ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

With the jails on Rikers Island set to close by 2026, what should be done with the land? And, who should be the chief beneficiaries of its eventual transformation? In partnership with Public Square Media, we conclude our special “Justice Week” series with a look at the options being debated.

Aired on May 24, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING, AND WELCOME TO THIS SPECIAL EDITION OF 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M JACK FORD.

WE'RE CONTINUING OUR JUST JUSTICE WEEK SERIOUS IN PARTNERSHIP AND MEDIA AND TONIGHT WE DISCUSS THE ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER, A DESCRIPTION MANY APPLY TO IT TO RIKERS ISLAND.

THE JAIL IS BUILT ON A LANDFILL.

THE ISLAND WAS EXPANDED FROM 87 ACRES TO OVER 400 ACRES IN THE EARLY 1900s BY THE CITY.

THEY USED PRISONERS TO DEVELOP THE LAND WITH GARBAGE AND ASH INSTEAD OF SOIL.

AS THE YEARS HAVE GONE BY, THE JAILS HAVE SETTLED IN TO THE GROUND, CAUSING THEM TO SLOWLY DETERIORATE.

AND TODAY, THE LANDSCAPE CONTINUES, WE'RE TOLD, TO LEAK METHANE GAS.

WITH SUCH A HISTORY, LOCAL OFFICIALS HAVE PROPOSED A GREENER FUTURE FOR THE ISLAND.

SO WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE LAND?

SOME SEVEN YEARS OR SO FROM NOW, WHEN THE JAILS ARE CLOSED?

WELL, HERE WITH SOME INSIGHT IS COUNCILMAN CONSTANTINES WHERE THE ISLAND IS LOCATED.

GOOD TO HAVE YOU HER WITH US.

THANKS FOR HAVING ME.

IT MAY SURPRISE A LOT OF PEOPLE HOW THE ISLAND GREW, AND IT CERTAINLY CREATES SOME PROBLEMS IN DECIDING WHAT CAN BE DONE WITH THIS ISLAND AND THESE FACILITIES AFTERWARDS.

WE'VE HEARD ONE OF THE SUGGESTIONS THAT THIS COULD BE A MARVELOUS, AN AREA, A VENUE, TO IMPROVE OUR POWER GRID.

AND HOW WOULD THAT HAPPEN, AND WHAT SORT OF IMPACT WOULD THAT HAVE ON OTHER COMMUNITIES?

I MEAN IT WOULD BE TRANSFORMATIVE.

WE ACTUALLY WORKED WITH THE CENTER OF URBAN AND ENVIRONMENTAL REFORM TO WORK WITH OPEN DATA AND IF WE JUST TOOK ONE-FOURTH OF THE ISLAND, NO MORE THAN A FOURTH, A HUNDRED ACRE, ENOUGH SOLAR POWER TO REPLACE EVERY SOLAR PLANT OVER THE LAST 20 YEARS.

WE WERE PROMISED OVER TIME, 20 YEARS AGO, IT WOULD LAST THREE YEARS.

AND IT IS ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE COMMUNITIES.

AND IN QUEENS, NEXT TO THE QUEENSBRIDGE AND THE RAVENSWOOD HOUSES AND THE ASTORIA HOUSES AND IT IS WHEN SOMEONE WAS BORN IN THAT YEAR IS NOW OLD ENOUGH TO VOTE.

GIVE US A BETTER SENSE OF IT.

AND I'M NOT ASKING YOU TO BE A SCIENTIST, OR AN ENGINEER, BUT GENERALLY SPEAKING, IF WE TOOK THOSE 100 ACRES, WHAT WOULD WE DO WITH THEM?

WHAT WOULD BE PLACED ON THEM THAT WOULD ALLOW US TO REPLACE THESE OTHER FACILITIES?

SOLAR POWER.

AND BEING THAT THIS IS SO CLOSE PROXIMITY TO LAGUARDIA AIRPORT, WHAT WE KNOW FOR CERTAIN, IT IS NEVER GOING TO BE A LARGE BUILDING THAT IS GOING TO HANG OVER THOSE SOLAR PANELS TO BLOCK OUT THE SUN, BECAUSE RIGHT IN THE FLIGHT PLAN.

SO WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY HERE TO USE THIS PART OF THE ISLAND, THAT'S IN THE RIGHT PLACE, TO REPLACE THESE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE POLLUTERS, THESE POWER PLANTS THAT HAVE BEEN THERE FOR WAY TOO LONG.

AND IT WOULD ACTUALLY ALLOW US, IF THEN THAT WOULD ACTUALLY ALLOW US TO CLOSE DOWN THOSE FACILITIES THAT AS YOU LOCATED LOCATED RIGHT IN THE MIDST OF RESIDENTIAL COMMUNITIES IN MANY CASES?

