Isabella Zou

The Long Island Sound spills northward into the New Haven Harbor, which passes beneath Route 95 via the Pearl Harbor Bridge and splits into the Quinnipiac and Mill rivers. At the intersection is Criscuolo Park, where I stand at the foot of an empty playground. The park is silent, and because it’s January, the grass is gray and the metal poles of the playground are frosted over. I’m not alone — trucks pass over the Mill River and residents stroll down the sidewalk when all of a sudden, dozens of seagulls cross the river. They swarm above me, sweeping close to my head. On the other side of the Quinnipiac, there are more of them — sauntering, loitering and scavenging for food. 

Across the river is Murphy Road Recycling, a facility that has processed garbage on the waterfront for years. I stare across at the looming white metal structures, industrial exhaust and black tarps hung up over who knows what.

At the New Haven waterfront, life clashes with industry, seagulls clash with garbage processors and activists clash with businessmen. Areas of the Elm City, especially close to the water, have been vastly industrial for decades. Once, waterfronts were the perfect place for companies to do their business: Waterwheels, dams and other contraptions developed during and after the Industrial Revolution made water power a key fuel. Now, many companies, like Murphy, no longer use the water. But they remain on the waterfront — much to many New Haven residents’ dismay.

“INDUSTRY RULED THE WATERWAY”: LIFE ON THE QUINNIPIAC RIVER

Ian Christmann’s two sons used to attend school along the Quinnipiac River. Instead of driving them in each day, he’d pile everyone into a kayak and paddle up the river to their Fair Haven school, after which he’d paddle to his office, which was also on the river. Christmann said the morning trips were a great way to appreciate the river’s natural beauty.

Christmann is an environmental advocacy photographer who, since graduating from college in 1996, has traveled to 26 countries to take photos. He has been fixated with the Quinnipiac River for over a decade. A few years back, he captured each stretch of the 35-mile river for a photo exhibit. As he hiked, kayaked and helicoptered through, he noticed the good and the bad of the area — “the natural beauty of it and man’s negative impact.”

Historically, this river was the second-most carcinogenic river in America,” the photographer told me. “That has changed, but it is still being polluted by upriver sewage treatment plants, and numerous chemical companies are still dumping into this river.” 

According to a website built by Christmann through the Quinnipiac River Fund, a local conservation and advocacy organization, factories took over the Quinnipiac in the 1850s during the Industrial Revolution, when water power surged as a new source of energy. There was no anti-pollution legislation then, and metal plants upstream led to an explosion of industrial towns on the river. The river quickly became extremely polluted. 

Nicole Davis, the watershed coordinator for Save the Sound, an agency dedicated to combating water pollution and related issues, said part of this stems from a historical lack of river appreciation — not just in New Haven but all over the nation.

“As a society, there was a really long period where there was no value placed on rivers,” she said. “It was a way to receive goods and get rid of your waste. So if you were an industry that had a lot of chemicals or things you needed to get rid of, being near a river was huge, because you could just dump it in the water and it would get washed away.”

More recently, the river is receiving positive attention, Christmann said. “In the 18 years that I’ve been here, I’ve seen it become more prominent in people’s minds.” The motivation for improving the area comes “from a past where industry ruled the waterway.” That’s changing, he said.

Davis said part of the progress comes from activist organizations like Save the Sound, which have been able to achieve some success in the recent years, including extending the number of miles of the river available for fish passage. Fish passage is important because it doesn’t only allow more wildlife into the area, but it also allows for smoother running of water via less blocked up river passages, and thus cleaner water, she said

Still, Christmann reminisced about what the river would’ve been like before the Industrial Revolution, when wildlife roamed free. “150 years ago, this was one of the richest oyster beds in the country,” he said. The website he built for the river states that by the early 20th century, Fair Haven’s oyster industry had taken a hit, since industrial river pollution made the waterfront an inhospitable habitat for sea life. 

In 2021, the Hartford-based company Norm Bloom & Son almost single-handedly carries the New Haven oyster industry. Patty King, who manages the company’s New Haven branch, has spent most of her life in the water. She started out as a deckhand on her brother’s lobster boat, then made her way to a clam boat and has worked in the clam and oyster industry ever since.

For King, though the river still faces pollution, it is almost unrecognizable compared to what it was like when she was younger.

“I’ve noticed a change for the better,” she said. “We have seals, ospreys, eagles and lots of wildlife that did not exist in Connecticut when I was a kid. When I first started 20 years ago, it was a big treat to see an osprey out on the water. There were companies in Branford that used to dump directly into the Branford River.”

