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Editorial: Sandy exposed Long Island's trash trouble

Volunteers help to clean up in the heavily

Volunteers help to clean up in the heavily damaged Rockaway neighborhood where a large section of the iconic boardwalk was washed away. (Nov. 10, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

If Sandy has taught us nothing else, it has shown that there's so much we weren't prepared for in a storm of this intensity. Among many other activities of daily living disrupted by the superstorm's fury, who would have thought that the removal of debris would still be a problem long after other routines got back to normal?

What we need before the next one hits is a carefully thought out plan for how to deal with an avalanche of trash.

Post-Sandy, in addition to everyday garbage, we suddenly had many thousands of tons of storm stuff: downed trees, sodden furnishings, appliances, paneling and flooring -- mixed in on occasion with the food discarded from freezers. Those piles had to go someplace, and that sudden need forced local governments and the state's environmental watchdog agency to make tough choices that not everyone liked.

The City of Long Beach, devastated by Sandy, had to move many times more trash in the weeks after the storm than it normally moves in a year. It got permission to pile its new heaps in the parking lots of Nassau County's nearby Nickerson Beach Park. And those mountains had stayed there long enough to begin to worry the state's Department of Environmental Conservation -- forced by the storm to play, more than ever, the role of garbage gendarme. Now, the mountains have been brought low.

At the huge Brookhaven landfill in Yaphank, lines of trucks carrying storm debris stretched as far as the eye could see. Eventually, the town asked for and got permission from DEC to pile more than 80,000 tons of the debris on top of the landfill, provided it buries the stuff properly soon. The town is also burning storm brush in temporary incinerators, which has raised complaints among the landfill's neighbors. The burning seems a necessary evil. But DEC, the town and Suffolk County should closely watch the results of air-quality monitoring.

The DEC, municipalities and private industry had to work fast to produce permits for shipments of trash by rail and barge, and they did the best they could. But there's still plenty of Sandy debris lying around, and it may not all be gone for a while yet -- especially on Fire Island, where the process is just getting started.

This all exposes an underlying problem: We just don't have much slack in our garbage system. Most of our municipal solid waste gets burned in waste-to-energy plants, and the ash gets buried here. State law forbids burying raw garbage here, to protect our sole source aquifer. And 20 to 25 percent of it gets shipped off Long Island.

One way we can reduce the size of the waste stream is to improve recycling rates. Not an easy job, considering how volatile -- often nonexistent -- the markets for recyclables are. But it's worth trying.

We could also use a study of how different removal approaches performed after Sandy -- from Nassau County's arranging a contractor to do it, to direct assistance, in which the Army Corps of Engineers handles the job, using contractors it chooses through a bidding process. It's important to know which way worked best, to guide future decisions.

And we need a waste plan, using the lessons of Sandy to set up procedures and communications to prepare us for higher piles of the stuff next time. Any time spent on that plan won't be wasted.