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Speakers at Front Park rally urge air monitors near Peace Bridge

Nearly 100 people Wednesday marched to a playground in Front Park, where speakers urged Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to support an air monitor to measure pollutants in the Lower West Side before the Peace Bridge Plaza is expanded.

About 4,000 trucks cross the bridge on an average day, leaving unhealthy fumes that speakers said contribute to an epidemic of asthma and other respiratory and health maladies. Several neighborhood children said to suffer from asthma played on the monkey bars and swings while the rally went on.

Air monitoring was promoted in recent years by the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York to document elevated levels of air pollutants primarily in the Town of Tonawanda. It led to government enforcement action against Tonawanda Coke Corp. -- and an 86 percent drop in carcinogenic benzene emissions.

"The monitors keep people accountable," said Natasha Soto, a community organizer with the Clean Air Coalition.

Erin Heaney, the group's executive director, said Joseph Martens, the state Department of Environmental Conservation's commissioner, has not responded for months to requests for similar air monitoring on the West Side.

Some speakers said monitoring and reducing air pollution in the racially diverse and mixed-income neighborhood near the bridge is a matter of "environmental justice."

"I'm tired of the way the West Side is always being left behind. Every time we call on the elected representatives, they ignore us," said Rebecca Soto, a member of the coalition and longtime West Side resident. "We need air monitors to improve the condition of the environment and the health of the citizens of the West Side."

Niagara Council Member David A. Rivera voiced his support for monitoring the quality of air near the Peace Bridge. "I encourage the governor of the state to allow the commissioner to set up air monitors here, and we want them now."

The Clean Air Coalition also urged the development of green buffer zones between the plaza and the neighborhood to reduce pollution and noise and enforcement of a strong anti-idling program at the plaza that includes electrification stations for trucks.

The Rev. Alberto Lanzot of United Methodist Church attributed the increase he has witnessed in respiratory problems on the West Side to truck pollution, from children needing asthma pumps to older citizens requiring oxygen machines.

"This is about justice, about equality, about doing the right thing," Lanzot said in echoing the need for air monitoring.