A landfill in their backyard
NEW YORK — The closure of one of the world’s largest landfills, Fresh Kills, in March 2001 was a victory for residents on New York City’s Staten Island, who complained about the waste site for years.
But that victory was diminished when, after the September 11th attacks, then-Governor George Pataki reopened Fresh Kills and workers transported more than 1.8 million tons of debris, some of it found to be toxic, from Ground Zero to the landfill. Nineteen years later, some Staten Islanders fear the inactive landfill and its contents — including the 9/11 debris — is contributing to cancer rates in the borough.
“I know way too many people with cancer on Staten Island,” said Jamielee Nelson, who recalled standing on her balcony in Staten Island’s Rossville neighborhood after 9/11 and watching smoke rising from Ground Zero.
The 32-year-old, who said there is no history of cancer in her family, said she worries that living near the former landfill is linked to the breast cancer diagnosis she received last year.
Three years ago, the city health department launched a study — the third of its kind in 25 years — to investigate concerns like Nelson’s and found little evidence to link living near the former landfill and cancer.
In a report published in January, the study’s researchers said they compared incidence rates for 17 cancers in the area around Fresh Kills to the rest of Staten Island and New York City. They found that between 1995 and 2015, adult residents of Staten Island suffered from certain cancers at slightly or moderately higher rates than residents in other boroughs.
In adults living in the area around Fresh Kills during the same period, there were statistically significant elevations in five cancer types — bladder, breast, kidney, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and thyroid — when compared to residents elsewhere in Staten Island.
But the trends for each cancer type “did not show a consistent increase over time or between men and women,” they wrote, suggesting other factors were to blame.
A proximity analysis, which modeled how many cancer cases could be explained by distance to Fresh Kills, found that none of the five cancer types had elevated rates closer to Fresh Kills between 1995 and 2004, although it did find that some thyroid and bladder cancer rates were higher near the former landfill site between 2005 and 2015. But the researchers still saw little evidence of a link to the landfill because they could not find any reasonable explanations for how residents would have come into contact with materials in the landfill that were known or suspected to cause bladder or thyroid cancers, especially since Fresh Kills closed.
“More plausible” explanations, the authors wrote, were higher screening rates for thyroid cancer and Staten Islanders’ higher smoking rates. Smoking is a known risk factor for bladder cancer.
The cancer rates have underscored decades-long tensions between Staten Island and the city of New York.
Long-nicknamed the “forgotten borough,” Staten Island is the city’s smallest by population. With just under half a million residents, its population represents about 6% of the city’s. It has a lower poverty rate and a higher median household income. Compared to much of the city, which is dense and dotted with skyscrapers, Staten Island is more suburban, with many single-family homes and few tall buildings. It’s also less diverse; about 60% of Staten Islanders identify as White according to recent Census estimates, compared to 32% in the rest of the city.
Though it has more registered Democrats than Republicans, Staten Island is the only borough where Republicans have won in any of the last six presidential elections. Two of its three city council members are Republicans.
In 1993, almost two-thirds of Staten Islanders voted to secede from New York City. (The state legislature blocked the effort.) Fresh Kills — which gets its name from kille, an archaic Dutch word for riverbeds or waterways — was on voters’ minds even then. A Washington Post article from the era called the landfill the “primary reason most islanders cite for wanting to end ties” with the rest of the city; residents, the paper reported, had come to see the landfill as a “fetid symbol” of its strained relationship with the larger city.
Jonathan Eisler-Grynsztajn, 25, said as a child, he watched as trucks from Ground Zero drove through his neighborhood and unloaded tons of wreckage at Fresh Kills. For residents like Eisler-Grynsztajn, the cause of their communities’ higher cancer rates is obvious. However, researchers have found little evidence that the landfill is a contributing factor. City officials have pointed to several other factors, such as smoking and overscreening, as potential causes for the higher cancer rates. Consequently, some community members said they feel ignored, insulted and abandoned.
