Sierra Club President: Albany Neighborhood An Example Of 'Environmental Racism'

Aug 19, 2016

At the conclusion of this week's town hall meeting at Albany's Ezra Prentice Homes, WAMC's Capital Region Bureau Chief Dave Lucas spoke with Aaron Mair, the National President of the 2.4-million member strong Sierra Club. Residents of the South End public housing complex heard from top environmental officials Wednesday evening, sharing their growing concerns about diesel truck traffic and the presence of nearby Global Partners, which transports Bakken crude oil by railroad tracks that buffer the apartments.

Mair sees the residents’ struggle with air and noise pollution at the expense of quality-of-life as a glaring example of what some call "environmental racism."

"As they're trying to facilitate getting oil from the bakken  fields to the market that they have to come to the port, and there's an immediate consequence. Residents who literally are on the fence line- there is a fence that separates them and the railroad tracks, a distance of approximately 30 to 40 feet.

You will find these residents are waking up all hours of the evening with the coupling and decoupling of the trains. But more importantly, the venting or what they call burping, when it comes to opening the tops of the hatches. They have no air conditioning so when they open their windows, benzene, you know raw benzene fumes are blowing into their homes.

The symptomatology of asthma and elevated respiratory illness is a major indicator that people are being impacted by this benzene. But unfortunately, when they did the analysis that allowed Global to expand here, Global in its permit application said that there was no environmental justice impacts, no environmental justice effects.

In fact they didn't even acknowledge that there was an environmental justice community here. So when we talk about environmental racism the fact that the application went forward without state, local or other officials flagging that, wait a minute. We know that this is one of the largest poor sections of the city and it's predominantly African-American. And we are already saturated with a lot of industrial facilities and tractor trailer facilities all around. How can there not be an environmental justice impact? But somehow this application got through."

Dave Lucas: "You sat through the whole meeting today. Now it's over. How do you we. Have we made any progress or are we going forward is this going to be a better resolution than we would have expected?"

"Well, two things. we're here because the community organizing the poorest of the poor communities, had organized and came together. And as you heard this process has been going on from permitting to where they are right now with new permits increased permits since 2011.

Contrast the response of government to this community vis a vis the PFOA issue over in Rensselaer County. How quick they were able to respond within the documentation of contamination of PFOA in groundwater. This has been dragging on for years.

And so even though we are seeing a response it is by no means a complete. Or a full response. Having officials talking about what the agencies can and do and what their limitations are what's not being talked about is that you know these laws are set up this way so the agencies really cannot be responsive. And here's the other piece: at the point in which this committee is trying to find out 'look what do we do relative to my air quality relative to my apartment relative to this train?' And they're saying well listen we're not the ones response we've got to go to the transportation authority and then we will have to make a special appeal to them.

How is that type of response or action going to be for the next child that has an asthma attack or the next adult that has some respiratory illness or some as they say some physical response to some fugitive emission. Unfortunately the issue of the complexity of who's in charge, which is really what is delineated here, these are the actionable responses to the immediate crisis that people are living with here daily, was totally missed.

And so there's a huge disconnect between what happens between now and the next incident or episode relative to somebody becoming ill as a result of, as I say, a fugitive release or a potential spill. Contacting and trying to assess whether it's the transportation authority EPA DOT or DEC, that kind of chain of command is not the instantaneous response people want and they want the same response as Hoosick Falls where people came in, they had a complaint. They wanted blood tests.. They did a work up. A lot of people were actually talking about that the air cause cancer. And again these folks don't really know that the risk of cancer is everybody carries it. The issue is what are the environmental triggers. And so what's not said is that there's no volunteering of the fact that their needs will be much more complicated epidemiological model testing for these residents here.

There is a toxic cocktail of emissions coming out of the port of Albany, and maybe no one piece is, as I say, a contributor to a cancer risk, but the combination of them may be a significant contributor. And we don't know how people's risk because everybody cares their burden or risk, and a child may not present it now but the child may present, you know, a cancer outbreak due to risks exposure right now.

So. What needs to be done is the health monitoring of this community. What needs to be done is a much more sophisticated analysis of the cumulative effects and the cumulative impact of layering in different classes of toxins and admissions here at the Port of Albany. The fact that people are saying that they come in and in moving into this area they have upper respiratory illness, and then when they move out they don't have it, is a clear indicator that much more sophisticated monitoring needs to be done. And granted you know, the soil may not be the case or the place where you want to test - you need to be honest with the people and say well look we need to have a real 360 response team down here of agencies to start really looking at what this community is facing."