Another call for probe of Peace Bridge project

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

Tuesday’s Buffalo Common Council meeting could be an interesting one when it comes to Peace Bridge matters.

That’s when Council is scheduled to vote on North District Common Council Member Joe Golombek’s resolution that calls for a federal investigation of the environmental review process undertaken by the state Department of Transportation for its proposed project at the Peace Bridge. The $28.5 million project would reconfigure roads and ramps leading to and from the Peace Bridge plaza.

Perhaps more noteworthy is the review concluded the project would not improve air quality, countering claims made months earlier by proponents of the work.

The resolution, if approved, represents the second request for a federal investigation into how the DOT, Federal Highway Administration and the project contractor, Parsons Corp., have handled public outreach for the work.

The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York sent a lengthy complaint last month to the Department of Justice charging that the project planners, including DOT, FHA and  arsons discriminated against West Side residents – a charge accompanied by about 100 pages of documentation and signatures of more than 150 West Side residents.

The fate of Golombek’s resolution is uncertain. It was passed out of the Community Development Committee without recommendation earlier this week. The Council often defers to the wishes of the district representative on neighborhood level issues and Niagara District Council Member David Rivera didn’t signal any support at Tuesday’s committee meeting.

Golombek suspects Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s strong support for this project and expansion of the bridge plaza might scare off some of his colleagues from supporting the resolution.

“My gut feeling is the powers that be are starting to get to some of my colleagues in Buffalo and they are nervous about supporting this even though people are still getting sick and dying over there,” Golombek said in an interview.

The state already agreed to extend the public commenting period on the  2,000 pages of environmental review reports for 15 days, even though community activists and Golombek asked for a 45-day extension. The state, in announcing the 15-day extension, issued a statement that stumped some in the community.

“The Department has exceeded all outreach, public meeting and review time requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act,” read the release by Thomas Donahue, Parsons principal project manager.

That’s an interesting take on the situation considering what the DOT, FHA and Parsons are facing.

Keep in mind that anything construction related at the Peace Bridge that deals with traffic is an automatic controversial issue because of the longstanding and well-documented health problems of residents living near the bridge.

Erin Heaney, executive director of the Clean Air Coalition, said the nonprofit advocacy group disagrees with the state’s assertion that it has exceeded outreach required by law.

The DOT organized four meetings for this project in June, July, October and December, all of which had very few minority visitors. Documents and cardboard visuals at the June meeting were only in English. Notices initially mailed to residents were only in English and the Coalition’s complaint charges that state officials failed to communicate with other organizations that represent residents who don’t speak English as their first language.

“When Natasha Soto (the Coalition’s West Side community organizer) and Erin Heaney approached the Parson’s corporation representative, Rita Campon, with their concerns with the lack of language access Ms. Campon responded, ‘Oh, I’m Hispanic, I know. My people wouldn’t come out anyways,'” the complaint alleges.

The DOT included some materials translated in Spanish at the final three meetings after community activists kept the pressure on the agency.

The state’s second mailer was in both English and Spanish, but sent to less than 1,000 homes.

The Coalition’s federal complaint charges that the DOT neither conducted meaningful outreach nor provided documents explaining the project in languages other than Spanish and English. The outreach the state did do was spotty and unremarkable, according to the complaint.

The Coalition says this is important because residents living in the four census tracts closest to the Peace Bridge are largely minority, with a vibrant refugee population that speaks numerous languages including Somali, Burmese, Nepali and Arabic.

What is the state and federal government required to do?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination, part of the basis of the complaint. There are also rules and executive orders that provide guidance on how the government should approach projects in poor, minority neighborhoods.

Investigative Post reported in April about federal and state environmental justice rules that state low-income, minority communities cannot bear a disproportionate amount of health and environmental impacts from any project. The West Side qualifies because 46 percent of its residents live in poverty and 69 percent are minority, according to the 2010 Census.

The rules say project planners should consider ways to avoid, minimize or mitigate the health and environmental impacts, and to meaningfully engage the community as early, and as often, as possible. But they aren’t laws and don’t require the government to mitigate any adverse health impacts.

That’s not to say these rules ring hollow because failure by the government to take those steps can be used in a lawsuit charging discrimination. 

“The Department of Transportation’s actions towards residents of the West Side over the last few years have been racist,” Heaney said.

“They put out a deeply flawed paper on air pollution that refuted best available science, asserting people of color on the lower West Side had asthma because they were dirty and didn’t take care of themselves, not because they breathe in diesel exhaust,” she said, adding it took grass-roots pressure to get state officials to take the first steps  toward making a good-faith effort to engage the community.

“They only included Spanish speaking people in the process once there was a rally outside of their offices. Now they are refusing to include our refugee community in decisions that impact their neighborhood,” Heaney said.

Kathy Mecca, president of the Niagara Gateway Columbus Park Association, wrote state officials this week critical of the outreach effort.

“Stating that you’ve ‘exceeded’ a minimum threshold does not mean that the Department is fulfilling the spirit and intent of the law,” Mecca wrote.

“You’ve done us no favor.  And you’ve certainly done no favors for the 1,500 of us who have no English or Spanish proficiency. They are no less American than anyone else, and yet the department’s actions have marginalized them.”

State DOT officials declined to comment on Golombek’s resolutions or the discrimination charges.

Read Investigative Post’s transparency policy on Peace Bridge coverage.