Partially because of overfishing, there are fewer clams in the water than when she was a kid, she said. But according to King, “oysters are thriving.” If the river is getting cleaner and the animal life is thriving, then what’s wrong? 

That’s where Murphy Road Recycling comes in.

TRASH ON THE SHORE

Ten years ago, Christmann, who lives half a mile from Murphy, took a helicopter ride along the river to photograph industry areas from above — and what he found shocked him.

“What I noticed about Murphy Road was that they had stacks and stacks of dumpsters just stacked up against the water,” Christmann said. “You could see that the rain and the runoff was going right into the river from these dumpsters. That there’s a trash facility against the edge of the river seems ridiculous. What a poor use of that location.”

Murphy Road, according to Christmann and other New Haven environmentalists, does not play by the rules of their permit in a variety of ways. Their permit, for one, allows them to process only dry waste at the facility. Dry waste usually means bottles, cans, paper, clothes and other nonorganic materials, while wet waste includes food waste, yard waste and other organic items. But Christmann suspects that dry waste is not all they process: “If you go to their facility, you’ll see hundreds of seagulls flying around the trucks as they enter,” he told me. “Seagulls don’t go picking through dry waste.”

Laura Cahn, who chairs New Haven’s Environmental Advisory Council (EAC), said the company uses unregulated chemical deodorizers to spray the trash as it is processed. The deodorizer quickly enters stormwater and the river. But it is not illegal, and therefore goes unregulated. 

Murphy is on private property, which is part of the issue, Cahn said. “They do, however, have to obey the laws, which they don’t do.” Cahn said when the state issues an inspection report, they give a list of violations on Murphy’s part, “and that’s the end of that.” Murphy doesn’t fix their violations. Google Earth images, for example, still show that dumpsters are “piled up in the wrong places.”

The last time the state inspected Murphy’s New Haven facility was in 2017. The time before that was 2012. The facility is supposed to be inspected regularly and spontaneously, but “that’s not happening as much as it should, if at all,” Christmann said. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, aware of concerns from residents, has encouraged more regular inspections for the area — according to the New Haven Independent, in December, DEEP analyst Brend Madho suggested quarterly inspections from a third party as a potential amendment to Murphy’s permit. However, the changes have yet to be implemented.

Cahn, who has tried to work with Murphy in the past, said the company is largely left to their own devices: “Nobody enforces them, so they do whatever they want.”

The EAC recently asked if Murphy would set up a composting program to pick up food waste in New Haven, but they said it was too expensive. Murphy is “not trying to help,” Cahn said with frustration. 

“[Murphy] advocated for single-stream recycling. At the state level, single-stream recycling doesn’t work. It just contaminates everything,” Cahn continued. “We want economic progress, but we want it in a way that benefits everybody — not just makes profits for one company.”

“THE SLAMMING OF DUMPSTERS AT 2 A.M.”: IMPACT ON THE RESIDENTS

Murphy is located in the Annex neighborhood of New Haven. According to Roger Reynolds, senior legal counsel for Save the Sound, it’s “maybe the worst environmental justice neighborhood in the state.”

“It’s remarkably overburdened with pollution,” he said. “You add it all up, and it is the high 90th percentiles for all the pollution indicators. It has I-95, which is very congested there, and it has the New Haven Station oil burning power plant.” And it has Murphy.

New Haven environmental activist Chris Ozyck expressed concern about Murphy last year, when the company applied for a permit to process garbage from the suburbs of New Haven. He was worried about the traffic on Quinnipiac Avenue, where he lives, and the associated noises of garbage trucks — the trucks do not use the highways like they say they do, he noted, but rather drive through residential areas. 

Ozyck knocked on doors around his neighborhood to hear from the community about their grievances with Murphy. Years ago, he had heard complaints of rats, so when he knocked on doors he specifically asked about them.

“What I quickly found out was that almost every person had problems with the smell of trash, currently,” Ozyck said. “And they were kind of relieved to hear that there are other neighbors who also had the same problem — that it wasn’t just them. Nobody knew how to handle this, and nobody knew that they had a voice that could help get change.”

The city provides phone numbers for residents to call about odor complaints.  But at the time, nobody was picking up the phone. And while some residents who were close to the facility could tell where the smell was coming from, others who lived on the other side of the street could not.

