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Feds Stonewall Questions on Thwarted Peace Bridge Investigation

Amid damning allegations of impropriety and the maladministration of federal environmental law, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) is facing severe scrutiny for killing an August 2012 federal investigation into the high childhood asthma rate in Buffalo’s West Side, while simultaneously conducting a cursory environmental review of a Peace Bridge project. GSA’s actions were first exposed by The Buffalo News on January 26, 2014. Since that time, elected officials and community leaders have been demanding answers.

It was under the watch of Dan Tangherlini — GSA’s top official — that the suspect actions took place, and now he and four other federal officials are being summoned to Buffalo to testify at a special public hearing before the Common Council. Tangherlini took over GSA in April 2012 after a scandal forced his predecessor to resign. Now mired in a scandal of his own, Tangherlini and two other top GSA officials — Madeline Caliendo and Denise Pease — could also face the chopping block.

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A spokesperson for Tangherlini, Dan Cruz, did not answer BR’s questions about GSA’s quashing of the August 2012 interagency environmental justice investigation and why the agency’s top official in New York authorized an insufficient environmental review for a project that clearly required a higher level of analysis according to federal law.

“I have no idea why a six-agency environmental review would be disbanded so abruptly, and without sufficient explanation. That’s what makes it so important that we have these hearings in order to find out what’s going on. I have more questions than answers at this point,” says Councilman Joseph Golombek, who is calling for hearings and a full scale investigation.

Golombek argues that moving the trucks to Lewiston-Queenston vastly mitigates the public health threat posed by diesel carcinogens in Western New York. The winds off Lake Erie make the Peace Bridge an unsuitable location for cargo trucks; those wind patterns don’t exist in Lewiston.

GSA is the landlord of the federal government, managing federal buildings and leases on behalf of other agencies. At the Peace Bridge, GSA leases inspection booths and the Commercial Warehouse building from the Peace Bridge Authority (PBA) for about $2 million annually; this allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to inspect U.S.-bound traffic at the bridge. Were it not for CBP providing commercial truck inspection services at the Peace Bridge, diesel exhaust-spewing trucks would be forced to enter the U.S. elsewhere.

The President’s environmental justice agenda

On February 11, 2014, President Obama issued a proclamation commemorating the 20th anniversary of President Clinton’s signing of Executive Order 12898: Federal actions to address environmental justice in minority populations and low-income populations. It is difficult to see past the irony of the President celebrating this milestone when it was revealed three weeks ago that two GSA officials, including a presidential appointee and a civil rights director, abruptly halted a six-agency environmental justice investigation in August 2012 that was exploring solutions to the West Side’s childhood asthma rate.

Obama officially defined his administration’s stance on environmental justice in 2011 when he convened the Federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice and ordered each federal agency to develop an Environmental Justice Strategy outlining how agencies will identify and mitigate environmental justice issues. The President later issued a Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities, also in the spirit of his environmental justice agenda.

In February 2012 — six months before officials began investigating the West Side asthma rate — GSA issued their Environmental Justice Strategy, per Obama’s directive. The Strategy states that “GSA has committed to eliminating its impact on the environment and using its government-wide influence to eliminate the environmental impact of the federal government — for the benefit of all populations, including minority and low-income populations.” In the case of the “minority and low-income population” in Buffalo’s West Side, however, GSA used its “government-wide influence to eliminate” a 22-person federal environmental justice task force.

Putting the President’s agenda into action

When Madeline Caliendo, GSA’s civil rights director and senior environmental justice official, first learned of the high childhood asthma rate in the West Side and its ties to Peace Bridge truck traffic in August 2012 through GSA senior planner Peter Rizzo, Caliendo was quick to establish the interagency taskforce. The taskforce included representatives from GSA, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Caliendo’s swift action was directly in line with the President’s environmental justice directives and the mandates outlined in GSA’s Environmental Justice Strategy.

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On August 13, 2012, Buffalo’s own Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa traveled to Washington, DC to meet with the interagency environmental justice taskforce. According to The Buffalo News, the group discussed how Peace Bridge truck traffic has led to toxic air pollution and human health complications throughout the West Side.