The community is right to be concerned, Philip Landrigan, who directs Boston College’s Global Public Health Program and Global Pollution Observatory and has studied the health effects of 9/11 debris on cleanup workers, said.
While Landrigan and his team didn’t collect samples from the landfill after 9/11, they did find toxic materials — glass fibers, asbestos, lead and pesticides — in air and dust samples taken from Ground Zero.
“They can point to the undeniable fact that there are toxic and cancer-causing materials in the landfill,” Landrigan said. “They’re absolutely within their rights to argue that this landfill has to be meticulously watched for years or even decades to come.”
City officials have sought to examine Fresh Kills’ potential health effects before. A 1996 report and its addendum, in 2000, recommended further monitoring of the site. Unlike the most recent study, the previous ones did not find statistically significant elevations in cancer rates around the landfill when compared to the rest of Staten Island.
The state also looked into Staten Island’s cancer rates and published its own study last year.
That study’s authors found the cancer rate was 17% higher on Staten Island compared to the rest of the city and 3% higher compared to the state outside New York City. Thyroid cancer on Staten Island was nearly 70% higher than in the rest of the city and state, though the state’s researchers could not identify any environmental exposures and suggested that the results are skewed because Staten Island doctors screen for and diagnose thyroid cancer at higher rates than other parts of the city and state.
Dr. Maaike van Gerwen, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Mount Sinai, said this is a plausible explanation for the increase in thyroid cancer rates, especially because, according to the state’s report, nearly all the increase in Staten Island thyroid cancer has been for small tumors that cause no symptoms.
Once a community is aware of a rise in thyroid cancer, van Gerwen added, they may be more likely to get screened, and doctors may be more likely to look for the cancer.
In a statement, state health department spokeswoman Erin Silk said the report’s findings suggested that “practices in the medical care system may be influencing thyroid cancer incidence on Staten Island” and that health care providers should avoid performing thyroid cancer screenings for people without symptoms and at average risk.
Mapping cancer near Fresh Kills
A recent city health department study looked at incidence rates for 17 cancers in the area around Fresh Kills. While cancer rates around the landfill were higher when compared to the rest of Staten Island, rates were only meaningfully elevated for five — bladder, breast, kidney, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and thyroid cancer — and the study found little evidence of an association between living close to the former Fresh Kills Landfill and cancer.
Studies have shown that about 80% of all thyroid cancers are papillary cancers that are slow-growing and rarely fatal. While studies have not shown that thyroid screening is directly harmful, health authorities, such as the US Preventative Service Task Force, have recommended against it for asymptomatic adults because it may lead to overdiagnosis and risky treatment of harmless tumors.
Eisler-Grynsztajn, who was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in March 2019, said he was lucky to be diagnosed.
“(My cancer) was discovered totally by accident,” Eisler-Grynsztajn, who had surgery to remove the thyroid cancer from his neck in 2019, said. Eisler-Grynsztajn’s cancer was diagnosed during treatment for a fall he sustained while jogging. “Had that fall not happened, I would not have known that (I had cancer).”
Melissa Bondy, who chairs Stanford University’s epidemiology and population health department, said “there’s definitely limitations in what we learn” from descriptive research like the city’s study, which only looks for patterns in existing data.
While the report was an appropriate first step in dissecting the issue, Beate Ritz, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health at UCLA, said a deeper investigation would require interviewing Staten Island residents about their lifestyles, jobs, experiences living near the landfill and medical histories, all factors that can play a role in causing cancer.
Michael Lanza, a spokesman for the city’s health department, wrote in an email that the city’s methodology was “the only appropriate approach” for investigating whether so many cancers were linked to environmental exposure. Investigating a single cancer, Lanza added, would be difficult because it would require controlling for other risk factors and studying thousands of people over many years. A retrospective follow-up study, which would involve interviewing patients about past exposures, would be unrealistic, he said, because people move, the city was “unable to identify exposures from the landfill that might be plausibly linked to the cancers of concern” and because “there is no way to quantify potential exposures from decades past.”
