The city and state have agreed to a pilot program allowing a private company contracted through the United States Army Corps of Engineers to burn piles of trees and branches left over from the storm, in what they say is an environmentally safe device, according to the city Department of Environmental Protection.
That device, called an air curtain burner, is a ceramic-lined box that burns debris as a diesel-powered pump shoots air over the box, creating a trap to keep fire and smoke from entering the open air, according to an Army Corps of Engineers spokesman.
The engineers will be working with the Environmental Protection Agency and city and state environmental agencies to monitor the air through a six-day pilot program, beginning Wednesday, the spokesman said.
"All three of them are coordinating with us to provide air quality monitoring at the site," spokesman Jeffrey Hawk said, adding, "this is purely organic material."
But environmental groups are accusing the city of fast-tracking the process in order to come up with a quick solution instead of a safe one.
"It's fairly primative," said Laura Haight, a senior environmental associate at the New York Public Interest Research Group. "It's one step up from burning it in a big bonfire."
Last week the city approved a variance that would allow ECC, the company in charge of the process, to perform the pilot without restriction from two provisions of the Air Pollution Control Code, which involve debris burning and the installation and operation of debris-burning equipment, according to city records.
Haight said NYPIRG and other organizations are concerned that the city will continue to use the device indefinitely once the pilot program ends, and that they'll use it for non-organic material.
They're also concerned that the device has no method of containment other than the air pump, Haight said.
"It's just air," Haight said. "It's not considered a modern pollution control device."
A spokesman for ECC said there was no danger of pollutants entering the air as a result of the incineration.
Hawk, the Army Corps of Engineers spokesman, said that during the pilot, only "230, maybe up to 500 cubic yards of material" would be burned, out of almost 100,000 cubic yards of material currently at Floyd Bennett Field. The city expects an additional 100,000 cubic yards to be added as clean up continues, according to the DEP.
In addition to the burning, two companies have agreed to pick up some of the debris to turn into mulch, and the agencies are trying to identify more, Hawk said.
But in the aftermath of Sandy, Haight said not enough was being done to make sure the process of disposing of debris is safe.
"We have a lot of people that are badly hit by the hurricane," Haight said. "The concern for us is, why add insult to injury?"