Ten days later, on August 23, 2012, Caliendo (pictured right) received a sharply worded email from Denise Pease — a presidential appointee and GSA’s top official in New York — in which Pease said she was “taken aback” after learning that officials in Washington were investigating issues related to something as “SENSITIVE” as the Peace Bridge. Just six days later, Caliendo called off the West Side environmental justice investigation in an email to the 22 federal officials involved. Neither Caliendo nor Pease responded to questions posed by BR.

“It is disappointing that there has been such a lack of leadership at the higher levels. It is a hard issue, and you see cowardism among people. It’s such a difficult issue that government officials would rather just ignore it because that’s easier. But people are getting sick and suffering from asthma, cancer, and stroke.  I can’t just shut up and stomach that,” Golombek says.

“There are lots of groups, government agencies, and authorities that are all moving in different directions. We should all be on the same page. Clean air is something everyone needs, it should be the imperative of our government. We should all be working towards achieving that,” Golombek insists.

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North District Councilman Joseph Golombek with Dr. Jamson Lwebuga-Mukasa, a pulmonologist who specializes in pulmonary disease. Dr. Lwebuga-Mukasa has conducted extensive research linking the carcinogens and diesel particulates at the Peace Bridge as the cause of the West Side’s epidemic rates of childhood asthma. 

The inadequate environmental review

What could be more “SENSITIVE” than the health and welfare of children? Covering up a boldly inadequate environmental review authorized by a top political official, perhaps.

In 2012, the PBA and New York State were advancing a significant renovation initiative for the U.S. Peace Bridge plaza. Included were plans to expand the Commercial Warehouse, widen the in-bound plaza approach, and reconfigure a plaza exit ramp. The price tag for this effort was around $50 million. Because GSA leases the Commercial Warehouse for use by CBP, expansion of the building required GSA to conduct an environmental review according to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

DPThere are three levels of environmental review allowed under NEPA. For the Commercial Warehouse expansion project, GSA chose to carry out the lowest level of review — a “Categorical Exclusion” — which involves no public participation and is supposed to be reserved for small, isolated projects, not a $20 million expansion project that is part of a $50 million Peace Bridge plaza overhaul. In truth, the appropriate level of NEPA review is to be selected according to the scale of the project in combination with other ongoing or anticipated projects that may collectively have a “cumulative” environmental impact. With all of the concurrent activity planned for the Peace Bridge plaza at the time, GSA was obligated to conduct a higher level of NEPA review for the Commercial Warehouse building expansion project, such as an “Environmental Assessment” (EA) or “Environmental Impact Statement” (EIS), but likely did not do so because EAs and EISs require public participation, which in the past has stopped Peace Bridge projects dead.

Pease (pictured right) gave the orders for GSA to complete a Categorical Exclusion for the Commercial Warehouse expansion project in defiance of her own advice documented in a June 2012 letter to Sam Hoyt — then-chair of the PBA. In the letter, Pease acknowledges that a higher level of environmental review would be required if the Commercial Warehouse building expansion project was not “the only project currently planned for the Peace Bridge Plaza.” Hoyt responded to Pease’s letter, informing her that multiple projects are, in fact, planned for the Peace Bridge, according to The Buffalo News.

The cover-up

When Caliendo told Pease in August 2012 that an interagency taskforce in Washington was investigating the Peace Bridge’s effect on West Side air quality, Pease had every reason to sound the alarm. Not only had Pease authorized her agency to violate NEPA by conducting an inadequate environmental review for the Commercial Warehouse expansion project, but with documentation linking Peace Bridge truck traffic to the West Side’s childhood asthma rate, GSA was in violation of her agency’s NEPA implementation policy, which strictly prohibits the use of Categorical Exclusions when there is “evidence of community controversy or other environmental issues.”

The thought that the interagency environmental justice taskforce might expose Pease’s authorization of illegal activity was likely enough to compel Pease to urge Caliendo to end her investigation and prevent the 22-member taskforce from moving forward. Had GSA’s illicit Categorical Exclusion been exposed, it is likely that GSA would have been forced to conduct a higher level of NEPA review, thereby delaying the completion of the NEPA process and impacting the start date for construction of the Commercial Warehouse expansion.