Eisler-Grynsztajn, who lives in Staten Island’s Huguenot neighborhood, said he doesn’t feel like residents have been heard.
“(The city should) talk to the cancer survivors and patients who are still dealing with this,” Eisler-Grynsztajn said. “Let them tell their stories.”
Nelson, the woman who is being treated for breast cancer, said the report isn’t enough.
“They didn’t do their job,” Nelson said. “The city never reached out to me. Not once. To ask me about my cancer — nothing. I don’t feel like they care at all.”
In a statement, Chris D’Andrea, an assistant commissioner in the city health department’s environmental health division, said the most recent study’s findings were consistent with previous investigations of Fresh Kills.
“This is the third study we’ve conducted in the last 25 years looking at cancer patterns that might be associated with living near Fresh Kills, and our findings do not suggest that potential exposures from the former landfill have contributed to elevated cancer rates in the surrounding communities,” he said.
D’Andrea added that the agency will continue to provide cancer prevention resources and remain vigilant in monitoring cancer rates on Staten Island.
Staten Island City Council Member Joe Borelli has pushed for a more thorough investigation into Fresh Kills since he was elected in 2015. Borelli grew up in the district he represents and said he could see the landfill from his childhood bedroom in the island’s Village Greens section.
The landfill opened in 1948 and, at its peak, absorbed as much as 29,000 tons of trash per day. A 2000 federal report revealed the surrounding air contained carcinogens including benzene, which is used to make plastics and pesticides; chloroform, which is used to make other chemicals; and vinyl chloride, which is used to make pipes and upholstery. The contaminants were at levels that exceeded federal standards, but the report’s authors said the chemicals posed no apparent public health hazard. By the time Fresh Kills closed in 2001, the large swath of the borough’s western shore was the only functioning municipal landfill within city limits, and contained household trash — food waste, paper, clothes — from across all five boroughs.
Residents recalled how the landfill stank, especially on warm days. Some said it smelled like sewage; others said like a rotting corpse.
“We have a swimming pool (and) nobody wanted to even go swimming because (of) the stench.” Eisler-Grynsztajn recalled. “That’s how bad it was.”
To Staten Islanders, the landfill became a looming symbol of their resentment toward the rest of New York City. The last barge ferrying trash to the landfill, bearing the celebratory banner “Last Garbage Barge to Fresh Kills,” docked on March 22, 2001.
Sixteen hours after the World Trade Center’s first tower collapsed, debris began to arrive at Fresh Kills.
A portion of the former landfill was transformed into a massive crime scene as barges transported mountains of debris by trucks and later by barges from lower Manhattan.
Borelli, a college student at the time, said Staten Islanders didn’t object to the state’s decision to use Fresh Kills as a recovery area.
“We had lost so many of our neighbors,” Borelli said. “It felt like more of a duty than a burden.”
Workers spent more than 10 months sifting through rubble looking for evidence from the attacks including plane parts, office ID badges, jewelry and human remains.
“It was one of the most upsetting things I’ve ever seen,” lawyer Michael Barasch, who has handled personal injury cases for 9/11 first responders and ****visited the site in the months following the attacks, said. “You knew that people’s bodies and bones and tissue were inside this mass (of debris).”
In July 2002, Fresh Kills closed again. But community members, Borelli said, still worried about Fresh Kills.
“It was something the old guys would opine about in a bar and it’s something moms would discuss just about health in their family,” Borelli, the city council member, said.
In 2017, Borelli called on leaders to conduct a study. In December 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced at a town hall that the city would fund a $350,000 study — the same one published earlier this year — examining the effects of Fresh Kills on nearby residents.
