WASHINGTON — Con- cerned that truck fumes are making children on Buffalo’s West Side sick with asthma, U.S. government officials in 2012 briefly considered implementing what one federal supervisor called a “possible win/win solution”: Barring commercial truck traffic from the Peace Bridge and moving it all to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge 21 miles to the north.
“Under this plan, the Peace Bridge would only be used for passenger vehicles,” Madeline C. Caliendo, associate administrator in the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. General Services Administration, the government’s property management agency, said in an August 2012 email to a colleague.
While conceding that implementation of the plan would have been hugely difficult, some GSA officials believed it could be done because the agency leases facilities from the Peace Bridge Authority for use by customs agents – and could move those truck-processing customs facilities to Lewiston.
What’s more, several other federal agencies – including the White House Council on Environmental Quality – appeared eager to be part of the effort.
But that effort didn’t last long, thanks to Denise L. Pease, the head of the GSA’s New York office.
“This is a SENSITIVE regional project,” Pease said in her response to Caliendo. The emails show that Pease less than three weeks earlier had been told of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plans to expand the Peace Bridge plaza.
Six days later, Caliendo killed the notion of removing trucks from the Peace Bridge in an email that said any efforts to address “environmental justice” issues at the Peace Bridge were premature.
The plan to bar truck traffic from the Peace Bridge was spelled out in emails The Buffalo News obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests filed with six federal agencies as well as from other sources.
Neighborhood activists in the West Side neighborhood near the Peace Bridge have long opposed plans to expand the truck plaza, fearing that would bring more trucks and more air pollution.
And the emails show that those neighborhood activists are not alone in worrying about the childhood asthma rate in their community, which is nearly four times higher than the national average, according to studies using data collected in 2005 and 2006, .
“It is my understanding that studies have been done, which show elevated levels of asthma in that neighborhood that is directly linked to diesel fumes,” Caliendo said in that same August 2012 email where she outlined the effort to Pease. “Many members of this community are minority and low income.”
Those emails The News obtained also tell a winding tale involving several federal agencies where good intentions seem intertwined with secrecy.
Officials at the agencies originally embraced moving the trucks from the Peace Bridge, thinking it fit neatly into President Obama’s plans to make environmental justice and childhood asthma top priorities. But those same officials seemed so bent on keeping their plan secret that neither the local bridge authorities nor New York State nor the Canadian government knew about it until told by The Buffalo News last week.
What’s more, the officials involved appear to have dismissed an alternative plan to preclear truck traffic on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge that was already in the works.
News of this effort – which could be told only after the GSA responded to a long-delayed Freedom of Information Act request on Jan. 16 – comes just days before a Jan. 28 deadline for public comment on the environmental impact of the state’s current plans to reconfigure the ramps leading to and from the Peace Bridge.
With that deadline approaching, Kathleen R. Mecca, the West Side activist who has led the fight against an expanded Peace Bridge plaza, said it’s time to consider abandoning the state’s plans.
“The federal government, if only for a moment, thought that moving the trucks off the bridge was a viable alternative to bringing a solution to the public health crisis in this neighborhood,” said Mecca, who first discussed the abandoned federal effort with The News a year ago. “That alternative has to be put back on the table. It can’t be buried. To leave us high and dry is callous and cruel.”
Bridge visit starts effort
That effort to move all trucks to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge had its roots in a July 2012 meeting that Mecca and Elizabeth Martina, another West Side activist, had with Peter C. Rizzo, a senior planner at the GSA.
Rizzo – whom several sources said is a Buffalo-area native – was in town and preparing a training course for GSA officials on environmental conflict resolution. Rizzo did not respond to requests for comment, but Mecca and Martina said his training course focused on the failed attempt to build a new Peace Bridge and the community opposition that plan had stirred.
At their meeting, Mecca and Martina introduced Rizzo to Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, a University at Buffalo researcher who has studied asthma problems on the West Side. Then they led Rizzo on a walking tour of the neighborhood on a balmy day when the air was filled with truck fumes.
