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A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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March 28, 2017

Counting The Particles In The Air

The State of New York takes responsibility for the
quality of the air in the South End

Something amazing has been happening in the South End of Albany, down at the Ezra Prentice Homes neighborhood along South Pearl Street. The residents of the complex of apartments stretched along the train tracks have banded together into a tenants association that is fighting back against the daily barrage of deadly pollution that blows in from both the trains and from the constant parade of diesel trucks barreling down the street. The tenant’s association has become a permanent fixture, maintained by a hardcore group that is determined to improve the quality of life for themselves and for their beleaguered neighbors.

That’s not the amazing story. The real news is that the tenants association is succeeding beyond all expectations, as authorities both public and private have started taking this neighborhood very seriously after ignoring and neglecting them for far too long. The neighbors have found some very powerful allies both local and national who are helping them in their fight. And as I learned at a meeting in early March, their battle to upgrade their neighborhood has somehow induced the State of New York to completely change their methods for dealing with air quality issues and for meeting the needs of the public that they are supposed to be serving.

Brian Frank Of The Emissions Measurement Research Group Explains The Air Monitoring Process At The Ezra Prentice Community Room
Brian Frank Of The Emissions Measurement Research Group Explains The Air Monitoring Process At The Ezra Prentice Community Room

On March 8 of this year I sat in yet another well-attended public meeting at the Ezra Prentice Community Center on South Pearl Street to hear a NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) employee named Brian Frank explain what he and his co-workers were going to do about the bad air around this neighborhood. He heads a newly formed Emissions Measurement Research Group which is part of the DEC Division of Air Resources. This, he told us right at the start, was the first time his research group was talking to the public.

We were told by Mr. Frank that the effectiveness of this new Emissions Measurement Research Group is greatly facilitated by some new technology that has recently “come onto the market,” some of it so new that they are still waiting for backordered equipment to arrive. Unlike the larger clunky monitoring boxes with limited use that air researchers are used to using, these are small devices with multiple functions hooked up to GPS that fit in your pocket like a phone. This new generation of monitoring equipment opens up new possibilities for researchers and makes it easier to collect and handle data and can better serve the public in innovative ways.

I have to say it was strange and astonishing to hear State officials going out of their way to deliver to the public policies they were asking for. Mr. Frank explained that his new group was beginning their air monitoring work with the Ezra Prentice neighborhood for a very simple reason, “The community came to us.” He also pointed out that their office was located next door in the Port of Albany, “So it is very convenient for us.” Of course it does appear that the their offices were located so close to the neighborhood mainly so they could begin work nearby.

Photo Taken Late July, 2016, Astonished To See No Oil Tankers Parked At The Global Dock In The Port Of Albany
Photo Taken Late July, 2016, Astonished To See No Oil Tankers Parked At The Global Dock In The Port Of Albany

Then again another reason for this amazing responsiveness by the State is the successful lawsuits. Since July of last year the shipments of oil by train to the Port of Albany have ceased due to a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Earthjustice and the Ezra Prentice Tenants Association along with a crowd of environmental groups that have signed on. The courts have ruled that the main oil handler at the port, Global LLC, did not give correct information on its application for a permit to operate at the Port of Albany and that proper procedure was not followed in granting that permit. From the Earthjustice website:

On September 16, the State DEC informed Global that its Port of Albany air permit renewal application will be considered as an entirely new application, requiring additional information to address issues identified by DEC and restarting the State’s environmental review process. On January 26, 2017, a broad coalition including the Ezra Prentice Homes Tenants Association, represented by Earthjustice, notified Global of their intent to file a federal lawsuit against the company. The coalition’s letter claims that because Global’s expired permit was not renewed and it has not yet been issued a new permit, the company has been illegally operating the Albany facility since September.

The Ezra Prentice neighborhood sits near the entrance to the Port of Albany. Diesel trucks and diesel trains rumble and rattle past the residential buildings, the transport vehicles spewing a mix of fumes and particles that have muddied the air and have been blamed for what looks to the neighbors and to most outside observers like an epidemic of pulmonary ailments among themselves. As activity at the Port has been increasing in recent years that traffic rumbling through the neighborhood has been increasing.

Downstate ports are overwhelmed with seagoing traffic and more big ships are looking to travel up to Albany, which is about as far as the big ships and floating tankers can go inland. These last few years the port has been frantically upgrading to accommodate this escalating water traffic, rebuilding long unused dockspace, building new warehouses and acquiring more big cranes for loading and unloading. Because of automation this means only a minor uptick in jobs, but the increased and more diverse economic activity through what had been for decades a stagnant part of the local economy surely is good for the City of Albany’s economy. But there are also negative consequences.

Be Be White Of The Ezra Prentice Tenants Association Stops The Truck Traffic On South Pearl Street
Be Be White Of The Ezra Prentice Tenants Association Stops The Truck Traffic On South Pearl Street

One of those consequences is a big surge of diesel truck traffic on South Pearl Street rolling past the Ezra Prentice neighborhood. The problem with diesel fuel is that when it burns it gives off benzine gas which in the short term can cause dizziness and headaches and longterm much worse problems. Burnt diesel also fills the air with particulates, both visible dirty soot and the kind of particles that you can’t see but go right into your lungs and stay there.

