by Tom Ellis
ALBANY, NY: When we learned that US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator Judith Enck would be speaking in Albany the same evening Save the Pine Bush as the scheduled August dinner, SPB decided to cancel the dinner and hear Ms. Enck speak. On August 17, Ms. Enck, formerly of Albany, participated in a forum with the new NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) commissioner and residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes (EPH) on South Pearl Street. EPH residents live within 100 feet of railroad tracks parked at the Port of Albany that carry gassy oil from North Dakota to Albany where the oil is loaded on to ships for delivery to refineries.
Time will tell whether the mostly black residents who are slowly being poisoned by air pollution from oil trains, the port, Interstate 787 traffic, diesel trucks on Route 32 (South Pearl Street), nearby electric power plants, and living in a river valley subject to temperature inversions that trap air toxins in the lower atmosphere, will get any significant improvement in their dire situation as a result of this meeting.
Among those present were DEC commissioner Basil Seggos, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, former and current members of the Albany Common Council, many EPH residents and others including SPB members who crowded into the EPH community room.
Judith Enck said EPA has little jurisdiction over trains and pipelines. A fellow EPA representative said the US Coast Guard (USCG) has primary responsibility for emergency response at the Port of Albany and Hudson River. Mr. Seggos said he is “well aware” of what residents are going through and he had met on the prior evening with local officials. Three EPH residents described widespread health problems they, their neighbors and family experience. An epidemiologist spoke about a new health survey of EPH residents. Other EPH residents and the public also had an opportunity to speak.
Mayor Sheehan said, “We want to make sure we are responding to the needs of the Ezra Prentice Homes Community.” Willie White, executive director of AVillage Inc., said “we want to stop the diesel trucks on South Pearl Street.” He also demanded independently conducted air quality monitoring and rejection of both additional oil into the port and the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline. He said, “Our lives do matter…Our kids do not know what they are breathing” and “Treat us like we are human beings.”
Judith Enck said she made an unannounced walk through the EPH two years ago, saw how close the trains were to the houses, and then spoke to officials form the Federal Railroad Administration about her concerns. She said what is important are the children who inhale more air per pound of body weight than adults. She said EPA is committed to protecting all people but EPA has little legal authority over trains and pipelines. She said EPA (1) sent a letter to DEC in 2014 about the Global Partners (aka Global Companies LLC) air permit application and (2) issued a Notice of Violation to Global Partners on July 29 saying a new permit is required due to volatile organic compound emissions that rose above 40 tons annually when oil transport into the port greatly increased in recent years. She said EPA is not involved in the review of the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline.
Another EPA employee who works on emergency response, Doug Garbarini, said EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard share responsibility but the USCG has primary responsibility for the port and Hudson Rriver. He said EPA is researching emergency response for this locality and has identified key areas to be addressed. These plans would concern the first few hours of a response, and EPA has no direct authority over rail cars unless there is a spill. He said rail car domes are opened for inspection and repairs but not when the cars are being moved.
DEC commissioner Seggos said, “My job is to protect the health and welfare of the people of Albany” and “I take this seriously.” He said, “I am well aware of what you are going though” and “I am here to listen.” He said he met with local officials the day before and heard that we need enhanced air monitoring.
Preliminary results of a health survey in which 77 of 196 EPH households have so far participated were attached to the backside of the event program; the summary reported that 46.4 percent of residents have allergies or hay fever, 34.2 percent have asthma,, 9.2 percent respiratory disorders, 19.9 percent high blood pressure, and 18.4 percent rashes or other skin problems. Almost forty percent of those less than 18 years of age have asthma according to the survey which is a joint project of AVillage…Inc., and the Radix Center.
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said, “I think all of us were shocked by the health survey numbers. These are very surprising numbers.”
I was the first speaker not on the program allowed to comment. I said, “No one should be surprised by high asthma rates in this community. About twelve or fourteen years ago, the DEC held a public hearing on a proposed asphalt manufacturing plant in the South End at which the Giffen Elementary School nurse said asthma rates were high among Giffen students. DEC has lots of information in its files about the poor health of South End residents and DEC should have used this information to block the first Global Companies permit five years ago. Mr. Seggos: Please do not take this as a personal criticism. I know you are new at the job of DEC commissioner.”
The next speaker said, “I am incensed at what I hear today. This is life and death. Why are the governor and commissioner of health not here?”
After the meeting I spoke with commissioner Seggos who asked for more details about the public hearing I referred to. I told him what I remembered. He gave me his business card and I promised to send him the relevant transcript.
