Trucks remain a major problem: an Express news analysis
A little boy no more than five brought home the meaning of environmental injustice to Miquela Craytor, she recalled at a recent press conference with The Hunts Point Express.
At a rally at the Oak Point rail yards three years ago to protest the city’s plans to build a jail there, the boy flopped down on the ground and began to play. When Craytor, now the executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, told him not to put his hands in his mouth because the ground was contaminated, he replied that it didn’t matter because he already had asthma.
Researchers from Lehman College and NYU’s Graduate School of Public Service have identified diesel emissions from the thousands of trucks that rumble through Hunts Point daily as the main cause of the asthma epidemic, along with emissions from factories and sewage plants.
For years elected officials and government agencies have promised to take steps to curb the epidemic. Despite some efforts to make good on those promises, they remain unfulfilled.
Nearly one in 10 residents suffers from asthma, according to the New York City Department of Health, a percentage far higher than the citywide rate. Between a quarter and a third of the school children in Hunts Point suffers from asthma, according to a Lehman College asthma survey study.
At a press conference at The Point CDC on Garrison Avenue in November 2008 Gov. David Patterson declared “war on asthma,” telling an audience of schoolchildren, member of the community center’s staff and reporters, “Our inappropriate placement of hazardous waste facilities in neighborhoods that can’t fight back is going to have to stop.”
He also promised to provide $177,500 to fund an asthma treatment center in the South Bronx, and has made good on his word. Shortly after the governor’s visit, the State Health Department provided the funds to Bronx-Lebanon Hospital’s South Bronx Asthma Partnership. The health department recently gave another $167,000 to the clinic.
Is it enough?
The Express asked Diane Strom, the Director of the South Bronx Asthma Partnership, if the state money was sufficient to meet the clinic’s needs. “We’re always looking for funding,” she responded.
State law requires truck drivers to kill their engines if they have been idling for more that five minutes. At The Point, the state’s Commissioner of Environmental Conservation, Alexander (Pete) Grannis, warned truckers to “Clean up your act, or there will be consequences.”
There have been. Truckers are regularly hit with fines by Department of Conservation (DEC) police, said a number of tractor-trailer drivers questioned at random.
On a clear humid day on the corner of Spofford Ave and Coster St, where trucks regularly line up to offload their cargo, truck driver Hardy Duvigneaul struggled to unlock the cargo bay of his truck while an impatient fork operator hurried him on. “They are out here in numbers,” he said of the DEC officers. Duvigneau, who has been driving through Hunts Point for seven years, added that he’s seen a surge in DEC agents in the last three years.
Community organizations continue to work to improve air quality in the neighborhood. Mothers on the Move succeeded in a campaign to get the city to ban truck traffic on Garrison Avenue and Hunts Point Avenue. While ban aimed at pedestrian safety, a byproduct was to reduce exposure to diesel emissions.
But the new regulations creating truck routes and an outreach program about them to truck drivers still merely push the trucks from one street to another. They don’t reduce the number of trucks or require them to adopt technologies that can cut down emissions.
Congressman Jose Serrano, whose district includes Hunts Point and Longwood wants to see some trucks pollute less. He has introduced the American Electric Vehicle Manufacturing Act, or E-Drive, which calls for converting 220,000 Postal Service trucks, the largest truck fleet in the United States into environmentally friendly vehicles.
“We are always looking for ways of improving air quality in the Bronx,” said Phil Schmidt, Serrano’s communications director. If Congress were to pass the bill, it would not only improve the health of Bronx residents, Schmidt said, but would also create green manufacturing jobs.
The legislation remains in a House committee, which has not acted on it since Christmas Eve last year.
Even the city’s decision to end its contract with NYOFCo, the plant on Oak Point Avenue that converts sewage to fertilize and which is widely viewed as contributing to the asthma epidemic, was not taken for health reasons. The decision, said the city’s Commissioner of Environmental Protection was made to save money.
The failure to consider the community left a bitter taste in residents’ mouths, said Kellie Terry Sepulveda, executive managing director of The Point, said at a press conference with The Express.
The issue points to a fundamental problem, said Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College whose students have studied the neighborhood. “Access to City Hall is what the community needs,” he said. “They don’t have access to power.”
A version of this story appeared in the August 2010 issue of The Hunts Point Express.