I had the pleasure of speaking about the Brookhaven Landfill at the Building Bridges Brookhaven Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration.
Gratitude to all involved in the event.
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On September 28, 2015, a resident of the area surrounding the Frank P. Long Intermediate School in North Bellport, submitted an odor complaint about the Landfill. Here is what they wrote ” On a Monday the last thing I want to do is be greeted by the odor and have to start my busy day by taking the time to complain about this odor. I have asthma and chemical odors in the air trigger….my attacks. Please do something.”
April 14, 2016 WE HAVE TO GIVE A STATE TEST TO OUR STUDENTS THIS MORNING! THIS ODOR FROM THE LANDFILL IS SO UNFAIR TO ALL OF US IN THIS AREA
On January 5, 2016, someone reported an odor they described as heavy, sewage and landfill odor, a resident simply wrote MAKE IT STOP (in all capital letters)
On February 9, 2016 reporting an odor, one resident wrote “It’s disgusting and probably killing us. Please fix it.”
February 13, 2016 Something needs to be done when you can’t stand outside your home without wanting to throw up. I don’t even want to invite people over because I am embarrassed. Brookhaven you need to do something now.
March 29, 2016 Where do we go from here? New wells installed, nothing accomplished, absolutely nothing, but the town is approved for two more phases.
Disgusing. Shameful. Killing us slowly. This was a report from May 3, 2016.
There is only one place to begin talking about the Brookhaven Landfill,this grave environmental injustice that is, as I often say, hiding in plain sight. We begin with the people, with the experience of the human beings who are living, playing, and working in the shadow of the landfill that has, over the past fifty years, swelled and grown into this behemoth, this mountain, that is so large that today we scarce can take it in.
In Brookhaven Town, a mound of earth rises 276 feet above sea level. One of the five highest elevation points in Suffolk Country, this mound was not present when Long Island was known by the Algonquin-speaking peoples as Sewanhackey or Paumanauke. The mountain did not loom when the Unkechaug people depended on the nearby Carman River for sustenance and ceremony. Unlike the other Long Island peaks, this topographical feature is man-made, or more accurately it is settler-made. Beneath the topsoil there are layers of incineration ash, construction and demolition debris, unprocessed solid waste, fuel, oil, animal carcasses, PVC liners, and other remnant from a half-century of consumption on Long Island.
How did this come to be? What are the choices, small and large, that have led to this status quo, where a high-volume landfill is located adjacent to a neighborhood, full of people, who are struggling to live their lives while being bombarded every day by the toxins associated with everyone else’s waste? And what can we do about it today?
The Landfill, with all its heft and girth is such a permanent feature in our landscape, it is so large, so massive, it has been here for so long, that it seems frankly almost impossible to magic away. As we in our Landfill Action Group have been going around for this past 6 months or so, talking about the need to close and clean up the Brookhaven Landfill, the reaction that we have been most commonly met with is disbelief.
Can this landfill be closed? Can it be cleaned up? It seems like an almost impossible task. For we who have lived here so long, amid these monuments to our social and political choices, it is truly an act of radical imagination to look out at our landscape and imagine this mound transformed.
Because we have gathered today in the memory of brother Martin, I have to dwell a moment on this work of the impossible transformation. After all, over the course of his life and up until his death,this was Dr. King’s work.
Building the so-called beloved community, in US Soil bloodied as it is, with indigenous genocide and African slavery is … I must say it… an impossible task. Singing we shall overcome, we’ll walk hand in hand, while US bombs burst in Asia, in Africa,, this were impossible transformations. Through his life, and at his deat, brother Martin was about these radical visions of transformation; someone has to hold the vision. I’ll say it again, someone has to hold the vision for better in this land. And I am grateful to some of my dear sisters and brothers in North Bellport who have been holding this vision for better throughout these years, saying this toxic Landfill isn’t right even when the rest of the Town has just ignored them.
These proximate communities have been the ones speaking out about the leachate plume of toxins that has already dirtied the groundwater; it was the people in Brookhaven hamlet who began to see their wells troubled and sounded the alarm. The folks in North Bellport have been speaking out about hese noxious odors for decades, saying the air quality is being affected by this, and finally just this year we see that the Town has had to pay 250,000 to the US EPA for violating the clean air act. North Bellport, this small community adjacent to the Landfill, has he lowest life epxetcancy throughout all of Long Island. This community lives and bodies, literally are on the front lines of this fight. So when tha question is asked. Can the landfill be closed? Can it really be cleaned up? Is it possible? When we are in community with our neighbors, when we look at our community in North Bellport with love and value, the answer spills from our lips unbidden: YES, yes. it can be closed. Yes, YES it can be cleaned up. It has to be.
