Money to Burn:
The incineration industry's big dollars
pollute more than the environment.
CITY SIERRAN: September, 1992
by John Klotz
Tis a puzzlement. Bridge-falling-down, pothole-plagued,
schools-disarrayed New York City is planning to invest more than
a billion dollars for incineration technology that not only
pollutes the air, but simply does not work. With all the pressing
needs for infrastructure investment, how is that both the Mayor
and the City Council Leadership are so intent on shoving
mass-burn incinerators down the throats of reluctant New Yorkers.
The last edition of the City Sierran detailed the folly of the
City's Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP). Let's take a look at
why despite all its pitfalls, so many seem to have a vested
interest in pushing it through. The answer seems to be one thing:
money. Money to burn.
The gargantuan incinerators of the SWMP will cost in excess of
one billion dollars. Given New York City's record in the
construction of public works it's a safe bet the actual costs
could run to three billion by the time they're finished and that
does not include debt service.
The real profit in building the incinerators is in the marketing
of the bonds on Wall Street needed to finance their construction.
It will be a field day for lawyers, consultants, underwriters and
the like. Because the incinerators are bondable, they're
buildable. The issue of whether their workable is irrelevant.
Before the first shovel is turned, the politically connected
attorneys and lobbyists for the incinerator industry as well as
their allies on Wall Street will have pocketed as much as 100
million dollars in fees, commissions and underwriting costs.
That's a powerful incentive for the financial community and those
potential profits are used to grease the path of the incinerator
projects through the political maze. Let's look at some cases in
Think globally, Corrupt locally.
A flagrant example of incineration industry corruption involves
the Bronx Lebanon Hospital Waste Incinerator in the South Bronx.
New York City law forbids the incineration of hospital waste
except in a hospital-operated facility. The law was twisted out
of shape by a group of entrepreneurs who convinced Bronx-Lebanon
to apply for a license for an incinerator capable of incinerating
hospital waste for the entire metropolitan region.
The project was financed by a fifteen million dollar industrial
development bond two million of which was earmarked for
"permitting fees." At least some of the money wound up in the
pocket of the chair of the local Community Board who helped
line-up support from local politicians. The scope of the plan was
a well kept secret. When local activists finally got wind of the
project and challenged it in court, the incinerator operators
claimed that they had given the public notice of their plan -
through the Community Board chaired by their hireling.
The community board chair's bribe is clearly illegal but it is
small potatoes when compared to the "legal graft" surrounding the
activities of Deputy Mayor Norman Steisel. As Koch Sanitation
Commissioner, he was a powerful advocate for the incineration. He
left City Hall for Wall Street and promptly became involved in
packaging bond issues for municipal incinerators all across the
nation. When Dinkins was elected, Steisel returned to City Hall
as First Deputy Mayor. His reported profits from his private
sector work on incineration ran to the hundreds of thousands of
dollars. His firm made millions.
Although Steisel has allegedly recused himself from the
incineration negotiations, his prot‚g‚s in the Department of
Sanitation and throughout City government have not. But the money
trail doesn't stop at City Hall.
On to Washington
Crucial to Bill Clinton's early successes in the Democratic
primaries was a wide lead he had in fund raising. As Arkansas
Governor, Clinton sponsored several environmentally disastrous
industrial development projects including toxic waste
incinerators. The polluters who profited from the projects -
particularly on Wall Street - responded to his early appeals for
This is no brief for George Bush, and there are ample reasons for
environmentalists to support Clinton. The Sierra Club has
endorsed him. But Clinton's early lead in fund raising was
created in large part by individuals and firms who had profited
from environmentally destructive policies in the state of
The money spent to garner political support continues its
influence beyond election day. In heated political combat such as
the recent struggle over the City's SWMP, the officials elected
with the support of big money are able to bring pressure and
offer inducements to potential opponents. Thus 33 City Council
members vow to oppose incineration but only 15 vote against.
David Dinkins elected on an anti- incineration platform uses to
the power of his office to destroy the opposition to
For environmentalists, as they pick themselves off the floor from
the disheartening loss in the City Council, to despair is
understandable. But, it is not necessary.
One of the more fatuous claims of the Bush administration is that
its cosmic overspending on defense brought down the Soviet Union.
But Soviet tyranny was defeated not by tanks and airplanes but by
the VCR, the microcomputer and the Xerox machine. In the
information age, closed societies are doomed.
The financial power of the incineration industry seeks to create
another kind of society closed to the truth. It's the
environmentalist's task to use the tools of the information age
to keep our nation open to the truth.
Incineration is not only an issue in New York. Mass burn and
toxic incineration projects span the state and nation. There are
activists fighting the incinerators in many communities across
the nation. We must reach out to each other.
In New York City, we can take example and heart from the defeat
of Westway, which was backed by an even more formidable array of
Yet, there is another example of citizen involvement and action.
Incineration is not just the new Westway, it is the new Viet Nam.
The toxic air generated by the incinerators will bring pain and
suffering just as surely as bullets from an assault rifle. It may
take longer, the effects may be more subtle, but ultimately, the
suffering will be just as real. The victims will be everywhere.
John Kennedy, when he was inaugurated President, said that on
this earth, God's work must be our own.
True then, true now.