Heavy trucks and trains use diesel fuel instead of regular gasoline because diesel delivers more torque, that is, more pulling power than gas. If the big vehicles used gas their engines would have to be much larger and would need to consume much more fuel to do the same amount of work. But because diesel engines burn much dirtier they absolutely should not be allowed to concentrate in a confined space such as a narrow street between residential buildings because their discharge becomes concentrated.

Last year Mr. Willie White of the South End advocacy group AVillage came up with a radical plan that no one had thought of to do before. Volunteers took up position on several street corners on South Pearl Street and counted the number of diesel trucks passing by. It turned out that even after subtracting school busses and local utility trucks, an astonishing one hundred diesel trucks went by the volunteers every hour during the day.

Mr. Willie White of AVillage Last September At Island Creek Park
Mr. Willie White of AVillage Last September At Island Creek Park

Over the past few years I’ve sat through meetings at the Ezra Prentice Community Room where the residents of the neighborhood yelled at DEC officials and the officials responded with miserable excuses but offered no concrete solutions. Charges that this would never be allowed in a rich white suburb were impossible to refute, as Willie White put it repeatedly, “This is environmental racism.” Meanwhile State officials couldn’t go back to ignoring the neighborhood even if they wanted to because of the ongoing publicity and the wider interest in this problem.

The DEC officials were asked by the tenants association to monitor the benzene and particulates in the air around Ezra Prentice. In the wake of the bomb train controversy the environmental officials decided that it was necessary to respond to the request. But it quickly became clear that the DEC was not used to honoring such requests, and in a public meeting a couple of years ago I actually heard some of them tell the neighbors at Ezra Prentice that they were going out of their way and doing them a big favor.

So more as an act of appeasement than anything else the DEC officials set up a few benzene monitors at random spots around the neighborhood for short periods of time. However they did admit that the data they received from the monitors was flawed and inconclusive, for instance the data in a device could easily be skewed by an idling diesel bus picking up passengers. More importantly there was no follow up to collecting the data, one could easily come to the conclusion that such a method of data was designed to refute complaints brought by citizens.

Charlene Benton, President Of The Ezra Prentice Tenants Association
Charlene Benton, President Of The Ezra Prentice Tenants Association

Charlene Benton and Be Be White of the Ezra Prentice Tenants Association were less than impressed by that attitude, and neither were neighborhood activists from other parts of Albany who were allied with them. By January of this year pretty much all of the local elected officials had become very open about their support for the Ezra Prentiss tenants, showing up en masse at a meeting that month. That goes to show that if people make the effort to fight for their communities then the politicians, if they have any sort of responsibility for their jobs, will eagerly support the voters.

So that is why this month we learned about this new unit of the DEC is beginning its work by not only collecting data around the Ezra Prentice neighborhood and nearby South End neighborhoods, but by analyzing the data. We heard they have a plan to divide the area into four data collection zones and in true scientific style collate the data to discover ongoing problems and identify anomalies. The ultimate idea is to look for patterns to identify specific sources of pollution and, astonishingly, to recommend changes and other solutions to alleviate these problems.

NY State DEC Officials Getting Yelled At By Ezra Prentice Residents, Chris Amato Of Earthjustice At Left, September 2015
NY State DEC Officials Getting Yelled At By Ezra Prentice Residents, Chris Amato Of Earthjustice At Left, September 2015

I say astonishingly because after years of working with and following the efforts to save the Pine Bush inland sand barrens ecosystem here in Albany from sprawl development, I’ve seen how solid data supporting recommendations is absolutely the last thing that upper echelon government officials want to see. From their viewpoint any sort of solid data collection that demonstrates a problem is undesirable because that means lower echelon bureaucrats are dictating policy decisions to them and making them personally responsible for the ongoing problems. Solid data invites citizen lawsuits. The only thing that overcomes this reluctance by top officials is a combination of publicity and insistent demands by a united front of voters, which is what we see has happened here.

In the questioning period after the presentation one of the DEC officials present suggested that one possible solution to the air quality problem would be to find alternate routes for the diesel truck traffic going into the port. To regular folks this is a no-brainer, but to public officials a change like this is a nightmare that can only cause some powerful and well-heeled concerns to become angry with them. This is why it is important for the public to be united and insistent with their demands, so that all parties involved, not just the elected officials, are forced to accept that the necessary and obvious solution to the problem is inevitable.

Well, we also found out that the State is going do the counting of the trucks on South Pearl Street from now on, but that’s not all. They are going to use plate readers like the cops use and find out exactly where the trucks are coming from so they can better determine why they are using this street and if a better route for them can be found. How about that.

NY State DEC Officials Getting Yelled At By Ezra Prentice Residents, Chris Amato Of Earthjustice At Left, September 2015
Residents And Visitors At The Ezra Prentice Basketball Court Commemorating The First Anniversary Of The Murderous Explosions Of Bomb Trains At Lac Magantic, June 2014

Most people are now aware of the oil bomb train crisis that quietly began around 2009, where because of horribly irresponsible behavior by oil corporation executives and because of stunning irresponsibility by government regulators at both the Federal and State levels, train cars were packed with dangerous unprocessed oil from North Dakota and shipped around the country. This raw crude oil was dangerously explosive and belched forth enormous amounts of extremely toxic gases. The trains passed daily through residential communities such as the south End of Albany, millions of people unknowingly breathed these deadly fumes and lived at risk of sudden death by explosion.