After the meeting I spoke with Judith Enck, whom I have known for more than 30 years. She reminded me of another rejected air toxics facility, a proposal medical waste incinerator at the port about 30 years ago.
Grace Nichols got the best response from Judith Enck during the meeting. Grace said there is a high disconnect between health problems in the neighborhood being worse than the national average and that fossil fuel operations that would worsen people’s health are being considered for the port. She asked why are we still expanding fossil fuel infrastructure when the climate change news is so bad.
Ms. Enck responded saying keep in mind that transporting oil by rail and pipes is legal. She mentioned the giant wildfires in California and the massive rains and flooding in Louisiana as evidence of climate change. She said, “We have a climate emergency.” She said she is a strong believer that people must advocate and pressure government to act and said, “When the people lead, the leaders follow.”
Three Ezra Prentice Homes residents spoke as part of the formal program. Deneen Carter-El, an EPH resident 20+ years, has had cancer three times and other continuing health problems, and is happy her children do not have health problems; she said smog in the air comes from all directions and the EPH should never have been built.
“I can jump out my window and land on a train,” said Susan Clay. She said there is constant noise, she has had nausea and headaches since the first of the five years she has lived at EPH but never before then. She said, “I used to be able to dance all night” but today can manage only two minutes. She said, “It is getting harder and harder to breathe.” She has congestive heart failure and is on five medications. Trucks on Route 32, which passes through EPH, “will not stop for pedestrians” including children, and said, “Every time I hear a train go ‘boom boom,’ I wonder if the train is blowing up.” She concluded saying, “A lot of people are dying here.”
Tammy Miller, another long time EPH resident, said, “It is hard for me to breathe…I smell lots of fumes at night…I live on borrowed time…I have lots of respiratory problems.”
Aaron Mair of the Sierra Club said, “We have a black community being poisoned” and “We need to take serious action.”
My sense is that serious action is what will not occur. Several EPH residents said they like living at EPH, that it is a great community despite all the health problems. The absence of the state and county health department officials at the meeting was noticed although they may not have been formally invited. Surely those agencies have considerable data in their files about the health of South End residents.
DEC commissioner Seggos said DEC will spend up to $500,000 to perform an enhanced diesel air monitoring study and create a committee with the community to spend any left over funds from the half-million. He said he heard (at the meeting the prior night) that “1000 trucks come through here daily” and of the flagrant traffic law violations. He announced the port will conduct a traffic study. He said the state can do little to control where trucks travel but will work with trucking companies to seek alternative routes.
Additional air monitoring will do little unless it is carried out correctly so that valid conclusions can be drawn. I question whether DEC has the expertise to perform these studies in the way they need to be done. EPA should be consulted and asked to provide advisory consultation on the design of the studies.
Mr Seggos said the NYS health commissioner will soon meet with community residents about their asthma. He said the state has little control over truck emissions and fuels and “we are seeking federal action” to lower these emission limits. He said the state is increasingly inspecting rail tracks and trains and conducting drills. He said, “There is little I can about the negative declaration.” He said he is seeking voluntary help to move the trains away from the community and said the DEC and governor “are here for you.”
The DEC commissioner was challenged during the Q&A by Environmental Advocates’ Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz, who said the governor and state legislature have delayed implementation of the diesel emission reduction act.. “It is time for full implementation,” he said, and asked the commissioner to commit now to full implementation. Mr. Seggos responded saying vehicles owned by the state are 80 percent compliant with the law but private state contractor vehicles “are not as good.” Seggos said DEC has asked the New York State Motor Truck Association (the state-wide truck lobby group) to get involved to voluntarily address some of the problems. Iwanowicz said, “It has been ten years. Do it.”
It is possible Mr. Seggos does not know the DEC’s and various governor’s long history of ignoring public health and helping polluters navigate the agency’s permitting process. Below are a few examples.
On February 26, 2003, DEC announced it had received an application from Tri-City Aggregates to construct an asphalt factory at 850 South Pearl Street. DEC scheduled no public hearings and set a March 28 deadline for public comments. DEC also determined the factory would have no significant environmental impact. Following public opposition, DEC extended the comment period until May 9 and scheduled a May 7 public hearing (which I referred to earlier). DEC has a transcript of the hearing. Almost 100 attended. I remember more than a few speakers were outraged that DEC had “tried to sneak it [approval of the project] under the radar.” Public pressure blocked the project.
