Breaking down the idling story

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

Yes, it’s true that diesel truck engines run cleaner than they did a decade ago. But it doesn’t mean you should go ahead and inhale the fumes from thousands of trucks on a daily basis.

There’s a law in New York that prohibits heavy-duty diesel engines from idling for more than five minutes under normal circumstances and that law is not being enforced, especially on the Lower West Side, where there is a long history of respiratory problems. That’s the basis of my report published on investigativepost.org and broadcast on WGRZ TV.

The lack of enforcement here is not a unique problem. There are anti-idling laws all over the country but you don’t have to go far to find enforcement efforts that fall short. New York City has a particularly strict anti-idling law, but, as CNN reported, there’s been lax enforcement.

I want to share a few observations that didn’t make their way into my story:

I saw numerous idling trucks parked in different places on Peace Bridge property during stakeouts I conducted outside the gate near the Duty Free shop off Busti Avenue. But even more noticeable was the number of trucks stuck in traffic on the bridge waiting to enter the country. The DEC law does not impact trucks stuck in traffic, and you don’t want any engine to be turned on and off over and over.

The only solution to reducing diesel fumes is to move the trucks through the bridge more quickly and share the truck traffic with other bridge crossings such as the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge. As it now stands, there’s a competition between the two spans and the Peace Bridge is winning by nearly a 2 to 1 margin.

A second observation starts with the sense of urgency I read in the June letter and subsequent press release requesting DEC to enforce the anti-idling law from Niagara Common Council Council Member David Rivera and State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who represent the neighborhood around the Peace Bridge.

“The link between respiratory illness among West Side residents and their close proximity to thousands of idling trucks cannot be ignored,” Ryan said in the press release. “Simply enforcing the regulation will greatly improve the lives of those living on the west side, and help to send a signal that the DEC takes truck idling seriously, and will not hesitate to fine those who violate the law.”

Sounds like a pretty serious problem, right?

Not so much when I approached Ryan and Rivera with details on the lack of enforcement.

The problem no longer seemed as important as it was back in June when they wrote the letter. Something changed. Perhaps the push by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to expand the bridge plaza?

Rivera danced around my questions about the DEC enforcement efforts. In addition, Public Bridge Authority General Manager Ron Rienas declined my request for an on-camera interview once I told the authority’s spokesman what I wanted to question him about.

The lack of enforcement and the subsequent lack of criticism raises a question: Was the writing of the letter and DEC’s response anything more than a dog-and-pony show aimed at appeasing the concerns of West Side residents?

I keep going back to the Rivera-Ryan letter asking DEC to crack down on idling trucks.

“These residents close proximity to the 4,000 diesel trucks that cross the border daily has greatly contributed to the poor health and sky-high asthma rates found in these neighborhoods,” they said in their letter. “One of the biggest drivers of this long-standing problem is the occurrence of trucks idling at the Peace Bridge plaza.”

How sincere do you think the DEC and the politicians are being?