On Tuesday the Common Council voted to approve a resolution introduced by Councilmember Joseph Golombek, officially requesting the presence of five federal officials named in a January 26, 2014 Buffalo News article. Among those being summoned are Denise Pease, who runs the New York regional office of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) and authorized the execution of a categorical exclusion for the Peace Bridge Commercial Warehouse, which many allege is in violation of federal environmental laws; and the GSA’s top civil rights official, Madeline Caliendo, who after urging by Pease abruptly dismantled a six-agency environmental justice investigation into the high childhood asthma rate in Buffalo’s West Side.
Golombek, who had considered issuing subpoenas, is giving the five federal officials until February 24, 2014 to accept an invitation to speak at a public hearing before the Council, scheduled for March 11, 2014. If the officials decline the invitations, the Council will exercise its subpoena powers, as per a compromise agreement Golombek reached with his colleagues who are uncertain about the city’s ability to subpoena federal employees and would prefer to avoid potential litigation.
“In all likelihood, we’re going to have to subpoena these five individuals to ensure that they not only come before this body, but also tell the truth,” Golombek said. “However, I understand the concerns of my colleagues. Unless these five officials have something to hide, they should have the courage to come before this Council.”
Councilman David Rivera thinks the Council should move more slowly.
“We should first invite the officials to testify willingly,” Rivera said. “But I still support subpoenaing all of the documents involved in the interagency review. We should have all of that information, even though these decisions are made in Washington.”
In addition, Rivera has called for widening the Council’s investigative hearings to include State and PBA officials even though it was federal officials at GSA who pulled the triggers. Rivera also believes that federal elected officials should be involved.
“Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Higgins should be getting to the bottom of this because they are better equipped to address laws at the federal level,” Rivera said.
While there is broad support among the Councilmembers for an investigative hearing on the Peace Bridge, residents worry that involving State and PBA officials, as well as the intervention of Schumer, Gillibrand, and Higgins — all of whom vocally support increasing the volume of truck traffic that uses the Peace Bridge — only diminishes the substance of the Council’s investigation.
Rivera’s suggestions weren’t received well by Columbus Park residents.
“Gillibrand hasn’t spoken about the Peace Bridge and hasn’t been involved, while Schumer and Higgins have pushed relentlessly for massive expansions, demolitions, and Duty Free supercenters,” said Carol Perla, a longtime Columbus Park activist. “They aren’t willing to help us. Why is Rivera trying to play ‘legislative hot potato’ with this issue?”
Several Columbus Park residents identified Rivera as a long-time ally of Sam Hoyt, Governor Cuomo’s chief economic development official in Western New York and an advocate for Cuomo’s Peace Bridge expansion agenda. They allege that Rivera has repeatedly stalled the Council’s investigative efforts by weakening resolutions intended to facilitate the investigation and introducing resolutions of his own that only confuse the effort.
“Rivera is a part of the power structure and has apparently abandoned his conscience and principles because of pressure from Cuomo,” suggested Peter Certo, who resides on Columbus Parkway. “It’s easier for him to do the bidding of the governor than confront the real issues facing our community.”
“This body is the closest level of government to the people, and they have a responsibility to take action,” said Peter Reese, noted attorney, election law expert, and political operative. “We know that poor people tend to be most victimized by pollution; environmental justice may be a slogan, but it’s not a reality. If we had a competent government that cared, then we would be figuring out how to move cross boarder freight on electric trains. But the PBA wants more trucks and higher toll revenues. Contracting, being the ‘new-patronage,’ drives these grandiose expansion projects.”
Reese argues that the Cuomo Administration is interested in little more than political photo-ops in which the governor can demonstrate his successes. But Reese wonders why Cuomo assumes that perceived success must come in the form of massive construction projects and at the expense of public health.
“Cuomo is not warmly received on the left,” Reese said. “There would be enormous upside for Cuomo to carry the torch on environmental issues, especially in a city like Buffalo, with all of the vestiges of our industrial past and our elevated rates of asthma, cancer, stroke, and other environmentally-linked diseases.”
Other residents blame Buffalo’s establishment media outlets for blindly propagating misinformation and half-truths communicated by the area’s elected officials.
“The editorial board of the Buffalo News has been either ignorant or complicit on this environmental injustice,” explained Elizabeth Martina, a longtime Columbus Park resident and career educator who is deeply concerned about the childhood asthma epidemic on the West Side. “Their editorials simply regurgitate whatever Higgins and Schumer say. The media has failed us, refusing to educate the public about the health threat posed by the confluence of diesel exhaust and lake effect winds.”
At elementary schools closest to the Peace Bridge, one-in-three students suffers from asthma; the incidence of asthma at schools in other sections of the city ranges between 5% and 10%, according to a 2009 study by the Buffalo Board of Education.
Martina is particularly offended by Congressman Brian Higgins’ suggestion that the region would lose the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabers if the Peace Bridge plaza were not expanded, and that the area’s retail and cultural scene will also suffer as a result. In fact, as recently as January 27, 2014, Higgins called for the construction of a new Peace Bridge.
“When was the last time you saw an 18-wheeler parked on Elmwood while the driver did his Christmas shopping or outside of the First Niagara Center while the driver took in a Sabres Game?” Martina asked. “Of course we want Canadians coming here to shop at our stores, eat at our restaurants, and spend money on cultural and recreational tourism — but all of that is centered around passenger vehicle traffic, not trucks. We want trucks to cross the border where the health of children is not at stake.”
“These trucks have little positive economic impact on our region,” Martina continued. “They don’t even stop here to refuel. Yet our elected officials would rather support the tax free revenue generated by the PBA for the PBA at the expense of our children’s ability to breathe.”
The President of the Columbus Park Association, Kathy Mecca, agrees with that assessment.
“The Partnership for Public Good has studied the economics of the Peace Bridge and concluded that Higgins’ claim that the bridge has a trickle-down economic benefit is completely and utterly false,” Mecca said. “Higgins’ position is totally indefensible. He and Cuomo have sold Western New Yorkers on this baseless notion that the Peace Bridge is the be-all and end-all for Buffalo. In truth, they’re selling our right to clean air, and the corrupt officials at GSA have shown us that they march in lock-step. How can any of us sit on the sidelines while these rouge bureaucrats do this to our children and grandchildren?”
Last Sunday, Kathy Mecca was the featured guest on Hardline with Dave Debo, News Radio 930AM, where she talked about the environmental justice struggle on Buffalo’s West Side.