At the 2003 public hearing, the Giffen School nurse, Susan Martin, said, “I work here, I see what the residents see. The air here — often smells of exhaust and chemicals. My office, which is on the street level of this building, every three or four days has to be completely wiped down because there is dust and dirt particles covering — a fine layer covering all the tables and the computer in my health clinic. We — all know that the exhaust, the chemicals and particles in the air are bad for your health. The people with asthma, heart disease and weakened immune systems get sick more often and more [severely] exposed to significant amounts of air pollution. At this school there are approximately seventy-eight children Pre-K through Six with asthma. Our asthma incident rate is approximately thirteen percent, which actually is not surprising for an urban, low income area where housing and pollution problems contribute to these high rates of asthma. There are Giffen children with asthma, who, despite medication and doctors visits, spend too many scary hours in Albany Medical Centers (sic) and emergency rooms because they can’t breath[e]. Air pollution triggers asthma attacks. Our suburban areas around us breath[e] a lot easier. Residents here should not have to breath[e] polluted air twenty-four/seven. This asphalt plant is going to add another layer of pollution from which local people can’t escape. We should not let this plant get built. D.E.C. has adopted a policy of environment justice, and we ask D.E.C. to protect this neighborhood from further air pollution and to allow a full review. We expect D.E.C. to deny this permit. Thank you.”
Numerous other speakers that evening thirteen years ago also spoke about air pollution and/or asthma negatively impacting people living in the South End of Albany.
Another example: Former DEC assistant commissioner Chris Amato spoke at the March 20, 2014 SPB dinner. His appearance came two months after Governor Andrew Cuomo called for a major cutting of state government regulations in his annual State of the State speech Mr. Amato discussed the still pending Global Companies application to install seven boilers at the Port of Albany to heat oil arriving from out West via rail so it can be more easily pumped on to ships to be sent to refineries.
Mr. Amato said Global Companies began bringing hydro-fracked oil from North Dakota to the Port of Albany in 2009 on trains of 80 to 100 cars. The following two paragraphs are part of my summary of what Chris Amato said at the March 20, 2014 SPB dinner. [See the May/June 2104 SPB newsletter for additional details.]
In 2011, Global sought DEC permits to double to 1.8 billion gallons the amount of oil arriving in Albany, saying falsely there would be no increase in rail transport. DEC began implementing its Environmental Justice (EJ) policy that is intended to protect communities of poverty and color who often bear the brunt of hazardous activities. DEC’s EJ policy requires an applicant to engage the community, develop a community participation plan, and have it approved by DEC. Global Co. told DEC that no community participation plan was needed and DEC said OK. DEC issued a negative declaration or ‘negdec’ allowing Global Co. to not prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), and in November 2012, issued permits allowing Global to double its crude oil shipments through Albany.
As with the first application, DEC notified Global Co. of the need to comply with the EJ policy, Global Co. said it was not necessary, and DEC said OK. In late January, the Earthjustice coalition sent DEC a letter reminding DEC of the requirement that Global comply with the EJ policy and prepare an EIS. DEC responded, ordering Global to prepare a public participation plan. DEC has issued a Notice of Complete Application despite Global Co’s application being incomplete due to the missing EJ Community Participation plan. DEC held a community meeting at the Giffen School on February 12.
In a June 2, 2014 letter, DEC threatened opponents of the Port of Albany oil burner project with legal action if they persisted in legally challenging the proposal. DEC wrote that “we reserve the right to seek sanctions.”
Final thoughts: Clearly the way many governors and state legislatures have allowed DEC to operate for many years is a huge part of the problem Ezra Prentice Homes’ residents face. DEC repeatedly violates and assists or allows others to violate state laws and its own regulations hoping the public will not notice. DEC pretends to not know what is in its own files. Was what Susan Martin said in 2003 shared with the state and county health departments, and if not, why not? DEC waits until issues boil over before it springs into action. DEC acts like the Sargent Shultz character in the old Hogan’s Heroes television series who often said, “I see nothing…I know nothing.” DEC refuses to use or acknowledge that it has considerable regulatory authority to reject and revoke permits. DEC refuses to learn from its long-standing mistakes or acknowledge that many of its decisions are not science-based but political. When it comes to pollution prevention, DEC is often a disgrace despite having many excellent employees who want to do the right thing. DEC allows people including children to be slowly but surely poisoned — murdered. We cannot have this. We need competent, pro-active, honest government that truly protects the public health and the environment.
Published in September/October 2016
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