“It was at that time that he started choking,” Mecca said.
Martina recalls Rizzo burying his face in his shirt to protect himself from the truck fumes and noting that his concern now stretched beyond preparing his training course.
“He told us he would bring this issue back to Washington and talk about it,” Martina said.
The emails show that Rizzo did just that, sending his superiors census data on the Peace Bridge neighborhood as well as research detailing the asthma problems there.
• A 2011 Harvard study found that truck traffic at the bridge “could result in an area of elevated pollutant concentrations that shifts with changing wind conditions.”
• An earlier University at Buffalo study found four “asthma clusters” – with the city’s highest asthma rates – near the Peace Bridge between 1996 and 2000.
• Another UB study found that fewer neighborhood residents sought treatment for respiratory problems when truck traffic over the Peace Bridge plummeted following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
That research is woefully out of date, said Ron Rienas, general manager of the Peace Bridge Authority. And it doesn’t take into account a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency study that shows widespread reductions in diesel emissions nationwide, which would surely occur at the Peace Bridge as well, he said.
But the Peace Bridge asthma research struck a chord at the GSA. On Aug. 7, 2012, K. Evelyn Britton of the GSA’s Office of Civil Rights sent Rizzo an email saying: “Madeline agrees we need to meet.”
That meant Caliendo, one of the GSA’s top department heads, was suddenly interested in Buffalo.
After that meeting, Rizzo approached several officials from different agencies to address Peace Bridge pollution as a potential environmental justice issue.
GSA officials had good reasons to think they stood on firm ground. In 2011, President Obama ordered federal agencies to work together to address environmental justice issues plaguing poor neighborhoods.
And led by Caliendo, GSA itself had laid out an environmental justice strategy in February 2012 that said: “GSA has committed to eliminating its impact on the environment and using its government-wide influence to eliminate the environmental impact of the federal government – for the benefit of all populations, including minority and low-income populations.”
On top of that, in May 2012, Obama launched a federal action plan aimed at reducing the high asthma rates common in low-income minority communities.
In light of all those mandates, “GSA feels it’s necessary to look into this air quality and health issue facing the low-income, minority community living adjacent to the CBP (Customs and Border Protection) inspection plaza” at the Peace Bridge, Rizzo wrote to several federal officials Aug. 10, 2012. Three days later, officials from GSA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development met to discuss the West Side’s asthma problems with Lwebuga-Mukasa, the UB researcher behind many of the studies of the situation.
“In terms of potential solutions, one suggestion was discussed at length” at the meeting, the GSA said in meeting notes that were issued afterward. “It involved transferring CBP commercial truck processing operations from the Peace Bridge to the nearby Lewiston-Queenston Bridge in Lewiston, N.Y.”
That’s not a new idea. Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera has raised it in the past, as did a state commission that briefly considered merging the Peace Bridge Authority with the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission.
In an interview, Lwebuga-Mukasa said that at the meeting in Washington, he dismissed the idea of preclearing trucks on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge, saying fumes from those trucks would continue to drift over to Buffalo’s West Side.
As an alternative, he said he raised the idea of removing truck traffic from the Peace Bridge.
And suddenly, the idea seemed welcome at the highest levels of the federal government.
“We’ll be in touch shortly to discuss how the EJ IWG (Environmental Justice Inter-Agency Working Group) may be able to assist GSA with this matter,” Diana A. Csank, of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told Rizzo in an Aug. 20 email.
Two days later, Sandra N. Howard, senior environmental health adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services, signaled her agency’s interest in the effort.
“Both HHS Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius and EPA Administrator (Lisa) Jackson have expressed their strong support for collaborative approaches to reducing asthma disparities in children,” Howard wrote. “There is broad support for collaborative efforts on childhood asthma.”
None of the emails from any of the agencies asks the blunt question: Was this idea realistic?
Here and there, though, officials involved in the plan conceded that huge obstacles could doom any plan to move trucks off the Peace Bridge. Those obstacles ranged from cost to bureaucratic complexity to politics – which was such a great concern that the people behind the plan opted to keep it secret.
