Residents Voice their Concerns about Toxic Ash Contamination on Long Island

The Covanta facility in Hempstead incinerates waste, turning it into energy and creating ash, which allegedly contains harmful toxins.

By Kelsie Radziski, Ashley Pavlakis, and Samantha Rutt

Local residents are upset after learning last week that the Brookhaven landfill, which was set to close in 2024, will continue to collect potentially toxic ash from Covanta facilities. Their concerns stem from an original complaint filed in 2013. 

“I’m worried about my health,” Casey Wagner, a concerned resident living near the Covanta facility in Hempstead said. “I don’t want to be inhaling all that.”

A former Covanta employee filed a lawsuit in 2013 accusing the multimillion dollar waste management company from Hempstead, N.Y., of failure to comply with federal and state laws regarding ash produced during the waste-to-energy process. The allegations continued to be investigated as recently as January 2023.

“These are billion-dollar industries producing wasteful products, and other super-wealthy industries profiting from ‘managing’ waste at the end of the pipe. Meanwhile, real people are suffering as a result,” Erica Cirino, a member of the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group said. “There must be accountability and funding of remediation and reparations to communities, harmed by decades and decades of injustice and pollution,” Cirino said. 

The lawsuit accuses Covanta of failing to use its technology to process the ash and comply with government regulations. 

“Our Total Ash Processing System (TAPS) has tremendous potential to further increase the sustainability of the Waste-to-Energy process and supports our mission of ensuring no waste is ever wasted,” the company claims on its website.

Covanta’s Hempstead location produces anywhere between 500-750 tons of ash each day that is supposed to be tested before leaving premises to be dumped elsewhere. To test the ash, the company uses the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure, a process that may not be modified, as it may harm the tests effectiveness. Documents obtained by the plaintiff’s attorney show that Covanta allegedly engaged in fraudulent testing and misrepresented its procedures of doing so.

“Some of it may not be stored properly or transported properly,” Dr. Ryan Wallace, a professor of environmental studies and sciences at Adelphi University said. “There are a lot of contaminants that are potentially associated with fly ash that can be harmful to human health, it can potentially leach into our drinking water as well.” 

When waste is incinerated, energy is created that powers a turbine-driven generator producing electricity. The newly created energy is then, in-part, sold to the Long Island Power Authority, or LIPA, powering homes across the island. 

In 2022, the total energy delivered from all four Covanta waste-to-energy facilities to LIPA was approximately 942,000 MWHs,” says Elizabeth Flagler, a spokesperson for LIPA,which represents approximately 5% of LIPA’s total energy requirements.” 

Several Long Island companies process waste by burning it.

There are four burners on Long Island where waste gets incinerated,” Will Flower, the Senior Vice President of the Winters Bros waste management company, explained. “After you burn the garbage, you have all this ash that needs to go someplace. Right now, three of the four incinerators send their ash to Brookhaven landfill.”

With recent reports indicating that the landfill will only be closing its construction zone, ash will likely continue to contaminate the area despite neighborhood protests.

“How are we going to leave our environment for future generations?” Wallace asked. “Are we going to keep dumping stuff for the future generations to deal with, or are we going to start to act now and change the way we consume and produce waste?”

About Kelsie Radziski 4 Articles
Kelsie is a graduate student at Stony Brook University working on getting her master's degree in journalism.