Politics in the air at the Peace Bridge?

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

Although there’s a lack of bulletproof evidence that political influence spoiled the Department of Environmental Conversation’s air monitoring testing at the Peace Bridge, there are anecdotal references worth mentioning.

We reported last month several flaws in the Department of Environmental Conservation’s air monitoring program, one of which was the agency concluding that air quality at the Peace Bridge was no worse than anywhere else in the city. That conclusion flies in the face of an overwhelming amount of independent research.

Two days after our story aired, the DEC agreed to expand the air monitoring program. The DEC, however, has yet to answer any questions since posting Commissioner Joe Martens statement on Nov. 15.

During my reporting, two people involved in the issue told me they are under the impression that there was political pressure involved in the air monitoring program at the Peace Bridge. There certainly has been a lot of political friction since Gov. Andrew Cuomo got involved with the Peace Bridge plaza expansion.

Both Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, and William Scheider, research assistant professor with University at Buffalo, had discussions regarding the air monitoring with DEC employees who they said made vague references to politics.

Heaney said she was questioning a DEC employee about why the agency released the report with a press release — one that mischaracterized the results and cherry picked data from other independent studies — without any communication with neighborhood residents. She used the example of the Tonawanda air monitoring process in 2009 that found outrageously high levels of benzene and formaldehyde in the air.

“They never released the results to the press before the large, community meeting,” she said. 

In the case of the Peace Bridge air monitoring, Heaney said, “We were asking for a week to get members of the community together to go visit DEC, which they didn’t end up giving us, and to have a full public meeting, which they still have not scheduled.”

Heaney said the DEC employee she spoke with mentioned how there “are more players” and there is “more attention on this issue than there was in Tonawanda.”

“I told him that makes us question the objectivity of the report,” she said.

Scheider had a similar experience. The former Clean Air Coalition board member has conducted his own air monitoring in neighborhoods close to the Peace Bridge and has criticized state reports that have downplayed the role that bridge pollution has on the high asthma rates on the Lower West Side.

“The issue of the traffic around the bridge is politically charged, but taking it as a whole, what I heard from the DEC people, what I read in the report compared with the press release, I think there’s politics involved there,” he said.

“How is it that senators Grisanti and Kennedy are quoted in this thing and the community hadn’t even seen it yet and had a chance to respond to it? How do the senators get to do that and the representatives of the community do not?”

Peter Constantakes, a public information officer for the DEC, denied there was any political pressure coming from the governor’s office. 

“This press release was not politically charged,” he said.

But his answer still doesn’t explain how a press release that made a key misrepresentation got to the media after DEC brass and the governor’s press office reviewed it.

What’s the political motivation for anyone entering the Peace Bridge fray? This is a sticky mess the governor has called a “metaphor for dysfunction.”

The governor is pushing for a plaza expansion and has used other state agencies to advance that agenda. His goal was emphasized this summer when the state purchased the decaying Episcopal Church Home campus that abuts the plaza for $4.7 million for $3 million more than the state’s appraisal.

Plans are to raze most of the buildings on the property, clear it and land bank it for a potential expansion. Neighborhood groups oppose any expansion on the grounds it could worsen pollution problems that have been linked to high asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

On Sept. 12, 2012, the state released a “white paper” that concluded poverty, race and socioeconomic factors play a larger in why people who live near the bridge are so sick.

Both Scheider and Joe Gardella, University at Buffalo’s professor of chemistry, criticized the state’s report for a lack of science.

“The logic and interpretation of statistics in the white paper is deeply flawed and in some cases the white paper misrepresents available information so badly that the motivations behind the paper must be questioned,” Scheider wrote in his response to the state’s white paper.

A year after the state released the white paper, the DEC concluded that its air monitoring program found pollution levels at the Peace Bridge comparable with the rest of the city—a conclusion the agency, after intense questioning from iPost, conceded was a mistake.

“Any conclusion that air quality at the Peace Bridge and on the Lower West Side is no worse than the general urban environment and not creating any additional health problems beyond the usual urban levels is at best totally premature and based on woefully incomplete data,” Scheider said.

Read Investigative Post’s transparency policy on Peace Bridge related stories.