WASHINGTON – Today will be the last day to comment on an Environmental Impact Statement for new ramps to and from the Peace Bridge despite calls from environmentalists and lawmakers for an extended comment period and despite a Buffalo News report on Sunday that questioned whether the study fully complied with environmental laws.
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said on Monday that the comment deadline will not be pushed back. Azzopardi did not explain the decision, but Cuomo administration officials have long maintained Buffalo has already waited too long for Peace Bridge improvements.
That comment drew a sharp response from Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.
“The people of the West Side will pay for this project with their health,” said Heaney, whose group contends that truck diesel fumes are responsible for high asthma rates in the neighborhood. “An extra thirty days is an extremely reasonable request. The Governor is on the wrong side of this issue.”
The decision to stick with the Jan. 28 deadline flies in the face of a resolution passed by the Buffalo Common Council last week requesting that the deadline be pushed back to Feb. 28.
In addition, a key supporter of the ramp project – Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – said Sunday that he was comfortable with extending the deadline in light of revelations in Sunday’s Buffalo News.
The News reported that the U.S. General Services Administration in 2012 briefly considered an environmental justice effort that might have moved truck traffic off the Peace Bridge and to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in hopes of addressing the asthma problem in Buffalo.
The News also questioned whether a more thorough environmental review was necessary for an expanded customs facility the GSA is leasing from the Peace Bridge Authority, and whether it was proper for separate environmental reviews to be done on the ramps and the customs facilities.
Federal regulations prohibit the “segmenting” or “piecemealing” of the environmental reviews for government projects.
But Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority, said separate environmental reviews are permissible in this case because the two projects are not connected in any way and are being managed by different entities.
Told that the comment deadline on the state-led Gateway Connections Improvement Project would not be extended, Kathleen R. Mecca, the neighborhood activist who has been leading the fight against air pollution in the neighborhood, was livid.
“How can they not extend it?” she said. “Isn’t this the act of a heavy-handed bully?” she asked, referring to Cuomo.
Mecca questioned why the governor’s office would respond to questions about the environmental impact statement when the State Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration are completing that document.
Azzopardi, of the governor’s office, did not respond to a request for comment on the governor’s role in deciding to stick with the original comment deadline.