IN 2000, THEY PUT THEM DOWN WITHOUT ANY I.S. AND SAYS THE PLANTS ARE THERE FOR VIABLE, AND TAKE THEM DOWN IN THREE YEARS AND NEXT TO HOUSING AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE NEIGHBORHOODS AND THIS HAS BEEN ANOTHER INSTANCE OF HOW OUR GOVERNMENT IS NOT DOING THE RIGHT THING, AND IT TIME TO TAKE THEM DOWN AND THIS WILL ALLOW US TO DO THAT.

YOU MENTIONED LAGUARDIA AIRPORT.

THERE HAS BEEN A SUGGESTION THAT IT COULD BE AN EXPANSION OF LAGUARDIA AIRPORT'S FACILITIES.

WHAT WOULD YOU THINK OF THAT?

I MEAN IT WOULD JUST, YOU'RE TAKING, AS YOU TALKED ABOUT IN YOUR INTRO TODAY, AN ISLAND THAT'S ASH AND HAS METHANE LEAKS AND WE'RE GOING TO ALLOW THAT TO LEAK INTO BOW EERIE BAY AND FLUSHING BAY, THAT'S NOT A GOOD IDEA.

IT IS GOING TO, WE'RE FINALLY GETTING TO A POINT WHERE OUR WATERS ARE SWIMMABLE AND FISHABLE AND WE'RE TRYING TO IMPROVE OUR WATER QUALITY AND FOR US TO SAY WE'RE GOING TO DREDGE UP THE BAY AND HAVE THOSE POLLUTANTS LEAK INTO IT, AND IT IS JUST NOT A GOOD IDEA.

TALKING ABOUT POLLUTANTS AND LEAKAGE, ONE OF THE OTHER SUGGESTIONS HAS TO DO WITH AN OBSERVE OF WASTE MANAGEMENT, AND HOW THE ISLAND COULD BE UTILIZED IN SOME FASHION THAT WAY.

HOW MIGHT THAT WORK?

THAT'S THE OTHER PART OF THIS.

I MEAN WE ALL KNOW THE SOCIAL AND MORAL IMPERATIVE TO CLOSING RIKERS ISLAND BUT WE CAN DO BOTH.

WE CAN BOTH DO THE SOLAR AND HAVE THEM REPLACE THESE, YOU KNOW, POWER PLANTS THAT HAVE BEEN THERE FOR DECADES, AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, AND ALSO HAVE A WASTE WATER TREATMENT PLANT, STATE OF THE ART, 21st CENTURY THAT REPLACES AGED INFRASTRUCTURE IN COLLEGE POINT, NORTHERN ASTORIA, SOUTH BRONX, AND HUNTS POINT, AND NORTHERN MANHATTAN.

AND SO WE COULD AGAIN, NOT HAVE AS MUCH SEWAGE, CSOs, OVERFLOW, SEWAGE LEAKING INTO THE WATERWAYS AND HAVE THE SOLAR, AND MAKE THIS, MAKE --

SO IT COULD HANDLE BOTH ASPECTS OF IT.

THE LITMAN COMMISSION SPEAKS TO THAT.

RIGHT.

AND THIS IS A CHANCE FOR US TO REIMAGINE NEW YORK CITY IN THE 21st CENTURY A 21st CENTURY WASTE WATER FREMONT FACILITY.

21st CENTURY.

AND SET THE COURSE FOR THE NEXT 100 YEARS.

AND FOR SOMEONE LISTENING TO OUR CONVERSATION AND PERHAPS LEARNING FOR THE FIRST TIME THIS ISLAND WAS EXPANDED AND THE LANDFILL WAS GARBAGE AND ASH AND HEARING ABOUT THE METHANE GAS LEAKAGE, SOME WOULD SAY WHY DO WE DO ANYTHING AND WHY DON'T WE ABANDON IT AND DO WHAT WE CAN TO MAYBE MITIGATE WHATEVER THIS ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE IS AND JUST WALK AWAY?

WHAT WOULD THE ANSWER BE TO THAT, DO YOU THINK?

I WOULD SAY WE'VE MADE, THE CITY HAS COMPOUNDED ITS MISTAKES ON RIKERS ISLAND FOR DECADES UPON DECADE, EXPANDING IT, THE CRIMINAL WAY IN WHICH WE'VE OPERATED RIKERS ISLAND FOR SO LONG, MASS INCARCERATION, YOU KNOW, WE HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY HERE, WE DON'T HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY TO GET LAND AND THINK ABOUT HOW WE REPLACE ALL THIS INFRASTRUCTURE, THIS IS A REAL OPPORTUNITY, IF WE MISS THIS OPPORTUNITY, THEY'RE GOING TO LEAVE POWER PLANTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE NEIGHBORHOODS, WE ARE GOING TO LEAVE WASTE WATER TREATMENT PLANTS ON OUR WATER FRONTS.

