Environmental justice starts with the air we breathe

November 5, 2019 Latrice Walker
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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. Thats 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 states 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.

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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.

Thats 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 states 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, lets 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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  1. We couldn’t agree more about the need to improve air quality and protect public health and safety. Having unreliable grid electricity in a large residential complex during times of extreme temperatures is not a good situation for fire and building safety, basic access and HVAC services.

    But as I look at it, the rental generators deployed by NYCHA were doing both; protecting public health and safety and very likely doing so with the lowest emissions possible.

    Though we do not have specifics on the units deployed by NYCHA, after analyzing images and speaking with the equipment rental company identified on the units, the rental generators in question would likely have been among the newer generation of diesel technology — “Tier 4” spec’ed unit- that achieve near zero emissions of fine particulates and nitrogen oxides thanks to advanced emissions control systems.

    With a self-contained fuel supply and portability, diesel generators can quickly be deployed to areas of need, whether a high-rise apartment building with a transformer fire or after disaster strikes like superstorm Sandy. And they are most likely the newest generation of near-zero emissions technology units.

    Rep. Walker attempts to paint a worst-case scenario about the emissions from diesel generators, using a reference from California. Instead she should have checked out the facts about the generators actually deployed by NYCHA at the unit in question.

    We can all agree on the need to reduce local air pollution – from all sources, and that includes indoor environments. If there is any policy focus needed here by elected officials it should be on the failures of infrastructure serving the NYCHA housing project, not misguided attacks with misinformation looking to wrongly blame the one technology – mobile diesel generators – that came to the rescue and did so to help preserve public health and safety of the residents at the Bronx NYCHA unit.