I am a historian, a professor at Stony Brook. One of the things I am fond of telling my students is that in the same way that systems of racial injustice were constructed, painstakingly and with much effort over the decades, they can be also be deconstructed, with the same amount of effort and painstaking labor over the decades. The question is only are we willing to do the work.
So I want to just sketch out the history, the choices, that have led to the violence of the Brookhaven Landfill that we are trying to address together right now.
It is impossible to talk about race in Long Island without addressing the region’s romance with racial segregation. Land use patterns in Long Island have never been race neutral. racial codes, explicitly were such a large part of how Long Island’s suburbs were built out in the post WWII period. In this region, civic leaders and governments utilized a variety of legal, economic, and social strategies to knit the mantra of separate and unequal deeply into the fabric of Long Island, and frankly we’re still paying the price. This region remains one of the most segregated in the entire country.
In the 1960s, about a decade before the Brookhaven Landfill was built, North Bellport changed over from a mostly white working and lower class community to a majority Black and Latinx working and middle class community. In 1962, a scandal involving a real estate agent, named Gerald Kutler, become one of the region’s first well-known cases of racial blockbusting. Block busting is a practcie where unscrupulous real estate agents prey on the racial fears of white people about integraation, to precipitate the rapid sale of a number of homes in neighborhood, thus making a profit for themselves and making neighborhoods economically unstable as they switch the neighborhood over rapidly. So this was what happened throughout the 1960s and by 1970 North Bellport was one of only two majority Balck/ Latinx communities in Brookhaven Town.
So in this context of segregation, the decision was made by the Town and state agencies to place a new landfill in what was marked as the North Bellport School District. And over the next decades, while other local landfills throughout Brookhaven Town would fill up and close, this was first created as a local landfill supposed ot have a short life span, the Town would expand the Brookhaven Landfill, turning it into the waste depository for Brookhaven Town, and then for the whole region.
So part of the trouble of addressing the harm of the Brookhaven Landfill is that it is not just a technical problem of a mound of garbage and what to do with the garbage. If only it were. The Brookhaven landfill is a monument to our history racial violence here in Suffolk County, ebcause the question has always been whose community, whose lives are worthy of protecting. How can the Town make provision to close and limit the Manorville and Holtsville Local landfills in the 70s and 80s, and only think of expanding the Brookhaven Landfill. What does that say? Today, we are facing the same problem as the Brookhaven Town supervisor and many of the Town Board scratch their heads and act puzzled, saying you know, who ca n figure it out how to close the Brookhaven Landfill hmmm. what can we do? can anyone figure it out. Well, landfills are closing every day. The only question is how much time and energy and resources are we willing to invest in it? In other words, whose lives are worth working hard to protect. Throughout the Northeast you have states and community who are working to divert waste from landfills and doing so effectively, bringing anaerobic digestion and composting best-in-class technologies online and creating new waste cycles and markets.
There is no lack of things to do to address this crisis situation. Unfortunatley here in Brookhaven Town, we are very behind the times when it comes to waste disposal and all of our groundwater, and all of our air, and all of our marine life are suffering for it, and this status quo has continued, because the Town has not seen fit to properly care for an d protect the lives of our neighbors in North Bellport.
So I will close here. Offering gratitude for Dr. King and his ability to hold a vision of radical transformation for all of us. I am grateful for all of you, and the work you are doing and will continue to do to pursue a vision of radical transformation in this particularly geography. I feel like every time I speak at BBB event I have to mention my kids. so I’ll stop with one short story. I remember this past fall, my eldest son played soccer on the field right in the shadow of the Landfill. I remember the first time we got to that field, and he looked up at that mountain of trash, so high, and I was about to launch into a tirade to him about how gross it was, and the whole thing. And he, thank God, beat me to the punch. you know what he said, look a beautiful amazing mountain, I can’t wait to hike it I can’t wait to climb it, can we go hiking there afterwards. He looke at the beghemoth, this scar on the back of Sewanhackey and saw something entirely different, a vision restoration. It took my breath away. I hold onto his vision for him, I thank him too for sharing it with me, and I will continue to fight for it.