“You can tell that there’s something at the site, because there are a lot of seagulls there on certain days,” Ozyck told me. “It was funny — even in their application [for a permit to process garbage from New Haven suburbs], they had pictures of their buildings with both seagulls on the building, and inside, which is scavenging, which is not supposed to be happening.” But due to the pandemic, the state of Connecticut will not conduct any in-person enforcement, so no officials visited the facility and saw the gulls.

In a victory for those living in the neighborhood, Murphy Road’s application was rejected by the city last month, so the company’s operations will not expand. But the facility is a deep-rooted problem in the community. While they won’t expand yet, they can still plague the community they’ve been hurting for years. Christmann noted that for those living right next to the facility, the impact is particularly concerning.

“You have all of these houses that are literally right up against the property,” Christmann said. “The slamming of the dumpsters at 2 a.m., the vermin, the sound, the smell, all of that impacts a very low-income impacted neighborhood to begin with. You don’t choose to live beside a garbage facility unless it’s one of your only options.”

Data from DataHaven, a nonprofit organization that provides statistics on the Elm City by neighborhood, has some telling notes about the area. At 31 percent, Annex is tied for the highest percentage of its population being 18 or younger. The neighborhood has the second highest percentage of Latinx residents, and is in the bottom third for percentage of white residents. These kinds of factors, Reynolds said, stress why the situation is a justice issue — those traditionally overlooked by local government, and those most vulnerable, like children, are situated in a particularly dangerous spot.

In an email correspondence, Jonathan Murray, Murphy Road’s director of operations, did not comment on questions pertaining to residential impact, wet-waste use and regulation of the company.

Murray wrote, however, that he believes Murphy Road Recycling has been widely recognized as a leader in their industry. He continued, “We have established a long history of operating and maintaining a business that utilizes state-of-the-art technology and equipment in the communities we serve across Connecticut. We continue to not only meet, but often exceed and set, industry and environmental standards.”

But to Christmann, the fact that there are homes “right up against the property” is unusual to begin with, he said. The company has facilities across the state, but none of them are directly juxtaposed with residential neighborhoods. Instead, there are large wooden buffer zones separating the two areas. Cahn told me that she and EAC have asked the city if Murphy Road could move to a different location but, according to Cahn, officials said there are no other options.

That’s frustrating to Cahn and her fellow activists, who wonder why a non-water-dependent industrial plant would need to be on the water — because for them, the waterfront could be so much more.

IMAGINING THE WATERFRONT

At one point, Murphy had a public meeting and tour, which Cahn attended. She recalled walking out to the edge of the waterfront, and gazing across the river.

“When you go out to the end of the facility on the water, and you look across the river at the beautiful Kew Bridge, lit up at night, and the skyline of New Haven, you think of the possibilities for such a place,” she said. “Maybe there could be a riverfront walk, maybe there could be a park … and I realized that this area has a very long history of industrial use. And so at the moment, its uses are limited. But if we don’t start to plan for decades from now, we’re still going to be in the same position that we are in now.”

In collaboration with New Haven’s Urban Design League, Cahn and her council submitted a letter to the City Planning Department, requesting a coastal evaluation of all waterfront properties in New Haven. 

The letter said that as New Haven receives requests from developers in the waterfront area, “we need project review protocols and laws that support city and state goals for water-dependent uses and achieve a good balance among parks, nature preserves, the working-waterfront and residential life.” The letter included air quality, noise, safety and economic benefit among a list of factors to be included in the review process. 

Christmann is aware that progress is being made — Murphy won’t be able to submit another permit application until September after being rejected in January. Still, he dreams of a better future for the waterfront.

“New Haven’s waterway is underutilized,” he said. “The majority of it feels too industrial to be something that everyone has access to.”

Davis said while projects like the Murphy rejection are important for environmentalists, organizations like Save the Sound are always working, and there’s much more to be done on the waterfront. Specifically, Davis and her colleagues are working on a project to provide property owners with information on how they can prevent stormwater from carrying potential toxins from their property to the river.

“100 small projects can have the same impact as one big project,” she said. “Intervening at Wheeler Street was huge, and a huge win for the community, but making people aware of the impact of what happens on their lawn is also really important.”

Beyond the Murphy debacle, New Haven has many other environmental justice issues to attend to, and it’s going to take structural change to fix them — especially in communities like Annex and Fair Haven with higher proportions of people of color, Ozyck said

“[Environmental justice] is not just a one-and-done type of thing,” he continued. “It’s got to be an integrated process. And we don’t have that in New Haven right now.”