West Side residents this week again urged government officials to include them in decisions about air quality by the Peace Bridge, presenting proposals to mitigate pollution, support heavily used health clinics and expand testing of harmful chemicals.
The press conference calling for government action coincided with an appeal for “environmental justice” in an area of the West Side that residents say is disproportionately minority, poor and sick.
The Buffalo News revealed last week that federal officials in 2012 considered shifting all truck traffic from the Peace Bridge to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, 21 miles north, because tests showed asthma rates in children in the area were four times the national average. Officials of the General Services Administration also were responding to President Obama’s directive in 2011 ordering federal agencies to work together to address environmental justice issues in poor neighborhoods.
“We are here today because we have been talking about solutions for years; we know we have an air quality problem; and it’s time you talked to us about solutions instead of around us,” said Natasha Soto, an organizer for the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York. She addressed her comments to government officials who she said are in lockstep with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in rushing forward a planned plaza expansion.
“We are extremely disappointed that none of our elected officials have stood on the side of the residents, and the side of improving air quality,” Soto said.
Among the Clean Air Coalition’s recommendations:
• Monitor the air in the summer months, test for ultrafine particulates, add more monitors and let the community have input in the study’s design.
• Enforce anti-truck idling laws by increasing enforcement on the plaza and side streets.
• Plant trees in locations to improve oxygen and act as buffers, and install a wall in high-traffic areas to buffer noise, bright lights and diesel fumes.
• Invest in asthma screenings and more funding for health clinics.
The group also urged that meetings be designed to foster meaningful community input, and be held with interpreters to allow the growing refugee population to participate.
“How are we going to reduce emissions? How are we gong to make the community cleaner? That’s what they need to talk to the community about,” said Edwin Martinez, who grew up in the Peace Bridge neighborhood and has family members still living there.
“We feel we have been excluded from this project from the beginning. No one is talking to the residents. No one is talking to the neighborhood. They’re just talking to themselves, and that is something we don’t want to see.”
Joe Gardella, a University at Buffalo chemistry professor, said the state Department of Transportation has been particularly dismissive toward the community.
“As a scientist and person who has worked on community environmental work for 20 years, and with federal and state agencies on every level, I find the DOT has completely ignored the community’s wishes in how they would like to participate. Time and again they have put barriers in the way. They failed miserably to address the issues of translation to make materials available so people can understand them, and it’s very clear they’re not interested,” Gardella said.
“We all know that this project is going to go forward. It’s all about money for the Peace Bridge Authority, and they can spend some money to help the community with the effects instead of denying that the effects are there.”