The South Bronx Fights Air Pollution in “Asthma Alley”

Parents want the best for their children. Lois Gibbs said of her fight to clean up the poisonous dumpsite of Love Canal, “The government wouldn’t help me, so I decided to do it myself.”

From necessity, activists are born.

In the South Bronx, a father who cares about his infant son and the other denizens of his community, has taken up the call to arms. A. Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, has squared off against a formidable foe—the food delivery service FreshDirect.

In a story with more twists and turns than a political thriller, Johnson’s narrative of the facts pits him against the Bronx Democratic Machine, public officials, and big money.

On his side are those who live in Mott Haven-Port Morris, where elevated death rates and children with high levels of respiratory disorders are the norm.

This area is not called Asthma Alley without reason.

It is here that FreshDirect has “broken ground” to site a 500,000-square-foot facility. A Federal Express hub, a printing and distribution center for the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, a waste transfer station and sewage treatment operation — all impact the area’s air quality. “Enough of dumping in our communities,” said Johnson with palpable frustration.

Mott Haven-Port Morris is primarily populated by people of color, with almost 75 percent Latinos. It’s the poorest district in the country. “Over one-third of the residents live below the poverty line,” Johnson said. “We’re five miles from Wall Street, New York City’s financial district.” He added, “The tale of two cities doesn’t exist anywhere else like the South Bronx.”

That comment referenced the tagline that Bill de Blasio ran on to capture the Mayor’s seat. Since the election, de Blasio has been quiet on the situation in the South Bronx. According to Johnson, politics has played a large role in the genesis of the FreshDirect project. This includes $140 million of taxpayer-funded subsidies to keep FreshDirect in New York State — rather than see the company accept offers to locate in New Jersey.

Both former mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo backed the deal. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz has also stood with FreshDirect. “He wants the project,” said Johnson.

On the issue of potential jobs, Johnson was clear. Aside from the fact that none of FreshDirect’s promises of employment are “binding,” Johnson pointed out, “They don’t pay a living wage. They’re known as union busters and have outstanding discrimination claims pending. We don’t want those kind of employers in our neighborhood.”

Johnson’s engagement has been an unrelenting fly in the ointment to FreshDirect’s plans. It may be why Borough President Diaz didn’t reappoint him to Community Board 1. His leadership is also the reason Johnson was chosen to be a civil society delegate at the UN Climate Summit in September 2014.

In a phone call to FreshDirect, their spokeswoman maintained that the community was behind FreshDirect. She sent me an “official comment” from the company and documentation from an Empire State Development memo (2/19/15).

There was a subtext of deflection in the verbiage. The statement emphasized that FreshDirect was “proud to have strong support from the local community, including numerous tenant leaders, Bronx elected officials and local business owners.” It claimed that their “green fleet” would “represent a tiny fraction of the vehicle traffic in the area.” The official missive ended with, “The company has committed to creating 1,000 new jobs, many of which will go to Bronx residents.”

Presented with FreshDirect assertions, Johnson responded without missing a beat. “Their stuff doesn’t hold water.” FreshDirect stated, “This increase in truck traffic is very small in proportion to the total number of vehicles currently passing through the community on local streets and highways.”

“Even at its lowest estimate,” Johnson said, “that’s a lot of truck trips through Asthma Alley. It’s a heavily, over-trafficked area.” Numerous bridges and highways intersect the neighborhood, including Interstates 87, 95, 278, and 895. “When you bring in more vehicles, the air pollution goes up exponentially. Traffic congestion also adds to the idling of cars and trucks.”

Johnson’s bottom line: “We’re oversaturated.”

There is a definitive disconnect between the conclusions presented in the ESD document and the reality on the ground. In answer to the concern that “the air pollution (especially particulate matter) emitted by truck traffic generated by FreshDirect would increase asthma rates,” the response was, “Urban communities such as the South Bronx historically have a high average incidence of childhood asthma. The reasons for this are not well understood, but they are likely to include demographic characteristics and air pollution, among other risk factors.”

In the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study (April 2009), part of the report is devoted to the results of an NYU School of Medicine research initiative called the “Backpack Study.” Over a three-week period, it had ten fifth-grade students with asthma carry specific devices in a backpack, to measure the air pollution they encountered on a daily basis. The data results were then examined in relationship to the asthma symptoms they experienced.

Top takeaways included:

  • There is a strong association between Bronx zip codes with high asthma rates and those with a large concentration of industrial facilities.
  • In the South Bronx, approximately 50 percent of the children attending pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade go to schools that are “less than two city blocks” away from a truck route or a highway.
  • More green spaces and green buffers, especially around sources of environmental health risks, need to be developed.

Johnson outlined a plan that would benefit the community through open space. “It’s about a robust park waterfront that creates sustainable green jobs and related businesses,” he said. It also considers solutions for storm mitigation by building “resilient barriers.” Superstorm Sandy showed the ramifications of flooding. “All of these ideas add up to a quality of life improvement,” Johnson said.

Clearly, there are two very different mindsets looking at the challenges facing the people of the South Bronx. The situation reminded me of the difficulties of those in Port Arthur, Texas — another area besieged by health problems brought on by pollution.

Dr. Bob Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, wrote the following via e-mail in response to my request for a comment:

“There is nothing ‘fresh’ about FreshDirect’s proposal to relocate its dirty diesel trucking operation in a community that’s already overburdened with pollution and where residents suffer elevated asthma and respiratory problems. This is a classic example of toxic dumping that further identifies the South Bronx as an environmental ‘sacrifice zone.’ ”

HPFresh Direct ManhattanSouth Bronx Unite is taking the fight outside of their area and expanding outreach efforts to the other boroughs. In a series of Wednesday night “Spring Actions,” they are hitting subway stops in Manhattan locations on the east and west sides, as well as Brooklyn.

The approach is to bring their case to the consumers, and appeal to conscience over convenience. They have a boycott, a petition, and a hearing on April 20th at Bronx Supreme Court for their lawsuit.

Johnson is resolute and determined. His final thoughts were clear.

“I have a right to speak up. We’re working to create the solutions we want. We love where we live and the people who live here. When we started this fight three years ago, one in five kids had asthma. Now it’s one in four. Children are dying.

We’re going to sound the alarm.”


Photos: Courtesy of South Bronx Unite

This article originally appeared on Moms Clean Air Force

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