Rats Take over the South Bronx

Melanie Reyes had been living in her Hunts Point home in the South Bronx for two years when she began. hearing the sound of scratching in her bedroom walls. As the noise, which kept her up at night, became louder and louder, she began to notice a sickly odor which prompted her dad to check the crawl space beneath the house. There they discovered the culprits: a pile of dead rats.

There were several rat traps in the front garden of the Reyes’ home and holes in the garbage bags placed out front. It’s not uncommon to see rat droppings around the front yard. All of the cars on the property and in their neighbor’s homes have their grills covered. Last winter several neighbors reported rats getting into their car’s engines and ruining the wires, causing concerns about health and safety.

“It makes me feel sick just thinking about it,” said Reyes, 21, who was shocked when her dad told her how close the pests were to scratching through the wood in her room.

The odors and thumping noises in the walls have become a normal part of life for families like the Reyes who live near the Metropolitan Transfer Station, one of the 15 waste transfer sites in the area. The private transfer site handles 553 tons of residential and commercial waste – the equivalent of 40 school buses – from all over the city, according to the Department of Sanitation.
The South Bronx, one of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods, contains only 6.5% of the city’s population but is home to approximately 24% of New York City’s waste transfer sites, which handle over 31% of the city’s total solid waste, according to a study conducted by the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.
Nearly 6,000 tons of trash are brought in and out of the South Bronx on a daily basis needing more than 1,400 diesel truck trips to do so, according to New York Lawyers for the Public Interest or the NYLPI.

Julie Sze, author of “Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Urban and Industrial Environments)” says that New York City’s waste management policy has drastically changed since the last municipally owned and operated landfill, located in Fresh Kills, Staten Island, closed in 2001. Known as the largest landfill in the world at the time, it would bring in 13,000 tons of waste daily from marine transfer stations, which are stations built over water. It was described as being an “open dump” with putrid odors and generated high levels of methane and toxins which contaminated the surrounding ground and water. After its closure, the city chose to privatize much of the waste management system, and began heavily relying on private companies and charters. These decisions have had long lasting impacts on communities like the South Bronx.

Organizations like the Organization United for Trash Reduction, or O.U.T.R.A.G.E, We Act for Environmental Justice, Sustainable South Bronx and South Bronx Unite have advocated for reductions in the amount of solid waste that transfer stations can handle. South Bronx Unite has teamed up with WE ACT for Environmental Justice to run “Toxic Tours”— in person tours that highlight places in the South Bronx that demonstrate “inadequate urban planning” and have brought negative health and environmental consequences to members of the community. In particular they show the waste transfer plant facility in Port Morris, the Bronx Harlem, which handles up to 4,000 tons of waste daily and has been known to attract pests such as rats and cockroaches, according to WE ACT.

According to Chris Dobens, Director of Communications at WE ACT, more advocacy work, such as these tours, needs to be done to bring awareness to the public and educate city officials on the impact transfer sites are having on the local community in the South Bronx. “We’ve taken some elected officials and agencies on that tour and a bunch of journalists as well,” said Dobens. “While it has resulted in some good press and ongoing discussions with those agencies and officials, there’s a lot of other advocacy work, webinars, meetings and organizing that needs to be done,” he said.

The high number of transfer sites in the vicinity along with the large volume of diesel trucks coming in have caused significant health and environmental impacts, compounding the existing issues the community already faces. Air pollution in the area has contributed to some of the highest asthma related rates of death and disease in the country and has only worsened with the high levels of diesel emissions coming from garbage trucks according to a study done by Transform Don’t Trash NYC coalition, one of the several organizations fighting against environmental justice inequalities in the area. Additionally the transfer stations and trucks contribute to traffic congestion, illegal dumping, and of course unwanted pests in the area. “Seeing them outside is one thing, but knowing they could just as easily be in our house,” said Reyes, her voice trailing off, “My mother screamed horribly and almost fainted because of her rodent phobia when my dad told her,” Reyes said. “She couldn’t even sleep at night thinking
about it.”

Edward Jesberger, owner of At Last Pest Control, has been in the extermination industry for the last 17 years, servicing all 5 boroughs as well as Long Island and New Jersey. 80% of his work on a given day in the South Bronx is rodent related.

Most recently, he saw rats frantically running around in a client’s basement; they had been pulling on pipes and on the edges of the wall, causing significant damage. “Rodents chew on wires and tear through sheet rock, walls and cabinetry,” said Jesberger, explaining that rats are primarily found in basements and occasionally on the main level. “Rats teeth are so sharp that they can adjust them to chew through what they want to chew through,” Jesberger said.

According to NYC’s Environment and Health Data Portal, the Bronx has the third highest rat and mouse sightings of all boroughs. In 2012, there were 231,000 sightings indoors with 113,000 of them being just in the South Bronx. According to Jesberger, proximity of transfer sites definitely plays a role in the number of rats in the area as well as the type of waste being handled. He explained how construction debris, which the Metropolitan Transfer Station handles, attracts these pests, and while people can take precautions such as regularly cutting their grass, using rodent proof containers and repellents and even getting rid of soil altogether to prevent burrowing, the ongoing gentrification and construction in the area will continue to attract rodents, he believes.

