Air Pollution in Albany’s South End

ALBANY, NY: On November 6, I attended a combined NYS DEC and NYS DOH community meeting about a study they did concerning the health of Albany South End residents. About fifty attended at the Albany Housing Authority office on South Pearl Street.

The just-completed study looked at hospitalization rates of South End residents compared to (1) the county as a whole and (2) Arbor Hill/West Hill. The information was not very useful to South End and Ezra Prentice Homes (EPH) residents, nor, in my view, and, many of them, was it designed to be useful to them.

When challenged by Dominick Calsolaro and, his first ward Albany Common Council successor, Dorcey Applyrs, to make it relevant and meaningful, DEC and DOH staff struggled. Albany County Health Commissioner Elizabeth Whalen said South End residents’ hospitalization rates for asthma and other ailments could be reduced if the residents took better care of their health by utilizing programs offered by the county health department. Her emphasis was that health outcomes, defined as hospitalization rates, are within the ability of local residents to improve, should they choose to avail themselves to information and programs offered by the county. I am sure this is true. However, residents would like to see an improvement in air quality and their overall health they believe is being severely impacted by the many overlapping pollution sources in their community. Several residents called for a soil survey to be conducted.

Government officials had little or nothing to offer short-term. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, said 80% of South Pearl Street through traffic is local. She is having city-owned and operated Government officials had little or nothing to offer short-term. Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, said 80% of South Pearl Street through traffic is local. She is having city-owned and operated trucks avoid EPH streets to the maximum extent possible. State government officials said, that, as a result of information gathered in the study, they are recommending the diversion of truck traffic through Port of Albany roads to get them off South Pearl Street, and to gradually convert trucks statewide to use reduced quantities of diesel fuel, but acknowledged this will take years to do. To her credit, Mayor Sheehan told the listeners, “We are not here with the answers.” DEC Deputy Commissioner Jared Snyder said measured air pollution is below US EPA limits but still too high and unacceptable to DEC. A “long-run solution” will occur, he said, when we as a society move away from fossil fuels. He insisted, “We are taking steps to reduce pollution in the community.”

I spoke near the end of the meeting. I said, let’s assume all the traffic and vehicle proposals being offered here by state and local governments, are successfully implemented. Will the asthma rates of South End residents be reduced? Will the asthma rates of South End first-graders ten years from now be one-half of what they are now? Patricia Fritz of NYS DOH replied with we don’t know what causes asthma, lowering pollution will help, we have no standard for ultra-fine particles, and individual efforts would help. Dr. Whalen also replied. She said the data presented in the study was for asthma hospitalization rates, asthma can be managed to some extent, and it is not easy to discuss how to reduce asthma incidence as it is asthma hospitalization rates.

Earlier, Gary Ginsberg, who heads the NYS DOH Environmental Health Center, said it is not easy to determine if there is an immediate health impact from these exposures. He added the exposures do create an increased risk.

Dominick Calsolaro asked: What is the cumulative impact of all these pollutants? and When will the state declare a state of emergency? These questions were not answered. A Warren County man said ill health in the South End is caused by generations of exposures.

Near the end of the meeting, Peter Iwanowicz of Environmental Advocates, asked the health officials if they would live in the South End. DEC’s Jared Snyder eventually said “that from an air quality perspective, there is no reason why people should not live there.”

After the meeting ended, Patricia Fritz told me asthma incidence is really complex and sometimes confounds heath professionals.

Other observations: I think state and local environmental and health officials know for sure that bad air quality and other pollutants contribute heavily to both disease incidence and hospitalization rates among South End residents, that this has been obvious for decades, and, government, at all levels, has allowed and facilitated the poisoning of residents. Finally, had South End residents not complained loudly in recent years, state and local governments would have said and done nothing, and allowed the pollution onslaught to continue and possibly worsen in the coming years.

Even with all the truck and traffic changes state and local governments have promised to implement, air quality in the South End may remain poor over the long run for many reasons. These include the continued heavy truck traffic to and from the Dunn landfill in Rensselaer, continued busy operations and a looming expansion at the Port of Albany, and heavy I-787 traffic. New threats include the proposed BioHiTech municipal waste processing facility just across the river in Rensselaer on the old BASF site, and the proposed giant Amazon warehouse in Schodack, both of which would likely bring additional truck traffic through the South End. Finally, the South End is located in the bottom of a river valley subject to temperature inversions that trap dirty air near the ground.

South End residents would like to experience real improvements soon in their quality of life. Can and will government make it happen? I remain doubtful.

Published in December 2019/Jauary 2020
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