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Peace Bridge manager, activist make their peace

WASHINGTON – There’s peace at the Peace Bridge, sort of, and two longtime adversaries-turned-collaborators came to the nation’s capital Thursday to spread the word.

Kathleen R. Mecca, the activist who has been fighting for years to remove truck traffic from the bridge, and Ron Rienas, the Peace Bridge general manager, spoke at the 2014 National Environmental Justice Conference about ways they’ve found to work together despite their stark differences.

Those differences still stood out, though, in the presentations of Terrence A. Robinson of Preservation Buffalo Niagara and North District Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr., who stressed that environmental justice seemed to be sadly lacking in the neighborhood surrounding the bridge.

At issue, as it has been for years, is the diesel exhaust that’s spewing from the trucks crossing the bridge or idling on it. Mecca noted, as she long has, that those fumes are responsible for a neighborhood asthma rate that’s four times the national average.

Mecca and her fellow neighborhood activists have long opposed Peace Bridge expansion plans and have pushed to have truck traffic rerouted to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

But after attending the same conference with Rienas a year ago and hearing how environmental conflicts were handled in other communities, Mecca decided to change her approach.

She invited Rienas to her West Side home for dinner, and that, she said, “was the beginning of a whole new conversation.”

Mecca and Rienas discussed ways they could work together to find common ground and to involve the bridge’s leadership in the community, and as a result, much has changed, she said.

“For the first time in 25 years, the Peace Bridge Authority has started to participate in community events,” Mecca said. “We’re able to discuss the challenges ahead based on logic instead of emotion.”

For his part, Rienas acknowledged: “We need to do a better job interacting with the community.”

And a big part of that, he said, involves the authority addressing the pollution concerns in any way it can.

For example, Rienas said the authority has been pressing both the U.S. and the Canadian governments to increase customs staffing at the border, given that it is the lack of manpower, rather than the lack of inspection lanes, that causes backups at the bridge.

In addition, he said the authority is asking the U.S. government for changes that will ease cargo inspections. And perhaps most importantly, the authority strongly supported a demonstration project currently under way that could end up shifting primary inspections of U.S.-bound cargo to the less-crowded Canadian side of the bridge.

Those measures come amid a state-backed plan to improve the ramps leading to the bridge, as well as the state’s acquisition of the former Episcopal Home site near the bridge’s U.S. plaza. While the state has not specified its plans for the site, preservationists fear that it could become the location of a massive duty-free store as part of an expanded Peace Bridge plaza.

It doesn’t have to be that way, Robinson said, noting that an alternative plan could have renovated and restored the Episcopal Home’s buildings.

Meanwhile, Golombek told the crowd of environmentalists from around the nation about a January Buffalo News article that detailed an aborted federal effort to consider moving truck traffic to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge to address the health concerns in the neighborhood surrounding the Peace Bridge.

“To this day, we have not received a rational explanation of why this environmental justice effort was abandoned,” said Golombek – an opponent of Peace Bridge expansion whose remarks made clear that the new peace at the Peace Bridge does not extend far beyond Mecca and Rienas.

Singling out Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, as supporters of lucrative Peace Bridge expansion plans, Golombek said: “Among them I stand alone in placing people before profits.”