Staten Islanders don’t only suspect Fresh Kills as a ****potential environmental cause of their health problems. The island is home to Brookfield Park, a former landfill where illegal toxic dumping occurred in the 1970s. The former landfill, which closed in 1980, was in the areas examined in the 1996 and 2020 city studies. And a cleanup project has been underway at the island’s Great Kills Park since 2005, when radium, a known carcinogen, was found at the site.
Understanding the former landfill’s health effects will remain relevant, experts said, because the city plans to transform Fresh Kills into Freshkills, a sprawling park that it expects to fully open in 2036.
At 2,200 acres, the completed park will be nearly triple the size of Central Park — or the equivalent of 1,660 football fields. Planned attractions include playgrounds, athletic fields, horseback riding trails and a wildlife refuge.
To ensure the park is safe for visitors, the landfill, which is divided into four “mounds,” will be covered by a soil layer, a gas vent layer that traps methane, a layer of thick vinyl, a drainage layer, another barrier layer, and then a layer of soil. This cap is between three and, in some places, 12 feet deep. Three of the mounds have already been capped; the fourth is expected to be completed in 2021.
“There is a lot between (the) people walking on the top and what people threw away,” Eloise Hirsh, the parks department official overseeing the transformation, said.
New York City Department of Sanitation spokeswoman Belinda Mager said that the department has been conducting groundwater, surface water and sediment tests at Fresh Kills for decades. Mager said that while the department doesn’t conduct air monitoring at Fresh Kills, the system that burns and purifies landfill gas is in compliance with emission requirements.
For some residents, like Debra Santulli-Barone, 65, the idea of a park on top of the landfill is scary.
Santulli-Barone, who moved from Brooklyn to Staten Island’s Huguenot neighborhood in 1985, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014 and leukemia in 2015.
“Now having two cancers, I don’t want to use that park … I don’t want to push my luck,” Santulli-Barone said. “Everyone wants to believe (the construction of the park is) great, God bless them, but I’m scared. And a lot of people like me feel the same.”
In the years after 9/11, some workers who were exposed to debris at Ground Zero and Fresh Kills began to wrestle with health problems.
In 2006, NYPD detective James Zadroga emerged as a harbinger of the uphill battle 9/11 some survivors would face in trying to prove their illnesses were a result of their time at Ground Zero. Zadroga died at age 34 at his parents’ home in New Jersey. A coroner attributed dust found in his lungs to Ground Zero, reportedly making him the first rescuer whose death was medically linked to dust inhalation from the site. New York City officials rejected the finding. In a letter to Zadroga’s family, then-Chief Medical Examiner Charles Hirsch, who died in 2016, wrote it was his office’s “unequivocal opinion, with certainty beyond doubt, that the foreign material in (Zadroga’s) lungs did not get there as a result of inhaling dust at the World Trade Center or elsewhere.”
The city has acknowledged that thousands suffer from 9/11-related health conditions and added Zadroga to New York City’s Hall of Heroes in lower Manhattan, which honors NYPD members who died in the line of duty. But the conflicting findings and ensuing controversy in Zadroga’s case set the stage for how certainty about cause and effect would be elusive for many families. Zadroga would later become the namesake for federal legislation, enacted in 2011, to extend health monitoring and compensation for first responders and survivors whose illnesses were related to 9/11.
Barasch, who represented Zadroga, said Staten Island residents are receiving similar treatment from the city.
“They take the debris. They load it onto barges […] and dumped it then at the Fresh Kills landfill where dust went flying everywhere,” Barasch said. “If you lived across the street from the landfill, of course you were going to get exposed to the same carcinogens as Jimmy Zadroga and the entire 9/11 community.”
Through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), the federal government allowed victims or workers who suffered a 9/11 injury or condition — including dozens of cancers — to file a claim for federal aid.
President Donald Trump signed a bill last summer that will provide money for the VCF through 2090. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the fund’s extension would cost about $10 billion over the next decade.
The Justice Department-administered fund covers those who were injured while living, working visiting or attending school in lower Manhattan below Canal Street in the months following 9/11.
