ALBANY, N.Y. — For the last 12 years, officials have assured residents of a predominantly black neighborhood in Albany's inner city that a trash-burning incinerator was no health threat.
But less than three weeks after the incinerator's emissions blackened the snow at the nearby governor's mansion, the incinerator was shut down.
For Emily Grisom and others, the garbage-burning incinerator had been a longstanding irritant and an example of environmental racism.
Grisom has lived on the same block as the state-owned incinerator since it began burning trash in 1981. In the summer, she has had to close her windows because of the stench of burning garbage. And, on certain days at certain times, she said she and her neighbors suffered from stuffed-up noses.
Grisom said she knows at least 10 neighborhood children who suffer from asthma, and she links their problems to the incinerator.
" . . . (But) no one's looking at that," she said. "They have not bothered, because this area is 99% black. They have never bothered. If it was in a white community, five or 10 kids, they would say, 'That's outrageous.' "
Until Jan. 29, the day it closed, the plant burned approximately 350 tons of waste each day--sending arsenic, lead, mercury and other pollutants into the air. It also provided steam to heat and cool the nearby offices of Gov. Mario Cuomo and state legislators.
Although state officials had said they were sure the incinerator--dubbed the "ANSWERS" plant--was not harming residents, they had concluded it was outdated. They said it would have been very costly to bring it up to the standards of newer plants. State officials had planned to close it in two years.
But a malfunction at the plant Jan. 10 caused a shower of unburned oil particles to darken the snow-covered ground in downtown Albany, including the governor's mansion. The incident hastened the incinerator's shutdown date.
State officials said an overloaded boiler allowed the soot to be released into the air in a fine mist. The mishap further outraged residents and environmentalists and added a new sense of urgency to the call to shut down the incinerator.
For some, the shutdown of the garbage-burning operation didn't come soon enough.
"If it was in any other neighborhood in Albany, it would have been shut down years ago," said Judy Enck, senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in Albany.
"This is unheard of, having this (the incinerator) right in a neighborhood," she said. "They're usually isolated, in more commercial areas."
Enck charged that the plant was another example of "environmental racism"--a phrase that has become increasingly widespread as environmentalists focus attention on the disproportionate number of minority areas affected by pollution.
"That's absurd, absolutely absurd. I can't think of any conscionable person suggesting that," countered Thom Tubbs, a spokesman for the Office of General Services, which operates the plant. The proximity to downtown government buildings, Tubbs says, was the key factor in the location of the incinerator.
ANSWERS, an acronym for the Albany New York Solid Waste Energy Recovery System, is probably the most modern-looking and perhaps best-kept building on its block. The block, with a few dilapidated houses and small businesses, is similar to many in Arbor Hill, a densely populated, economically depressed neighborhood.
Originally a steam plant that burned natural gas, an incinerator was added by the state as part of a city-state waste disposal system. The energy the incinerator produced by burning garbage provided heat for many government buildings downtown, including the massive Empire State Plaza office, museum and convention complex.
Now that the incinerator has been shut down, the plant is relying again on natural gas to provide steam to the state buildings.
Enck contended that the incinerator's daily emissions exceeded the state's own pollution standards. Gary Strier, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, denied that.
A 1991 study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that most hazardous waste sites are in minority neighborhoods or in white, poor rural areas.
"It's a fairness issue. It's unfair that these communities bear a disproportionate risk burden simply because of their race or economic background," said Robert Knox, deputy director of the EPA's Office of Environmental Equity in Washington.
NYPIRG and community organizations had fought to have ANSWERS shut down for almost as long as it has been in service. Some people left the neighborhood rather than wait to see when the plant would close.
"A couple of dozen (residents) have moved out of the area because they had health problems, like asthma, respiratory problems . . . ," said Enck. She had even suggested to residents that they move for their own well-being.
She said she had asked the state Department of Health and the Albany County Health Department to conduct studies on how the plant affected residents' health, but they refused.
John Hawley, research director of the state Department of Health's division of environmental health assessment, said that although the department had received complaints from residents, no study was conducted to determine the plant's effect on them. A study of the plant's effect on its employees found that they were in no danger, he said.
Strier said that DEC's original decision to close the incinerator did not mean the department no longer supports incinerators.
A couple of months before the incinerator closed, Grisom, who had heard of plans to shut down ANSWERS several times in the last decade, wasn't so sure she would see its end.