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War and Peace Bridge

Hospitalizations for asthma on Buffalo's West Side between 1995 and 2000, according to data from Kaleida Health, as cited in a study performed by Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa. The square represents the Peace Bridge plaza.

“You know about the War of 1812,” Tim Tielman told the preservation-minded crowd at a recent meeting in the Kavinoky Theater. “Well, I’m here to announce the War of 2012,” he stated, referring to projected augmented efforts this summer in opposition to the Peace Bridge plaza expansion idea, which would involve demolition of a number of homes and other buildings on Busti Avenue, including two locally landmarked structures.

The announcement by Governor Andrew Cuomo here last week that New York State would exercise its eminent domain powers to expedite the plaza expansion plan and demolish the Busti Avenue structures perhaps as soon as by June would seem to decree an early end to the War of 2012.

Tielman, executive director of the preservationist Campaign for Greater Buffalo History, Architecture & Culture, doesn’t think so. “We just don’t think it’s legal,” he said, referring to a number of issues related to the plaza expansion plan, most notably the demolition of landmarked structures—the landmarked buildings in question are the 1860s-era Colonel S. H. Wilkinson house at 771 Busti, and the now abandoned Episcopal Church Home chapel at the north end of the proposed expansion site—but also the demolition of any structures without appropriate pre-demolition environmental review.

An even bigger issue related to the proposed plaza expansion has to do with sickness and health. The health issue is based on a series of studies conducted by epidemiologist Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, M.D., Ph.D., over the past decade on regional air quality and the prevalence of asthma, and a study (published in 2011, based on testing performed in 2005 and 2006) by a team of Harvard scientists, all in all indicating links between asthma levels on the West Side two to three times those found in surrounding communities and air pollutants from Peace Bridge traffic, no doubt mainly from diesel trucks.

In the course of his studies, Lwebuga-Mukasa developed a map of the Buffalo area with individual black dots indicating identified asthma cases. The individual dots coalesce into a zone of virtually solid black on the West Side in the area around the Peace Bridge.

Lwebuga-Mukasa’s series of studies found or suggested that proximity to the Peace Bridge plaza was associated with increased asthma risk. The Harvard study used a wide variety of testing procedures to gather data on microscopic particulate matter and a laundry list of chemical pollutants including elements, compounds adhering to particulate matter, and free gases, upwind and downwind of the Peace Bridge plaza. Results varied for the various sampling procedures and data comparisons, but often showed higher levels of pollutants downwind than upwind of the Peace Bridge plaza, and the overall conclusion of the study was that traffic at the plaza was a source for these higher levels.

(One of the major stated objectives of the Harvard study was to develop criteria to define the somewhat scientifically nebulous concept of “so-called hot spots,” namely, “areas where concentrations of one or more air toxics are expected to be elevated.” The study did not accomplish that objective. The study peer reviewers continued to quibble about what might constitute a “hot spot.” They also noted that some of the pollutant levels found in the Peace Bridge area study were comparable to levels found in studies in three other American cities, namely New York City, Houston, and Los Angeles—none of which places is particularly famous for its pristine air quality, however.)

In addition, a 2009 study conducted by Buffalo Public Schools nurses in seven schools on the West Side identified asthma cases among the schoolchildren as high as 30 percent (220 students with asthma out of a total school enrollment of 721) at PS #30 (21 Lowell Place), and 23 percent (149 out of 653) at PS #3 (at the corner of Niagara Street and Porter Avenue). The asthma percentages in the other schools in the study ranged from five to 10 percent, which numbers are in line with national averages.

(Lwebuga-Mukasa’s studies focused on asthma. The Harvard study did not target any specific disease but was about air pollutants. But there is also anecdotal evidence of high cancer rates in the Peace Bridge area, possibly also related to diesel exhaust from the Peace Bridge complex. There are other studies from other places linking diesel exhaust and cancer.)

The Public Bridge Authority that operates the Peace Bridge has a different take on much or all of this. The PBA points out that over the past decade or so it has added and reconfigured facilities—and that the proposed plaza expansion would amount to more of the same—to expedite the movement of bridge traffic and shorten truck residence times at the bridge complex, and thus mitigate air pollution problems. The reconfigurations and additions include the relocation of toll booths to the Canadian side, and additional truck inspection booths on the American side. Also, addition of an x-ray facility to allow many trucks to be inspected that way, rather than held up, usually idling, for full off-loading inspection.

They also note that since 2006, truck drivers must give pre-notification of their arrival at the bridge and arrive with prepared paperwork, and mention a program providing for pre-approved trucks and shipments, and expedited clearance for drivers.

And they point to new EPA rules in 2006 mandating reduction of sulfur in diesel fuel from 500 to 15 parts per million, and in 2010 requiring catalytic converters and particulate traps for diesels, supposedly resulting in dramatic reductions in particulates and other pollutants. “There is simply no comparison between air quality [impacts of Peace Bridge activities] today and what it was only a few years ago,” PBA general manager Ron Rienas has written.

Possibly. Meanwhile, the studies are the studies. And a lot of children (and adults) are sick. And landmarked buildings and other otherwise viable buildings—except that they have been abandoned and allowed to deteriorate for the past 10 or 15 years under the threat of demolition by the PBA—are actually, perhaps, to be demolished.

And really why? By all reports, the proposed expansion is for a bigger duty free store and parking, particularly for diesel trucks, for the duty free operation. Introducing the diesel trucks and air pollutants—not to mention noise—deeper into the residential neighborhood. The remainder of the neighborhood, that is. The truckers, perhaps related to the frequency and regularity of their bridge crossings, turn out to be a regular customer base of the duty free store.

The duty free store is a private operation. The PBA in 2010 (the most recent year for which the financial report is final) received $6.6 million duty free rental fees (versus revenues of $15.2 million from commercial vehicle tolls, $6.8 million passenger vehicle tolls, and $3 million other rental fees).

Meanwhile, there’s a much better way, clearly it would seem. Truck traffic on the Peace Bridge wasn’t always what it is now. The commercial traffic volume took off in the NAFTA era, beginning in 1993. So this is NAFTA commerce, and the vast majority of the cargo, maybe as much as 98 percent, is not for local destinations, but just passing through here, headed for distant points south, east, and west. There’s no noticeable economic impact here from the traffic passing through, other than maybe in Peace Bridge tolls and for the duty free operation. So what would make much greater sense economically, ecologically, in efficiency terms, would be shipment by rail, crossing at the existing railroad bridge about a mile north of the Peace Bridge, or equivalent, if it was ever decided to rebuild or replace that bridge. But nobody in power or authority—from Cuomo all the way down—seems to want to talk about that solution, that would be cheaper, easier, more efficient, and infinitely less disruptive of a local community. Astounding.

Even more astounding. Nobody in power or authority seems to want to talk—or even know—about an apparent health crisis.

“The governor has no idea how big the health problem is on the West Side,” according to former city councilman and state senator Al Coppola, who has long been vitally interested in health effects and other issues related to the Peace Bridge and the proposed plaza expansion. “I’m sure if the governor’s children lived in the area, he’d be concerned about them. He wouldn’t be pushing this thing the way he is.”

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