However, the Canal Street line — which the VCF first drew in 2001 — was arbitrary, lawyer Joel Kupferman, the executive director at the New York Environmental Law and Justice Project, said.
“The path of transmission was a lot farther than just Canal Street,” Kupferman said. “How could they say particles didn’t travel farther? This stuff travels for miles and miles and miles.”
In 2006, scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory estimated that contents of the World Trade Center plume traveled at least 44 miles from Ground Zero.
Kenneth Feinberg, who ran the VCF as special master in 2001 and oversaw drawing the exposure zone’s boundaries, said his team chose Canal Street because, in their view, it obeyed the letter of the law.
“We simply made a decision that, since the Federal statute creating the Fund required that deaths and physical injuries occur in the ‘immediate vicinity of the World Trade Center’ we conclude that Canal Street rather than Houston satisfied the statutory requirement,” Feinberg wrote in an email.
Feinberg added that his team did not rely on health data or experts to draw the geographic boundaries.
“Our decision was based on statutory interpretation,” he wrote. “A legal not a medical question.”
Feinberg’s fund closed in 2003. In 2011, the federal Zadroga Act reopened the VCF and authorized its new special master to designate new exposure zone boundaries. When the fund was reauthorized in 2015, Congress wrote the Canal Street boundaries into the law. Sheila Birnbaum, who served as the 2011 fund’s special master, did not respond to request for comment.
The fund covers people who worked on the barges and at Fresh Kills landfill. But it’s unclear whether the VCF’s eligibility zone extends to residents who lived near Fresh Kills.
Lawyer Gregory Cannata, who has represented 9/11 victims and workers for nearly two decades, said that if a Staten Island resident with cancer could show that they were regularly exposed to dust because of wind and proximity to the landfill, there’s “a strong argument to be made that there’s a link between the two.”
Nicole Navas, a spokeswoman for the VCF, said it was not aware of any claims filed by residents who lived near the landfill. Navas could not say how many claims or how much money the VCF has approved for people who worked at Fresh Kills because, she said, it does not possess detailed data on where claimants worked. But federal court filings show that, through personal injury settlements with the city and its contractors, millions of dollars have gone to 1,800 cleanup workers who suffered from health problems after working at Fresh Kills.
In 2012, attorney Chris LoPalo and his then-firm helped to negotiate a $24 million settlement for almost 2,000 plaintiffs who worked for three contractors that operated at the landfill following 9/11. In the same litigation, insurers paid a $28 million settlement to more than 1,300 plaintiffs who operated the barges that transported debris from Manhattan to Fresh Kills.
LoPalo recalled that the city’s attorneys “vigorously” challenged each claim. LoPalo said the lawyers denied claims of respirator shortages and pointed to other factors that could be causing illnesses, such as lifestyle, genetics and other occupational exposures.
“They would blame every other possible causation factor besides the World Trade Center dust as being the cause of the injury,” LoPalo recalled.
The city’s law department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Experts said it’s challenging to prove that a person’s cancer came from a specific environmental exposure like Fresh Kills. While the specifics vary, several studies in the 1990s linked other waste sites in the United States and Canada to possible increased risks of a variety of cancers, including leukemia, bladder, stomach, liver, lung, prostate and cervical cancer. But the American Cancer Society says many factors — a person’s environment, their lifestyle, their genes — make people more susceptible to cancer and experts said it can be difficult to identify just one source. In 2002, a UK study concluded that its research did not “support suggestions of excess risks of cancer associated with landfill sites.”
Julie Herbstman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, was one of 15 advisers who provided feedback during the city’s study process. She said she wasn’t sure if the report’s results warrant further research.
“I’m really very sympathetic to the situation and understand why people are concerned,” Herbstman said. “It’s just not that easy scientifically to be able to link an exposure as broad as a landfill to these cancers.”
Identifying so-called cancer clusters is notoriously difficult because proving their existence requires tremendous resources, several experts told CNN.
A cancer cluster, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “a greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.”
