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Golombek calls on Obama to Investigate Killed Environmental Justice Review

Councilman Joseph Golombek is formally calling upon President Barack Obama to investigate why the top civil rights official at the US General Services Administration, Madeline Caliendo, killed an August 2012 environmental justice investigation into the severe childhood asthma rate that exists on the West Side of Buffalo; and why Denise Pease, the Regional Administrator for GSA’s New York Office, simultaneously developed a Categorical Exclusion (the lowest level of environmental review allowed under the National Environmental Policy Act) for the agency’s renovation and expansion of the Peace Bridge customs house and truck inspection facilities.

“I am appalled that a federal civil rights leader would call off a good-faith multi-agency effort to improve environmental health conditions in Buffalo’s most distressed neighborhood and that GSA attempted to publicly shame the employee [Peter Rizzo, a GSA Senior Planner] who brought our issue to the attention of his colleagues in Washington,” Golombek writes.

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According to the latest US Census figures, 69% of West Side residents are minority; 45% live below the poverty line. In the last decade, leading medical researchers from across the country have investigated air quality conditions in the West Side. Universally, these researchers have concluded that diesel exhaust from commercial trucks crossing the Peace Bridge has created a toxic environment in the neighborhood, resulting in devastating human health consequences, including disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, and stroke.

A 2009 study commissioned by the Buffalo Board of Education found that nearly one-in-three children attending the elementary schools nearest the Peace Bridge tested positive for asthma, compared to just 5 to 10% of children attending elementary school elsewhere in the city.

“Since taking office, you have firmly supported environmental justice initiatives by reconvening President Clinton’s Federal Inter-agency Working Group on Environmental Justice; directing agencies to develop and implement environmental justice action strategies; and establishing the Coordinated Federal Action Plan to Reduce Racial and Ethnic Asthma Disparities. Unfortunately, however, when a team of 22 federal officials attempted to put your environmental justice directives into action on behalf of Buffalo residents, they were almost immediately ordered to disband.”

“GSA violated their own NEPA guidelines in developing their Categorical Exclusion, and in doing so also violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, as the agency has conducted far more rigorous environmental reviews for smaller projects in wealthier, less diverse communities. For example, a simple Google search reveals that GSA has conducted multiple Environmental Assessments (one step above Categorical Exclusions) for security bollard installation projects at federal buildings,” Golombek writes.

“Please resurrect this inter-agency environmental justice investigation and empower the officials involved with the authority to incite action designed to protect the welfare of our children,” Golombek asks of President Obama. Longtime West Side community activist Kathy Mecca says that the federal and state government know how to end the devastating public health crisis.

“It’s caused by toxic air pollution from the peace bridge complex that flows 24/7 into the streets, homes, schools, and lungs of the men, women, and children who live on the West Side.  Joe knows that at times, the air quality in our neighborhood is so poor that children and adults gasp for air – our neighborhood is suffocating. Politics played a key role in stopping the federal environmental justice investigation,” Mecca says.

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“Was the environmental justice review disbanded because it was wrong or because it was politically expedient? If the investigation was killed for political expediency, then that’s criminal. We need to make sure that nobody was conspiring for political reasons that puts residents at risk,” Councilman David Franczyk argued at Tuesday’s Common Council Meeting.

Franczyk represents parts of Allentown, a neighborhood heavily impacted by diesel exhaust particulates because of prevailing lake effect winds, which push toxic carcinogens deep into broad swaths of the city west of Main Street. Many activists suspect that the Cuomo Administration pressured Pease to kill the inter-agency review.

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“We need to get all of the federal officials involved in killing the inter-agency review to speak before this Council. We need to get them in here, put them under oath, and ask them questions. How can we just take the PBA’s word on these things?  The federal government starts a study, then suddenly it’s killed. They can’t say, ‘just trust us.’  It’s vitally important that we get these people before this Council and hold them accountable,” Councilman Michael LoCurto demanded.

LoCurto wants Pease, Caliendo, Rizzo, Ron Reinas [PBA General Manager] and others to appear. It’s unclear whether the Council will ask that Sam Hoyt appears for questioning under oath as well. Hoyt has played a central role in the Cuomo Administration’s months-long effort to seize control of upwards of $100 million in construction contracting from the PBA, instigating a diplomatic crisis that deeply damaged our relationship with our Canadian partners.

The Cuomo Administration is alleged to have manipulated air quality monitoring over the same period of time.

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“If we can get the trucks moved to Lewiston-Queenston, we would all jump for joy. The people who can solve these problems are in the federal and state government, not here in the City Council,” explains Councilman David Rivera, who represents the neighborhoods surrounding the Peace Bridge.  “These problems have been here long before I came to this Council, and will probably be here long after I’m gone.”

Rivera has been criticized by residents for appearing at a press conference with Governor Andrew Cuomo in support of an Administration plan to transfer ownership of Busti Avenue and the Episcopal Church Home to the Public Bridge Authority for an expanded Duty Free Truck Stop.

A number of longtime Columbus Park and Prospect Hill activists are encouraging Bernice Radle, the preservationist and development guru, to run for the Niagara District council seat.

Written by Matthew Ricchiazzi

@MattRicchiazzi on Twitter

View All Articles by Matthew Ricchiazzi
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