By Michael Shank and Courtney Williams

At the end of January, one of New York State’s dirtiest trash incinerators owned by WIN Waste marked 40 years of operation and trash burning. No one who lives near it, however, is celebrating.

The local community of Peekskill, New York, which lives in the shadow of Westchester County’s largest industrial polluter, isn’t celebrating four decades of trash burning.

Local residents have been living with and breathing forty years of air and water pollution and they’re tired of it. They don’t want this in their air and water anymore. And who can blame them?

Over the last forty years, the incinerator has dumped 8 million tons of toxic ash into the community, along with 40,000 tons of nitrous oxides, over one ton of lead, and 840 pounds of mercury. The incinerator has also generated over 31.8 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, in CO2 equivalents, spewing 800,000 tons per year (estimates based on 2017 Air Emissions reported to New York State Department of Environmental Protection).

Imagine living with all of this. Now imagine the health impacts the neighboring community is reeling from due to decades of exposure to these toxic pollutants.

This local New York community is similar to other communities across the country saddled with dirty polluting trash incinerators: it’s predominantly Black and brown residents who are exposed to the polluted air, while also struggling with poverty and unaffordable housing.

This is an environmental justice issue and one that the state and county have refused to touch for years.

When New York State undertook implementation of its landmark climate legislation, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, they quantified what makes a ‘disadvantaged community’ using a combination of environmental burden and socioeconomic vulnerability.

Peekskill, where the dirty incinerator is based, landed at the top of that list, worse off than 98% of census tracts in New York State, thanks in large part to the incinerator and other dirty infrastructure dumped on the local community.

Yet after WIN Waste’s Title V Air Permit expired in December 2021, no progress has been made by the Westchester County Industrial Development Agency or New York State’s Department of Conservation to renew it, despite all the talk in the state capital of environmental justice. And even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to update their emissions standards for municipal solid waste combustors every five years, it took 12 years and a lawsuit for them to propose even modest changes that likely won’t help communities like Peekskill.

Imagine the same incinerator in a wealthier whiter neighborhood in Westchester County. In fact, it would never exist in the first place, because even legal limits of pollution, which is what WIN Waste will claim its emitting, are harmful to a community’s health. And the wealthier whiter parts of Westchester County would never have it.

Despite the lack of state help, Peekskill residents have been sounding the alarm for years that the incinerator is harming their health and damaging their climate. They’ve also been working hard to reduce the demand for it, launching food scraps recycling to divert food waste from the incinerator, educating folks on how to properly recycle, partnering with local government to sell low-cost composters and pass legislation to ban single-use foodware and plastic bags.

The advocacy is paying off. Westchester County earmarked $90,000 in their 2024 budget for a waste reduction study that, if done properly and with the right goals in mind, could create a roadmap to move off the harmful, polluting, expensive trash burning and towards clean, sustainable, affordable zero waste solutions. Much of the groundwork is now in place, with programs that can be expanded to divert the vast majority of what is currently burned.

As long as the WIN Waste incinerator can just import garbage to burn, however, all of this local advocacy will be useless in stopping the toxic footprint experienced by the community. Forty years on, we now know how damaging these incinerators are to a community’s health.

It is long past time for decision-makers to stop dumping, literally and figuratively, on communities like Peekskill and build waste streams that are healthy for people and sustainable for the planet.

Courtney M. Williams, PhD, is founder of the Westchester Alliance for Sustainable Solutions and a cancer researcher and resident of Peekskill. Michael Shank, PhD, is adjunct professor at New York University’s School of Professional Studies and former resident of Peekskill.