Apart from the damage to the home, having rodents around can also cause health problems. In the New York City Environment and Health Data Portal, a report summarizing housing conditions and related health outcomes in Hunts Point and Mott Haven in the South Bronx, found that indoor air quality due to mice or rats in buildings in the area is worse than the NYC average.

Over the last few years the city has been trying to address these inequalities stemming from waste management and has implemented new rules to try and curb some of the issues that come with them. In 2018 former Mayor, Bill DeBlasio, passed Local Law 152 (LL152), also known as the Waste Equity Law, which reduced the permitted capacity at transfer stations across Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx Community Districts. In Bronx Community Districts 1 and 2, where the Metropolitan Transfer Station is located, capacity was reduced by 33 percent. In 2020 the Metropolitan Transfer Station, pushed back against legislation but the city upheld their decision, stating that there had been a proper environmental review and that the company’s constitutional rights were not violated by the law. The law, which has been praised by community members and activists such as O.U.T.R.A.G.E and the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, is said to be one of the first laws that have successfully reduced waste in communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the waste management system.

Since their start in office, Mayor Eric Adams and Jessica Tisch, Commissioner of The City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY), have been working to curb New York City’s rodent problem, in what they’ve called the “war against rats”. By next fall, the city will also roll out a city wide composting program in all 5 boroughs, the nation’s largest to date. Previously, composting had never been available to more than 40% of the city’s population. Existing drop-off sites are spread far apart from one another in boroughs like the Bronx, and currently offer only morning and early afternoon hours which can be inaccessible for working individuals.

Additionally over 200 smart bins, drop- off sites that take compost to be turned into clean energy, have been placed all over New York City by the DSNY. However they are sparse in the South Bronx and require the use of a smartphone to unlock via the NYC Compost App.

Activists believe that there are many environmental and health benefits from composting, including decreasing the number of pests in the area. “Reducing the miles that our waste travels is spoken about very little,” said Devin Reitsma, a Project Manager at The New York City Compost Project Hosted by Big Reuse. “There would be cost and environmental savings while also reducing the burden on low income communities of color that bear the burden of waste transfer stations and the truck traffic that comes with them,” he said. It is unclear if the city will be providing residents with the special containers to be able to participate in the city-wide program. However, many composting advocates believe “containerization”, a term used by Jimmie Costello, Education and Outreach Coordinator at the NYC Compost Project hosted by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, is key to decreasing the number of rats. Costello says it is a great rat starvation tactic and added that DSNY’s work expanding the number of smart bins and their requirement for curbside organics to be collected in closed containers, shows that they feel the same way too. “It is much harder for rats to access food waste this way as opposed to a black plastic bag on the street,” echoed David Hurd, Director of the Zero Waste Programs at GrowNYC, which currently runs 56 food scrap drop-off sites across the city, 10 of them being in the Bronx.

Retisma believes that it is equally as important for landfill waste, not just organic waste, to also be containerized in rodent-proof bins rather than just being left out in bags on the street. For now, the city does not require that any kind of waste be left in containers, but a new rule by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) incentivizes it by having different waste set out times for trash in containers and for trash in bags. As of April, individuals must now place trash on the curb after 6pm if in a secure container or after 8pm if in a bag, a change from the previous 4pm set out time for both.

Mayor Adams has also hired the city’s first ever “rat czar”, Kathleen Corradi, whose job as the new Citywide Director of Rodent Mitigation is to work with different government organizations like DSNY and the New York City Housing Authority, or NYCHA, across the city to reduce the rat population.

For now, education is a big barrier to the success of all these new programs. “New York City often fails to do adequate education, awareness and outreach when rolling out major changes,” said Councilwoman Sandy Nurse, Chair of the Sanitation and Solid Waste Management Committee, in a meeting about Local Law 199, which in 2019 “required the establishment of Commercial Waste Zones in New York City. “We can all recognize that such a massive reform involving many moving parts takes time and will inevitably run into bumps.” The law, which has yet to be implemented, aims to improve unsafe routes, decrease greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the amount of garbage coming in and out of the Bronx and other areas disproportionately impacted by waste disposal on a daily basis.

“In my opinion, the key groups currently needing education are building staff and supers, who often block a building from enrolling in curbside organics collection and then residents and the general public, specially those in the middle, who are open to composting but currently don’t. Also policy influencers such as city council members,” said Reitsma. “This outreach and education needs to be culturally appropriate and in the chosen language of the community in which the outreach is happening.”For now, families like the Reyes will have to continue waiting for these new policies to be fully implemented and show success. “I really hope these things the city is doing make a difference,” said Reyes. “Cause I’m tired of being scared in my own home.”

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