As a public interest lawyer, I worked with Tonawanda citizens who mobilized to protect their families against poisonous emissions from Tonawanda Coke.
Now, a similar drama is unfolding on Buffalo's West Side, as citizens living near the Peace Bridge mobilize to protect their families from another environmental peril: the poisonous fumes of more than 4,000 diesel trucks and 10,000 cars crossing and idling on the bridge daily. The drama is intensifying because of the proposed expansion of the bridge plaza. And this time, the target of the mobilization is Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
Composed predominantly of Hispanics — the nation's fastest-growing minority — the West Side is a diverse community of color. It endures devastating poverty. Almost 45 percent of the households have annual incomes of less than $20,000; 20 percent have annual earnings less than $10,000.
The plight these citizens face is that toxic fumes from existing truck traffic have already caused them much harm. Medical research documents that fumes from existing traffic constitute a serious health risk to residents, especially the elderly and children. The University at Buffalo's Lung Biology Research Center found that almost half the households on Buffalo's West Side reported at least one case of asthma or chronic respiratory illness.
Given the health risks they face, residents are making five demands of the governor, First and most important: Don't expand the plaza. Second, direct the state's Department of Environmental Conservation to install an air monitor, as it did in Tonawanda, so that residents can monitor the dangerous toxins they are breathing. Third, plant trees and shrubs, developing "green buffer zones." Fourth, enforce a strong anti-idling requirement to reduce emissions. Fifth, install electrification stations, enabling truck drivers to turn off their engines and plug into an electrical source to heat or cool their cabins while they wait.
The West Siders' requests are fair because, although three bridges connect Canada and New York, 90 percent of the truck traffic goes through the Peace Bridge. Concededly, the state needs better accommodations to process trucks. But residents of the lower West Side have already borne a disproportionate share of the health risks associated with such processing. They should not be asked to bear more.
Our governor has accomplished impressive things. He is smart and tough. He has national aspirations. Ignoring the escalating struggle for environmental justice brewing on Buffalo's West Side is something he can ill afford. And doing the politically smart thing — protecting those vulnerable West Siders — is also the right thing.?
Stephen C. Halpern is a professor of political science at the University at Buffalo and a lawyer.