Environmental justice starts with the air we breathe
We still have some unfinished business when it comes to local air pollution problems, particularly in New York City. In June, New York scored a historic victory in the battle against global climate change with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — a bill I was proud to support.
The CLCPA did not, however, include a sufficient focus on local air pollution. That’s because the definitions of air pollution in the legislation include the greenhouse gasses that warm the planet, but not the combustion-related pollutants that cause smog and asthma in our neighborhoods. The same is true of the state’s Clean Energy Fund, which has as its principal objective the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — but does not include any ongoing programs focused on reducing local forms of combustion-related air pollutants or on getting rid of dirty diesel generators.
The damage that combustion-related air pollutants cause to human health is significant, especially for children. A new study in the Journal of American Medical Association found that if you live in a city with high ozone levels for a decade, the results are similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 30 years. Not surprisingly, more than a quarter of people who have emphysema were never smokers.
And it may be even worse than we know – the California Air Resources Board now estimates that an uncontrolled one-megawatt diesel engine operating for only 250 hours per year would increase the cancer risk to residents within one city block by as much as 50 percent. This information adds new and disturbing context to a recent report that a NYCHA housing project in the Bronx has been running on diesel generators for a month.
Hearing this, most New Yorkers will point out that the CLCPA pushes New York toward a cleaner energy future. It does. But we are still decades from that objective, and in the meantime, another generation — or two — of kids in my district will breathe harmful local pollutants from diesel generators and other emission sources.
During the July signing ceremony for the CLCPA, former Vice President Al Gore cited a disturbing statistic, namely that in the “…United States of America the number of African American children who die from asthma is ten times greater than the number of Caucasian children that die from asthma.”
He probably didn’t realize it at the time, but Gore was talking about my district, a part of Brooklyn where the rate of childhood asthma, and the exposure to fine particulate matter and ozone, are substantially higher than the rest of New York State.
That‘s why this legislative session, I will work with my colleagues in government to make adjustments to the CLCPA to ensure that the kind of local air pollution that is harming my constituents is given the attention it deserves in the state’s clean energy programs. I ask that my colleagues who represent other heavily impacted districts to stand with me on this important issue. We have taken aggressive action to help protect our grandchildren and great grandchildren — now, let’s do what we can for the kids of today.
Latrice Walker represents the 55th Assembly District in the New York State Legislature.
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