE ACT.

Cecil Corbin-Mark, Program Director for WE ACT, listed a number of health hazards related to transfer stations. The "significant queuing of trucks," sometimes as many as eighty or ninety in a line, causes serious "air quality issues" around the transfer station, which is near public places such as a school and a supermarket. Given that one out of every four Harlem children is already afflicted with asthma, reopening the station would compound an already-dire problem.

Corbin-Mark added that WE ACT's major quarrel with the station is over its location in Harlem. "We are opposed to the reopening of the 135th Street Marine Transfer Station ... We do, however, believe that the use of these stations is a good thing," he said.

The problem is, Corbin-Mark said, that Manhattan's biggest-polluting establishments, such as transfer stations and bus depots, are concentrated unfairly in the Harlem area.

"Capacity needs to be found downtown," he said.

WE ACT has put together an organization called the Northern Manhattan Environmental Justice Coalition in order to publicize and address community concerns. City Council member Robert Jackson is a member of this coalition, allowing better communication between the community and city government. Meanwhile, WE ACT and Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health are organizing teams to study the environmental ramifications of a reopened transfer station. However, SPH officials did not respond to requests to comment on the exact nature of these investigations.

Although no final decisions will be made in the immediate future, solid waste disposal will doubtless be a thorny issue for Columbia, the community, and the city government. While the transfer stations come with high environmental costs, there are no clear solutions. "The transfer stations are just one part of the solid waste management puzzle," Corbin-Mark said.