Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful participation of all people in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policy.
Across New York state, the Department of Environmental Conservation says Black residents, especially those with lower incomes, are disproportionately burdened by air pollution. Today, the state is taking steps to address that. But this Black History Month, activists, state environmental leaders and historians are helping the community understand how they got here.
“Why should there be increased truck traffic only near people who look like me?” State Office of Environmental Justice Director Alanah Keddell-Tuckey said. “Why aren’t we sharing these environmental burdens equally among us? Why are these disproportionately impacting Black and brown people?”
Keddell-Tuckey’s work is fueled, in part, by these questions, and addressing them.
“My mother grew up in what is now considered to be an environmental justice community, and she has severe asthma,” said Keddell-Tuckey.
One place where residents are exposed to highly polluted air is in New York’s capital city -- the Ezra Prentice apartments run by Albany’s Housing Authority. Local activists have been working with the city and state to advocate for residents there.
“We worked with the city of Albany and DEC to be able to create an environmental study, which they built a whole infrastructure, to be able to measure the pollution,” AVillage Inc executive director Eva Bass said. “And the results came out that there was a high level of pollution, dangerous for community members.”
South Pearl Street, traveled often by diesel trucks, runs through Ezra Prentice. Just beyond the complex fence is the Port of Albany rail yard, and it’s also situated close to major highways and industry.
According to historians and environmental leaders, Black New Yorkers live in areas closer to traffic centers and industrial areas due to a history of segregation and redlining. The creation of the Empire State Plaza, based on Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s vision, was an example of this.
“Rockefeller characterized the communities around the current plaza as slums,” Albany County Historical Association executive director Kathryn Kosto said. “And research shows that was not the case at all. There were thriving businesses. It was a very ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood, which was sustainable.”
That mischaracterization fueled the destruction of the neighborhoods the Empire State Plaza was built on.
“Which is a further breaking up of Albany's communities and sadly, very much along racial lines,” Kosto said. “For the most part, you're not seeing the same sense of welcome that was extended to Italian families. So, because of this, you have the loss of ability to acquire a new home, perhaps an affordable place. And African American families are pushed more and more into housing projects.”
And, communities like Albany’s South End are disinvested, historically, due to redlining -- a discriminatory, former federal practice in which investment is withheld from certain neighborhoods characterized as high risk.
“Some of these characterizations were completely based on race and ethnicity,” Kosto said. “So, it had a very negative effect in which whole swaths of communities were basically written off.”
According to an environmental epidemiologist, living in an area with dangerous levels of air pollution like Ezra Prentice can and has led to a number of adverse health impacts for residents, like asthma, COPD, heart disease and stroke.
“Thinking of environmental justice, the first thing that comes to mind is air pollution, but also urban heat is another,” RADIX Ecological Sustainability Center executive director and Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences faculty member Stacy Pettigrew said. “Redlined neighborhoods tend to have less trees, less green infrastructure, and that is associated with all kinds of negative health outcomes in and of itself.”
Today, the DEC is monitoring air quality across the state in 10 communities identified as disadvantaged, addressing the inequity of burden, and mitigating it.
“Moving forward involves all of us coming,” Keddell-Tuckey said. “We can't just leave a group of people behind.”
In 2019, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection ACT passed. The focus was not only on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but specifically focusing on the communities with a disproportionate burden. That led to the creation of the Climate Justice Working Group, made up of state agencies and activists. They’re tasked with developing the criteria by which disadvantaged communities are identified – for the purpose of dedicating a minimum of 35% of the benefits from clean energy and efficiency investments to those communities.
The Statewide Community Air Monitoring Initiative is now underway in these 10 communities across New York: Buffalo/Niagara Falls/Tonawanda, Capital Region, Bronx, Manhattan, Rochester, Syracuse, Mount Vernon/Yonkers/New Rochelle, Brooklyn, Queens, and Hempstead/New Cassel/Roosevelt/Uniondale/Westbury.
The state has contracted out this work to Aclima; a company that uses sensors on vehicles to collect data. As the car drives the blocks being studied, the sensors collect second-by-second data. This happens at different times of day, days of the week, and seasons of the year. The initiative uses a methodology which requires a full year of data to create the annual average estimates for each pollutant.
Once they have the findings in hand, the DEC says they want people living in these disadvantaged communities to drive conversations about how to mitigate the pollution. The Director of the Office of Environmental Justice says what residents pointed to as the source of pollution in their communities, the state has found to be true.