Peace Bridge battle reaches Elmwood Village

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

West side residents and environmentalists who want commercial truck traffic banned on the Peace Bridge presented their case in Elmwood Village for the first time Wednesday night at Lafayette Presbyterian Church.

About 30 people attended the informational meeting, which was held the same day that Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the completion of a white paper on Peace Bridge corridor air quality by the departments of Transportation, Environmental Conservation, and Health.

The Buffalo West Side Environmental Defense Fund organized the meeting. Kathy Mecca, president of the west side Columbus Park Association, and Dr. Jamson S. Lwebuga-Mukasa presented the information. The west side, which is downwind from the Peace Bridge,  is less affluent than Elmwood Village, and has a large minority population of almost 70 percent. The 2010 Census data shows more than 2,000 of the 15,840 residents are out of work and about 46 percent live in poverty.

Dr. Jamson S. Lwebuga-Mukasa

Mukasa’s 2001 research concluded that the toxic particles released from commercial truck emissions on the Peace Bridge are the likely reason for the respiratory health problems found in 45 percent of west side households, which is nearly four times the national average. That study also found that when truck traffic decreased on the Peace Bridge after the Sept. 11 attacks, so did cases of respiratory diseases in the west side.

About 3,400 commercial trucks use the Peace Bridge each day, Mecca said.

Since Mukasa’s research, a group of west side residents have been fighting to get commercial truck traffic banned on the Peace Bridge. Mecca has lived on the west side for 47 years. She is one of nine women on her street that had breast cancer and one of four who has survived.

The Public Bridge Authority owns and operates the Peace Bridge. Plans to build a new Peace Bridge and expand the property surrounding it called the Plaza were presented more than a decade ago, but Mecca and other residents have been successful in pushing back the project. The Public Bridge Authority is now pursuing scaled-back version of the project.

Mecca said moving the commercial truck traffic away from residential neighborhoods is the most logical solution.

“That would solve all of the problems,” she said. “We want environmental justice for everybody. We want cleaner air. We want the elimination of pollution. We don’t want mitigation.”

Mukasa said the state Department of Environmental Conservation and other government entities have ignored his research. He said he doesn’t understand why Cuomo and the Public Bridge Authority need more studies when some of his research had been conducted in partnership with scientists from credible institutions, including Harvard and Columbia universities. Mukasa also said his research studied the impacts of “ultra-fine particles” that the DEC is not measuring in its monitoring.

“The particles they are measuring are way too large and not the ones causing the inflammation,” he said.

The state white paper released Wednesday counters Musaka’s findings with some of the following conclusions:

  • The Peace Bridge corridor meet all federal EPA emissions standards.
  • Air quality near the Peace Bridge is improving because of enhanced heavy-duty engine standards.
  • Air monitoring at the Peace Bridge between 2001-2002 and 2005-2006 shows that local air quality improved.
  • Poverty, race, socioeconomic factors, access to medical care and indoor air quality have a stronger connection to the high asthma rates, not the geographic location.
  • Among the four Zip Codes in the region with the highest asthma rates, only one was near the Peace Bridge about a quarter mile away and not downwind of the bridge.
  • The Health Effects Institute states that the neighborhoods by the Peace Bridge are not an air quality hot spot because emissions levels are similar or even better than in other urban areas.