The cost concerns stem in part from the fact that the plan would require that several additional truck inspection lanes be built at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, the GSA said in its meeting notes.
In addition, the move also would mean that the Peace Bridge Authority would lose millions of dollars in toll revenues annually – a loss that might necessitate a revenue-sharing agreement between the Peace Bridge Authority and the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, those notes said.
Told of the prospective move last week, Lew Holloway, the general manager of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, raised other possible problems. Increased truck traffic on the Grand Island bridges could require improvements there, he said.
And since the fledgling plan raised the possibility of barring passenger vehicle traffic at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge at peak times, Holloway said that could mean passenger vehicle backups at the other bridges between Canada and Western New York, as well as truck backups in Lewiston.
Then there were practical, jurisdictional concerns.
“We do not have control over operations in Canada,” meaning that Canada could decide to continue processing trucks crossing into that nation at the Peace Bridge, the GSA said in those meeting notes.
And to top it all off, at least one official at the Department of Homeland Security warned that moving trucks off the Peace Bridge would be very complicated.
“I am not sure what the requirements would be – in fact, I think it would involve many more parties than DHS/CBP,” Teresa R. Pohlman, director of Occupational Safety and Environmental Programs at Homeland Security, said in an August 2012 email. “This is a question of commerce, international issues, etc., which we do not have sole jurisdiction.”
And perhaps because Lwebuga-Mukasa dismissed the idea, the emails make no mention of the fact that the Department of Homeland Security at the time was working with the Canadian government on a pilot project that will allow many U.S.-bound cargo trucks to be precleared on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge. Intended to speed traffic and prevent the idling of trucks in Buffalo, that pilot project is set to take effect in the coming weeks.
“Pre-inspection is a pretty big deal,” said Rienas, the Peace Bridge manager, who was mystified that the federal officials involved in the environmental justice effort ignored it. “It’s as if the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”
As if those were not obstacles enough, Cuomo on Aug. 4, 2012, announced plans for an expanded customs house – which GSA would lease from the Peace Bridge Authority – as well as the state’s acquisition of two blocks of Busti Avenue for use to expand the truck plaza.
“The progress we are making on the construction at the Peace Bridge Plaza here in Buffalo proves that government on all levels is working for New Yorkers,” Cuomo said at the time in a press release that the governor’s office emailed to Pease, the GSA’s top official in New York.
Apparently also knowing of Cuomo’s interest in improving the plaza, other federal officials treaded carefully as they explored the possible removal of truck traffic from the Peace Bridge.
“I would like to avoid involving any local or state government folks at this time for political reasons,” Rizzo wrote to a colleague at HUD on Aug. 21, 2012.
Sunaree K. Marshall, a HUD official who was involved in the effort, agreed. After another HUD employee suggested involving the New York State Department of Health in the effort to move trucks off the bridge, Marshall replied in an Aug. 21 email: “I think we prefer not to involve the State at this time. It’s a bit complicated.”
Keeping the secret
The idea of keeping the plan secret worked like a charm, sort of.
“It’s all news to me,” said Rienas, the Peace Bridge general manager and a Canadian, when told of the plan last week.
Sam Hoyt, Cuomo’s top economic development official in Western New York and the chairman of the Peace Bridge Authority board in August 2012, agreed.
“I know absolutely nothing about any multi-agency effort,” he said. “They kept that pretty secret.”
A Cuomo administration official in Albany said no one from the governor’s office had heard about the plan until last week, either – and that no one from the Cuomo administration had ever approached anyone from the GSA about it.
Similarly, Roxane Marchand, a spokeswoman for Transport Canada, said: “Transport Canada is not aware of a potential U.S. initiative to have commercial truck traffic removed from the Peace Bridge."
Then again, maybe the GSA officials kept their plans a little too secret.
As federal officials were preparing to meet a second time to discuss the effort, Caliendo – the associate administrator at GSA ‑ on Aug. 23 sent an email to Pease, the top GSA official in New York, touting what she called “a possible win/win solution” to the heavy truck traffic flow and the resulting high asthma rates at the Peace Bridge.
