WASHINGTON – A week after revelations about an aborted federal effort to move trucks off the Peace Bridge – and seven years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested considering the same thing – there appears to be no momentum behind reviving the idea as a solution to the high asthma rates on Buffalo’s West Side.
Instead, stories in last week’s Buffalo News about the aborted effort – stories that also questioned whether plaza improvements at the bridge had received the proper environmental reviews – prompted nothing more from local elected officials than calls for one kind of investigation or another.
That frustrates Kathleen R. Mecca, the West Side neighborhood activist who’s long led the fight to address childhood asthma rates. The rates were nearly four times the national average, according to research from 2005 and 2006,
Mecca said she’s shocked elected officials remain focused on expanding and improving the Peace Bridge truck plaza, even though The News reported several federal agencies considered moving trucks off the bridge as part of President Obama’s call for making “environmental justice” a priority.
“People in the neighborhood don’t know what to do,” Mecca said. “We can’t go to anyone at the local, state or federal level. They all drank the Kool-Aid. It’s a terrible cover-up.”
Moving truck traffic off the bridge is not a new idea. Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera – now a supporter of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Peace Bridge improvement plans – proposed considering it years ago.
Arthur J. Giacalone, a local environmental attorney, noted last week that the EPA raised the idea as far back as 2007 in a letter criticizing an environmental impact statement for a much more ambitious and later abandoned Peace Bridge expansion plan.
“Certainly the draft EIS could have presented another alternative to meet the project’s purpose and need and objectives, whether from the original list of 59 alternatives … or a totally new alternative, such as routing all truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge,” wrote John Filippelli, chief of the EPA’s Strategic Planning Multi-Media Programs Branch at the time.
The Buffalo News reported a week ago that idea resurfaced in the summer of 2012 when the U.S. General Services Administration – the government’s property manager – pulled together several federal agencies to consider an environmental justice project that could have culminated in moving truck traffic off the bridge. That idea was abandoned, though, only a month after it resurfaced when the head of the GSA’s New York operation objected.
Instead of reviving interest in the idea, the News report instead has prompted a wave of anger – both from neighborhood activists such as Mecca as well as advocates of Peace Bridge improvements such as Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo.
An irate Higgins wrote President Obama a letter last week, asking for the White House to conduct a review of that quickly abandoned environmental justice effort involving the Peace Bridge.
“With published reports suggesting that a few federal employees, acting without portfolio or sanction, should have the ability to potentially undermine the progress of such a substantial binational transportation initiative, a full accounting of the actions of these various officials of the administration must be undertaken,” Higgins wrote.
Asked if his call for an investigation meant that he was more concerned about the secrecy of that GSA effort than he was about the neighborhood asthma rates, Higgins said of the proposal to move trucks off the bridge: “This is the right problem but the wrong solution. The reason you have air quality problems with the trucks, the reason you have asthma, is because you have backups.”
Higgins and other advocates of bridge improvements say plans are already in the works to curb the pollution problems at the bridge. These solutions include new ramps to improve access on the American side of the bridge, pre-inspecting U.S.-bound cargo on the Canadian side and increasing the number of border agents – all of which aim to eliminate truck backups.
Higgins and other supporters of improvements to the Peace Bridge also say that moving truck traffic to Lewiston-Queenston would be impractical for several reasons. It would require costly improvements at that Niagara County bridge and possibly on the Grand Island bridges as well. And it would, they say, essentially entail moving a pollution problem from one angry community to another that would immediately become equally angry.
Higgins said he was angry that the government officials involved in the GSA-led effort discussed moving truck traffic off the bridge without telling any local officials about it.
But Mecca said the real outrage is that Higgins told the president that the problem was the effort’s secrecy.
“Higgins’ letter to the president completely ignores that 22 expert federal officials from six agencies – including the White House – were so compelled by the environmental health conditions in our community that they banded together to carry out an environmental justice investigation,” Mecca said. “Higgins’ letter was designed to mislead President Obama. It completely mischaracterizes the intent of the inter-agency environmental justice investigation.”
The congressman’s call for a White House review of the GSA effort is just one of three proposals for investigations in light of the News’ revelations.
Rivera, the Niagara Council member, said he will propose a resolution this week calling for the six federal agencies involved in the Peace Bridge environmental justice effort to turn over “any documentation, reports and conclusions of the discussions” so that the Council can review them.
“People were just upset” the agencies were discussing moving truck traffic off the bridge without involving the Peace Bridge Authority or local and state officials, Rivera said.
By getting the documentation behind the abandoned federal effort, Rivera said, the Council will be able to determine the seriousness of the effort to move trucks off the bridge.
“Here we are, not knowing what was going on,” Rivera said. “If it’s feasible, tell us. If it’s not, it’s not.”
Meanwhile, North Council Member Joseph Golombek said he hopes the News’ reports will give new life to his resolution – which he hopes to bring before the Council this week – to ask for a federal investigation into the environmental reviews being done on Peace Bridge improvement projects.
The News’ reports noted that federal law requires such reviews consider “cumulative impacts” such as the fumes produced by trucks crossing the bridge. In addition, the reports cited federal environmental regulations that call for such projects to be reviewed comprehensively, not in a piece-by-piece manner as is happening now with the Peace Bridge projects.
“The problem is that we’re poisoning people with these trucks,” Golombek said. “We need to find out how bad it is, why there was a cover-up, why something wasn’t done.”