Go There: Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill 09:37
Dr. Otis Brawley, an oncology and epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins University, said that an epidemiological study of Staten Island’s cancer rates — which would be more robust than the city’s descriptive report — would be lengthy and expensive.
“It’s going to cost something in the neighborhood of $5 million a year, and it’s going to run somewhere between five and 10 years long,” Brawley said.
Staten Island’s plight isn’t uncommon, Brawley, who was the chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society from 2007 to 2018, said. Communities with elevated cancer rates often point to an environmental exposure as the source of their problem, but researchers are rarely able to connect the two, he said.
“It is simply beyond the reaches of science,” Brawley said, adding that while it’s “relatively easy” to establish a correlation, unknown variables make it difficult for scientists to say, with confidence, what causes certain cancers.
Beate Ritz, an epidemiology and environmental health sciences professor at UCLA, agreed that a more robust study would be costly because it would require interviewing Staten Islanders about their jobs, residences and family histories. Even then, she said, it could be difficult to prove anything. Ritz argued those resources should be put toward preventing cancer in the community instead of identifying its cause.
“Do cancer screening, do cancer prevention efforts, listen to the community, and don’t sink money into a study that may or may not give you an answer,” Ritz said.
Lanza, the city health department spokesman, said the city “routinely” encourages cancer screenings and promotes cancer preventative behaviors, such as smoking cessation, healthy eating and physical activity through various media campaigns. The department also operates a registry to track health data on 9/11 survivors.
David O. Carpenter, who ran the state health department’s research center in the 1980s and now runs the State University of New York at Albany’s Institute for Health and the Environment, said he thinks governments sometimes have incentives to minimize concerns about environmental exposures.
“In the case of the landfill, the government wants to make it into a park and wants to be able to say that is no problem,” Carpenter said.
David Ozonoff, who chaired Boston University’s environmental health department from 1977 to 2003, has written about how governments sometimes rely on the vagaries of cancer causes to steer public conversation away from environmental concerns.
“The response usually is to sort of make the problem go away by saying, ‘it could be all sorts of stuff,’” Ozonoff, who has studied public health agencies’ response to waste site concerns in Massachusetts and upstate New York, said.
Blaming a community’s lifestyle, he wrote in 1987, is “politically safer.” It’s effective because the explanation is highly plausible, Ozonoff said in an interview, and prevents cities and states from having to spend money on deeper investigation.
Lanza, the city health department’s spokesman, did not address Carpenter and Ozonoff’s specific claims when asked. But D’Andrea, the assistant commissioner, said in a statement that the department was “committed to protecting the health and safety of all New Yorkers.”
Richard Clapp, a professor emeritus of environmental health at Boston University, said Staten Island may see a rise in cancers in the years to come.
“Most cancers take more than 19 years to really show up,” Clapp said, referencing the 9/11 debris brought to Staten Island in 2001. He added that doing another study in five years and then again in 10 years is appropriate to monitor the health of the community.
Monitoring a community’s health can be expensive, but Borelli pointed to an obvious source of funding. For more than a decade the city has trapped methane gas at Fresh Kills and sold it to National Grid, a regional utility. Revenue has declined as the landfill produces less methane, but data from the New York City Sanitation Department shows that since 2007, the city has received at least $58 million for gas from Fresh Kills. The money goes into the city’s general fund, which helps pay the city’s daily operating expenses, such as utilities, equipment and city employees’ travel expenses and salaries.
“That’s a clear source of revenue that should go back to Staten Islanders,” Borelli said. “We know we have a cancer problem — whatever the cause is.”
Some Staten Islanders, including Eisler-Grynsztajn, want a deeper investigation into the landfill and the potential health effects of the 9/11 debris. He said he hopes the city will interview cancer patients and survivors in his community.
“They brought that stuff out here,” Eisler-Grynsztajn said. “But (they) forgot about the residents of Staten Island they dumped it on.”