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Investigative Post: Clearing the Air

Neighbors, activists, elected officials discuss the next round of air quality tests at the Peace Bridge

State environmental officials have been mum for two months about their plans for a second round of air monitoring at the Peace Bridge after they misrepresented the flawed first round of testing.

In the face of that silence, community activists and a key lawmaker who represents the neighborhood near the Peace Bridge agree that the Department of Environmental Conservation needs to take a different approach.

“There’s a lot of distrust here,” said Assemblyman Sean Ryan. “We need to bridge the distrust. I think we bridge it by having more honest and open communication and less gamesmanship.”

The DEC should let residents and community groups help design the second round of air testing and the results should be reviewed by a panel of independent experts, he said.

The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York wants the DEC to allow for meaningful community input similar to how it handled air testing that exposed Tonawanda Coke for releasing illegal amounts of carcinogens into nearby neighborhoods.

“We definitely lost a lot of trust with the DEC in the last round, but we remain hopeful that the DEC can still play a useful role here,” said Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition.

Kathy Mecca, president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association, said that rather than conducting more tests, the DEC and other state officials should acknowledge the validity of independent local research. Those studies—the most recent in 2006—found a link between bridge traffic, particularly diesel truck fumes, and high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses in neighborhood residents.

“We don’t need another debate about air quality at the Peace Bridge,” Mecca said. “There are conclusive studies worldwide that link diesel emissions to public health.”

Flawed first effort

The DEC announced in August 2012 that it would test air quality near the Peace Bridge before the state Department of Transportation redesigns the system of roads and ramps leading to and from the bridge on the American side. At that time, the DEC said it would launch a second phase of testing after the project was completed to determine if pollution levels decreased.

The testing ended 10 months ago and the results were released this fall. Investigative Post subsequently interviewed numerous experts who raised concerns with the way the testing was conducted and the conclusion the agency made in the press release announcing the results.

The first round of monitoring by the DEC ran from August 31, 2012 to March 17, 2012. The results showed air quality met federal standards, but an analysis by Investigative Post found the testing period skipped the summer months when bridge traffic increases by one-third.

Although DEC officials said they didn’t believe testing in the summer months would impact the final outcome, past research contradicts their statements. For example, the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit independent research organization that receives half of its funds from the EPA and half from the motor vehicle industry, tested the air near the Peace Bridge in 2005 and 2006. That work found that the chief pollutant the DEC tested for was 45 percent higher in July 2005 when compared with results from the winter months.

HEI also tested for more than 100 pollutants, such as benzene and ultrafine particles. Some experts believe ultrafine particles, which are a thousand times smaller than the particles the DEC measured, pose more danger to residents with asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Therefore, experts said the testing was not a complete representation of the numerous air pollutants that can impact health.

Still, the DEC issued a news release October 9 that concluded, “the data suggest that there are no significant differences between air quality in the plaza neighborhood and in the City of Buffalo overall.”

Investigative Post determined the DEC had no testing results to compare Peace Bridge air with except for two spots deemed among the most polluted in the region. One is located alongside the Thruway near the Buffalo-West Seneca border; the other is near chemical plants in Niagara Falls.

The testing showed air quality near the Peace Bridge was practically the same as those two locations.

The DEC, when pressed by Investigative Post, admitted its conclusion was a “mistake.”

Two days after the Investigative Post published its story, the DEC agreed to expand the air monitoring program.

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a November 15 statement that the second phase would involve more than two air monitoring locations and include the summer months. The department has not released any further details about the testing and spokesmen for both DEC and governor refused interview requests.

“Let’s do honest testing”

Perhaps the most surprising advocate for the DEC taking a different approach to the air testing is Ryan, an ally of Cuomo who has supported the governor on Peace Bridge matters. He is also politically aligned with Sam Hoyt, the governor’s pointman in Western New York who has lead the charge locally to expend the bridge plaza.

“I want to bring the scientific community, the DEC, and the activists together to say ‘What kind of testing do we want?’” Ryan said.

“Let’s do honest testing, but everyone needs to come to the table. Once those tests come in, we all have to live with the results,” he said.

The Buffalo Democrat said he has approached the Peace Bridge Authority to pay for a peer review of the DEC’s second round of air testing. But Peace Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas said Ryan hasn’t approached him and he’s not aware if he has spoken with any authority members. No formal proposal has been submitted to the authority.

“We had an agreement with the DEC to do the testing pre-construction and post-construction,” he said.

“We contributed $50,000 toward that and that was intended to answer the public’s question about what the state of the air was around the Peace Bridge. I’m not sure what more we can do.”

It’s unclear if the DEC plans to stick to its original plan.

But Rienas raised concerns with the DEC about the timing of any new testing. He sent an email in November to DEC officials pointing out how the Peace Bridge Authority has numerous construction projects scheduled from early this year through the spring of 2016. In addition, the state Department of Transportation could begin road construction around the bridge later this year.

These projects could impact air monitoring results and create traffic congestion beyond what’s typical for the Peace Bridge.

“All these projects will involve unregulated non-road construction vehicles and equipment and dust that will impact on any air quality monitoring that is being done,” Rienas wrote.

“I understand that EPA guidance considers construction related emissions as temporary and are not required to be included, but how will DEC separate out these emissions from Peace Bridge plaza emissions as vehicles will continue to flow throughout the construction?”

Rienas said the DEC has not responded to his concerns.

Niagara Common Councilman David Rivera, who represents the neighborhoods near the Peace Bridge, was less forthcoming about what he wants the state to do.

“I would want to know what’s legally required of them to do,” he said.

Rivera doubts the activists would be satisfied no matter what the DEC does.

“We ask for this, and they want more later because they don’t get the answers they want,” he said

Community concerns

Mecca said the DEC lost credibility and faces too much political pressure from the Cuomo administration to expand the plaza on the American side and reconfigure roads leading to and from the bridge.

“Should we continue to build infrastructure at the Peace Bridge?” she said. “Isn’t it more reasonable to look at an alternative that processes the commercial trucks at another location?”

Heaney, of the Clean Air Coalition, also blamed the Cuomo administration for politicizing the state’s handling of Peace Bridge matters.

“Governor Cuomo wants this project done and he wants it done at all costs,” she said.

She said there is a stark difference in how the DEC has handled air monitoring at the Peace Bridge and in the Town of Tonawanda near the Tonawanda Coke plant.

“In Tonawanda, the DEC has done an incredible job creating an air monitoring program that is really driven by the community’s needs, and we’d like to see something that replicates that study,” she said.

Heaney wants the DEC to include the community in developing the framework for the air testing, provide regular updates and share the final results with residents in a format that allows for them to ask questions.

In the meantime, she advocated that government officials take precautionary steps to protect public health in the neighborhood, among the poorest in the city.

“We shouldn’t be waiting until we have absolute proof that there’s a problem before we start taking action because if we wait too long we really are asking people to be in a weird science experiment that they didn’t sign up for.”

Dan Telvock is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit investigativepost.org daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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