With Governor Andrew Cuomo’s demand for “progress” at the Peace Bridge, it’s no wonder why a political operative like Pease directed her employees to conduct a quick and dirty Categorical Exclusion instead of a higher level of review that would have required public involvement. It’s also no wonder why Pease needed Caliendo to kill the interagency taskforce, which too could have jeopardized the project. Pease has long and deep relationships inside New York City and New York State’s political community, having held top positions in City and State government prior to her political appointment as head GSA’s New York regional office.

The consequences

Caliendo’s actions boldly defy President Obama’s environmental justice agenda and GSA’s Environmental Justice Strategy. Pease’s actions represent clear violations of NEPA, GSA’s NEPA implementation policy, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits the federal government from treating minority communities like the West Side differently from other communities. As two senior federal officials, Caliendo and Pease are expected to understand and uphold all federal laws and policies. Their apparent total disregard for the integrity of public service is peculiar at best.

With so many federal policies and directives designed to protect minority and low-income communities, the political ties to Cuomo cannot be ignored. Whether direct or indirect, chances are good that Albany played a role in Caliendo and Pease’s actions. West Side residents agree.

“Just last year, I was summoned to a meeting and told very matter-of-fact that Governor Cuomo ‘expects that blood will be shed’ over the Peace Bridge project,” said Kathy Mecca, longtime West Side community advocate. “I was stunned by the governor’s cruel words. If he felt his pet project at the Peace Bridge was being threatened by the community, then how far would he go to intimidate elected officials to march to the beat of his drum?”

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Longtime activist Kathy Mecca speaking at the National Environmental Justice Conference in Washington, DC in April 2013, where she presented a powerful, emotional, and moving presentation on the plight of Buffalo’s West Side, an overwhelmingly minority and impoverished neighborhood, to more than 150 federal agency officials.

Pease defended her authorization of the Categorical Exclusion in a letter to The Buffalo News, despite the fact that her action violated several presidential directives. In the letter, Pease narrowly defines GSA’s involvement in the Commercial Warehouse expansion project, claiming that the renewal of the lease for this building “did not pose a threat to health and the environment. The warehouse project is not increasing the number of truck bays nor is it expected to increase the number of truck inspections at the facility. … GSA has no authority over the proposed expansion at the Peace Bridge, nor would GSA have any role in a decision to redirect truck traffic to another bridge.”

“It’s complete boloney,” Mecca said. “The GSA leases space from the PBA for use by CBP. If GSA refused to authorize the lease arrangement for truck inspection facilities at the Peace Bridge, then those trucks would effectively be rerouted to the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. Based on President Obama’s directives on environmental justice, this would be the proper course of action.”

KM3For years, the PBA and politicians have proposed various iterations of an expanded plaza, a new span, reconfigured onramps, and even a massive duty free shopping center. All of these proposals have been premised on the assumption that cross border trade and commerce demands increased truck processing capacity. However, instead of pitching all of the projects in one fell swoop, the PBA and New York State have staggered the announcement of Peace Bridge projects to circumvent “cumulative impact” analysis to the greatest degree possible. Pease’s claim that the Commercial Warehouse expansion project is not expected to increase the number of truck inspections at the facility is disingenuous on its face, residents contend.

“It’s segmentation, plain and simple,” Mecca said. “Take GSA’s Categorical Exclusion for the Commercial Warehouse project. In it, GSA goes to great lengths to explain why they aren’t responsible for examining cumulative impact. This nonsense needs to stop.” 

Residents believe it is ridiculous for Pease to diminish GSA’s environmental review responsibilities for Peace Bridge projects. At the very least, Pease has been notified of the PBA’s various expansion projects through a long trail of emails from residents articulating public health impacts. Residents also argue that Pease’s claim that GSA has no role in a decision to redirect truck traffic to another bridge is a misrepresentation.

“Something larger is feeding this vicious cycle,” Mecca said. “Shakespeare said in Hamlet, ‘Something is rotten in the State of Denmark.’ I say, ‘Something is rotten in the State of New York.’ Enough is enough.”

 

Featured image: President Barack Obama, with the White House Council on Environmental Quality, at a 2009 signing of an Executive Order directing the Federal government to adopt more sustainable operating practices.

Written by Matthew Ricchiazzi

@MattRicchiazzi on Twitter

View All Articles by Matthew Ricchiazzi
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