“This solution would be to redirect truck traffic from the Peace Bridge to another nearby bridge,” Caliendo said in the email, in which she also credited Rizzo with leading the inter-agency effort.
Hearing that, Pease – who had received Cuomo’s press release touting his Peace Bridge plans less than three weeks earlier – erupted.
“Thank you for letting me know but hope that you understand that I am taken aback,” Pease replied on that very same day. “This is a SENSITIVE regional project. While I respect the importance of your mission, I am disturbed to read that a member of the GSA team is having meetings and discussions without involving the region.”
In response, on Aug. 24 Caliendo ordered Rizzo to postpone the next scheduled meeting on the effort. And five days later, Caliendo pulled the plug on the fledgling environmental justice effort – in an email that included Cuomo’s press release on his Peace Bridge plaza expansion as an attachment.
“GSA’s role at the Peace Bridge is limited to leasing office space and inspection booths on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Customs and Border Protection,” Caliendo wrote to 22 people at the eight agencies involved in the environmental justice effort on Aug. 29, 2012.
“GSA is not a party to the operation of this property and this potential environmental justice matter does not speak to any GSA project or action taking place or set to take place at the Peace Bridge,” Caliendo added. “Therefore, initiating an inter-agency effort related to the Peace Bridge on GSA’s behalf is premature at best.”
Still, Caliendo’s reversal took the other agencies involved in the effort by surprise.
“While I understand GSA’s feeling that their actions in the Peace Bridge area are not in and of themselves causing the air pollution issues plaguing the West Side neighborhood in Buffalo, I welcomed their leadership on this issue as I believe it spoke to the reason why we have an Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice,” Marshall, of HUD, said in an email.
GSA disputes its role
Caliendo, like the other GSA officials quoted in the emails, did not respond to requests to comment.
But in an emailed reply to questions posed by The Buffalo News, GSA spokesman Dan Cruz essentially said the agency had no business launching the inter-agency effort to address pollution problems at the Peace Bridge.
“GSA’s role at this time was to conduct an environmental review of the warehouse lease renewal, not to evaluate the Peace Bridge Authority’s overall long-term plan to expand the Peace Bridge Plaza,” Cruz said.
And despite Caliendo’s full-throated early support for the Peace Bridge effort, Cruz tried to pin responsibility for the effort on Rizzo’s shoulder’s.
“Madeline Caliendo’s understanding at the time was that Peter Rizzo was acting in his official capacity with his actions,” Cruz said. “She later learned that he was in fact acting unilaterally and his actions were not part of his official duties.”
In her emails, though, Caliendo seems fully aware of Rizzo’s official duties.
“Peter Rizzo … is an environmental conflict resolution specialist. Peter is also a member of GSA’s Environmental Justice Working Group,” Caliendo said in a 2012 email.
No matter what the GSA says now, it’s clear the collapse of the effort to remove trucks from the Peace Bridge left bitter feelings all around.
When Rizzo told Mecca, the Buffalo neighborhood activist, that the effort had been killed, “my heart fell,” Mecca said.
“It just broke,” she said.
Rizzo didn’t seem very happy, either.
“They are throwing me under the bus,” Rizzo said in an email to colleagues as the inter-agency effort was collapsing.
Meanwhile, Marshall, of HUD, wrote an email to colleagues at the EPA that said: “My understanding of the issue is that it is the current operations of the Peace Bridge, not just the potential expansion, that is causing environmental justice issues … I am a bit disappointed that GSA has backed off of this, but perhaps DHS will pick up the mantle.”
For his part, though, Martin J. Nee, a top environmental official at HUD, said he was not surprised that GSA pulled the rug out from under the inter-agency effort.
“Realpolitik 101,” he said in an Aug. 29, 2012, email to a colleague. “Did not think that an agency as bureaucratically hidebound as GSA would lead a revolt against the New York governor. For what it’s worth, Mr. Rizzo has my respect for sticking his neck out for what he believed.”