This went on for five years until finally the inevitable happened. In Quebec in June of 2013, a short distance from the US border, a train loaded with this deadly unprocessed oil exploded and obliterated the town of Lac Magantic. These particular trains were said to not have been heading for Albany, but they were identical to and could very well have been the bomb trains that every day and night clattered regularly into the Port past the backyards of the Ezra Prentice houses on South Pearl Street.

The worst of those deadly fumes wafting off the bomb trains was Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) which is that rotten egg smell you get when you open up a blocked sewer line. This is a full-spectrum poison, meaning it can kill you in every way that a poison can kill you. It is likely that this horrible substance, which easily breaks down into dioxin, is mostly responsible for the apparent epidemic of lung ailments among the residents of the Ezra Prentice neighborhood.

Black Carbon Monitor And Ultrafine Particle Counter Both With GPS Used By Air Quality Monitors In The South End
Black Carbon Monitor And Ultrafine Particle Counter Both With GPS Used By Air Quality Monitors In The South End

I’ve talked to residents who during those years never opened their windows that faced the tracks because if they did the stink would fill their apartments and leave them gagging and woozy. But the problem with the bomb trains did not end with the Lac Magantic explosion, it took a good year and a half for authorities to get around to enforcing regulations requiring the North Dakota frackers to siphon off the toxic and explosive gases before shipping their oil. So it was more like six and a half years before the Ezra Prentice neighbors were free from this these toxins.

But other than a few small fines no one was held responsible for this grand crime. The corporate frackers in North Dakota, the federal and State regulators and the politicians both elected and appointed who looked the other way were all responsible. But if just one of these people had ever been prosecuted for allowing American citizens to be unknowingly endangered and for allowing them to be poisoned by the bomb trains, then the whole lot of them would have been hauled in for either deliberate or negligent murder and quite a few of them would have been locked up.

Thus no one was prosecuted. But that also meant that no one could ever admit there had been a problem in the first place. Therefore when the problem was finally fixed, when the danger of exploding trains had been greatly lessened and the toxic gasses that had been poisoning people in places like the Ezra Prentice neighborhood had been removed from the trains, no government or corporate official could announce that the danger was now past. Because, you see, nothing ever happened. Because liability.

Brian Frank Demonstrates The Air Quality Monitoring Backpack
Brian Frank Demonstrates The Air Quality Monitoring Backpack

So because of this silence about what really has been happening the public officials have lost credibility in the eyes of the public on these matters. In particular our State environmental bureaucrats have been feeling that loss of credibility most acutely. The last few years I’ve been attending these meetings at the Ezra Prentice Community Room and I’ve watched those State folks repeatedly get that distrust thrown in their faces.

But what could they do? Despite the usual propaganda spread by the Corporate Media, most State workers I’ve encountered are conscientious and dedicated to doing their jobs, much more so than most corporate bureaucrats. But like any bureaucrats public or private they can’t openly defy their bosses, which in this case are the top elected State officials. They can’t talk about the failings of State regulators and politicians because then the public and the courts might hold those officials personally responsible for not regulating the toxic bomb trains.

So it appears that this Emissions Measurement Research Group is a sincere and constructive attempt by the State to solve the air quality problems. If our State officials really wish to solve this serious quality of life problem in the South End then they should strongly support this research group and listen carefully to their recommendations. This will go a long way to reestablishing the trust in State officials that has been broken by the bomb train crisis.

Another Well Attended Meeting At The Ezra Prentice Community Room On March 9
Another Well Attended Meeting At The Ezra Prentice Community Room On March 9

A few years ago I watched the Ezra Prentice residents who attended these meetings yell blindly at the authorities, not really certain how to get the authorities to pay attention and treat them with respect. And the authorities would just sit and make excuses. This March I’m seeing a greater level of sophistication all around, the residents are making their concerns known and understood in a rational manner and the authorities are working with them in a rational manner. This is how society is supposed to function.

That bond of trust between the people and their government officials is necessary and needs to be maintained to keep society functioning. As much as I’d like to see all the persons responsible for the bomb trains prosecuted - some of those oil corporation executives should be locked up for life in solitary and some of them executed - I realize that is never going to happen. So really, all we can do is find solutions to the ongoing problems that are negatively affecting the people of the South End, even if that means some very well to do people who are ultimately responsible for the air pollution along South Pearl Street are going to have to deal with a little inconvenience.

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Posted by:GAH
Posted on:04/06/2017
I have to say, this doesn't surprise me in the least. Say what you will about state government in New York, but one thing they take very seriously is lawsuits. When they get sued and lose, agencies waste no time incorporating the decision into existing regulations. I'd go so far as to say that they actually enjoy that craft. It's part of the culture at state agencies, that seems to transcend politics. And I'm proud of it.

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