WE CAN CHANGE HOW WE THINK ABOUT NEW YORK CITY IN THE NEXT 50 TO 100 YEARS IF WE TAKE THIS BOLD STEP.

AND REMEDIATION, TOO.

THIS IS NOT GOING TO BE EASY.

BUT IT WOULD HAVE TO BE FACTORED INTO IT IN SOME FASHION, THE NOTION OF REMEDIATION AND REPAIRING THAT DAMAGE.

ABSOLUTELY.

BUT IT IS NOT SUITABLE FOR LIVING.

IT IS NOT SUITABLE FOR LONG-TERM INHABITANTS.

BUT IT IS AN OPPORTUNITY FOR US TO THINK ABOUT HOW WE PUT POWER GENERATION AND SEWAGE AND OTHER USES THERE THAT COULD BE BENEFICIAL TO THE CITY IN THE LONG RUN.

SO YOU WOULDN'T ANTICIPATE SEEING REAL ESTATE DEVELOPERS, FOR INSTANCE, SAYING, HEY, WE'LL GET IN, WE'LL DEVELOP THIS, MIXED USE DEVELOPMENTS, WHATEVER, THAT DOESN'T SEEM TO BE ON THE RADAR SCREEN?

I MEAN THIS IS AN ISOLATED ISLAND THAT THE ONLY WAY ON OR OFF IS A BRIDGE THAT COME THROUGH OUR COMMUNITY, AND THE EMISSIONS FROM THOSE CARS, AND BUSES, AND EVERYTHING ELSE, WOULD BE BAD FOR OUR CITY, AND YOU KNOW, THEY TALK ABOUT MAYBE A FERRY, BUT REALLY, LOOK AT THE HIGHEST AND BEST USE.

HIGHEST AND BEST USE, TO BENEFIT THE MOST PEOPLE, THE ONES THAT REALLY NEED IT THE MOST, THE PEOPLE WHO ARE IMPACTED ABOUT YOU RIKERS ISLAND, BY OUR COMMUNITIES OF COLOR, AND LOW INCOME COMMUNITY, THE SAME COMMUNITIES THESE POWER PLANTS SIT IN, THE SAME COMMUNITIES THAT THESE WASTE WATER TREATMENT PLANTS SIT IN.

IT IS TIME TO GIVE THOSE COMMUNITIES RELIEF A PLAYGROUND FOR THE RICH IS NOT SOMETHING CHI SUPPORT.

LAST QUICK QUESTION FOR YOU, ARE YOU GETTING A SENSE THAT THERE IS WILLINGNESS ON THE PART OF VARIOUS LEGISLATORS, CITY STATE LEGISLATORS TO DO SOME OF THESE POSITIVE THINGS THAT YOU MENTIONED, LIKE THE POWER AND THE WASTE MANAGEMENT TOGETHER.

I HEAR A LOT OF, YOU KNOW, REAL POWER COMES FROM ACTIVISM.

SO ON THE GROUND, SPEAKING WITH ACTIVISTS ON THE GROUND, WE'RE GETTING A LOT OF REALLY POSITIVE FEEDBACK.

COMMUNITIES HAVE BEEN IMPACTED FOR SO LONG.

YOU KNOW, THIS CONVERSATION, THEY HAVE LED THIS CONVERSATION, ON CLOSING RIKERS, FROM THE VERY BEGINNING AND THE LEGISLATORS HAVE COME SECOND.

SO WITH WORKING WITH THESE GREAT ADVOCATES, THAT HAVE BEEN FIGHTING TO CLOSE RIKERS, WE'RE SEEING A GROUND SWELL TO CHANGE THE CONVERSATION, NOT ONLY ABOUT CLOSING RIKERS, BUT HAVING THE SIMULTANEOUS CONVERSATION WHAT RIKERS CAN BE AND WHAT MA MEANS FOR NEIGHBORHOODS.

I THINK IT IS GOING TO BE A CONTINUING INTERESTING CONVERSATION AMONGST ALL THE FACTIONS INVOLVED HERE.

WE APPRECIATE YOU SPENDING SOME TIME WITH US.

WE WILL PLAN ON GETTING YOU BACK HERE AND YOU CAN SORT OF UPDATE THIS AS IT MOVES FORWARD.

APPRECIATE BEING HERE.

GOOD SEEING YOU.

APPRECIATE IT SO MUCH.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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