The racial justice issue that Americans must stop ignoring: Pollution

Environmental degradation is ravaging minority communities. One example from the NY/NJ area looms large

Published January 18, 2016 10:59AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Gary Hershorn)
(Reuters/Gary Hershorn)

It is easy for Martin Luther King Day to be co-opted into a pat on the back for the United States with the first African-American in the White House serving his last year of his second term. And yet, if the celebration is to mean anything, it must be an occasion for us to call out examples where racism still forecloses on the future of young people of color, sometimes even before they are born.

Case in point, the decision earlier this month by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey -- of Bridgegate infamy -- to reverse itself on a pledge it made in 2010 to ban all diesel trucks that were older than 2007 when federal truck engine regulations kicked in, which would have required a major reduction in highly toxic diesel emissions.

Back in 2010, then-Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia hailed the move to ban the pre-2007 diesel soot-spewing trucks by 2017 as a way the bi-state agency “would build on our legacy as good environmental stewards.”

It is the poor working class neighborhoods of color in and around the Port’s sprawling cargo handling facilities in Newark and Elizabeth that bare the brunt of these deadly emissions. These are the same kinds of places where health disparities, as well documented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, already take a toll in terms of higher infant mortality, shorter life expectancy and a higher incidence of chronic illness.

Public health data indicates that just three of the counties in New Jersey closest to the port complex account for a third of the hospitalizations for asthma in the state.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the 2007 breakthrough in diesel technology that reduced these deadly toxic emissions by over 90 percent, and what that could mean for the neighborhoods with a high volume of truck traffic. Over the years, epidemiologists have estimated that exposure to diesel emissions was linked nationally to 125,000 cancer cases and 21,000 pre-mature deaths annually. That’s more people than are killed annually by drunk driving or murdered by guns.

These emissions are not good for anybody, but they pose even greater risk to children, whose lungs are still developing, and to the elderly, who may have pre-existing respiratory problems that these emissions greatly exacerbate.

Dr. Bob Laumbach is an associate professor of environment and occupational health at Rutgers School of Public Health. He’s has spent his career tracking linkages between disease and environmental contamination. Dr. Laumbach says that with diesel exhaust its both what you see and what’s actually invisible that’s so toxic and deadly.

“So it includes particles which we see when soot is coming out of the tailpipe,” says Laumbach. “But a lot of those particles we can’t see. They are invisible they are so small and those very small particles are the ones that we are particularly concerned about because they can get deep in the lungs.”

“These small particles get into the lungs and they can cause irritation. They can cause the worsening of asthma,” says Laumbach. “They can cause new onset asthma, meaning asthma in someone who has not had asthma before as a new chronic disease. They also contribute to heart attacks and other cardio vascular diseases.”

And there's more. In addition to the particles, Laumbach says the emissions include “gases like nitrogen oxide, sulphur oxides, formaldehyde, benzene, and a number of those are carcinogens that cause cancer.”

Research indicates that children in Newark, a city with the highest concentration of diesel truck traffic and port activity in Essex County, are more likely to have to be hospitalized for asthma than their suburban peers. “Well there is evidence that shows that when we look at Newark and compare it to surrounding communities, more suburban, more affluent communities in Essex County, that the rate of hospitalization for asthma among children is about twice that of the surrounding communities,” says Lumbach.

In 2012, Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health released a multi-year study that documented a link between the chronic exposure of pregnant women to diesel emissions and behavioral problems in their offspring.

Of the 9,000 trucks that serve the Port Authority, only 2,700 meet that more stringent post-2007 emission standard. Now, instead of a 2017 total cut-off for the older polluting rigs, as originally promised, the bi-state agency, starting this March, won’t permit additional pre-2007 rigs to start operating. That has the result of grandfathering in the thousands of polluting trucks working the Port with the exception of models made in 1994 and 1995, which would be banned in 2018, two years from now.

Talk about the fierce urgency of now. Dr. King was told by his critics that he needed to be less confrontational, because racial injustice would be resolved "all in good time." Imagine how he might advocate today for the health of poor children of color who have no choice but to breath air made more toxic than it needs to be because of the Port Authority’s breach of promise.

“And I must honestly say to you that I’m convinced that the forces of ill will have often used time much more effectively than the forces of goodwill,” Dr. King told a London audience in 1964. “And we may have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around saying, ‘Wait on time.’ ”

Earlier this month, in explaining the Port Authority backslide, a spokesman blamed sticker shock, telling the Record it would cost the bi-state agency $150 million to replace the 6,300 pre-2007 trucks in the fleet. The Port Authority only committed $1.2 million, which along with $9 million from the federal government, would be enough to deal with six percent of the polluting rigs. (Starting next month the Port Authority is accepting public comment on its new plan at

Yet, according to the EPA, a $100 million dollar investment in voluntary retrofitting for the pre-2007 diesel truck fleet nationally would generate $2 billion in health benefits from reduced premature deaths, hospital visits and other costs associated with diesel emission exposure.

The Port Authority handles $200 billion dollars a year worth of cargo. Close to half of the Port Authority workforce makes more than $100,000 a year. An average Port Authority police officer makes $124,467, with the highest paid employee being an officer who brought down $330,856, according to a study of the agency’s payroll by the Empire Center. The bi-state agency charges cars paying cash $15 and trucks over $100 per trip to use their bridges and tunnels.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is run by a board of commissioners appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Historically, an appointment to the Commission has gone to generous campaign donors, real estate developers and Wall Street types. There are a couple of high level trade union guys for window dressing but currently all 12 commissioners appear to be white men.

Kim Gaddy is a Newark-based environmental justice organizer with the non-profit advocacy group Clean Water Action. All of Gaddy’s three children have asthma, something all too common in Newark, where she says as many as one in six children are similarly afflicted.

“I was quite floored that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did not respect the health of Newarkers and decided that because of money they are not going to follow through with the plan,” says Gaddy. “And so now my life, my children’s life, you have put a price on their head saying they are not good enough for us to save their lives cause we can’t afford to remove these older trucks. I think that is an injustice to all the residents in this City of Newark and I think the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a bad neighbor.”

Gaddy says asthma exacts a high toll on Newark families. “It is the number one reason for absenteeism,”Gaddy says.“You complain that our children are not being educated but some of them have to miss school because they are sick and their parents have to take off of work so now they are loosing money and they can’t pay their bills and so it is all tied in.”

And the public health risk is also an occupational hazard warns Gaddy. “Longshoremen who make a very good living down here at the Port, their life is in jeopardy because of the amount of diesel pollution that they take in on a daily basis is causing serious problems with them.”

According to the Union for Concerned Scientists dock workers, truckers, and railroad workers who face chronic exposure to diesel emissions have a 20 to 50 percent increased risk of lung cancer mortality.

Gaddy says the PANYNJ should follow the example of the Ports of Los Angles and Long Beach that in 2012 banned all pre-2007 diesel rigs. “The municipality, the Mayor, the Port Commission and private investors all decided ‘hey this was important’—too many lives are at stake we are right next to communities, ” says Gaddy. “We have to take on this responsibility to save the lives of our residents.”

The first Earth Day was in 1970, two years after Dr. King was murdered. But he left us a frame of reference in his speeches that, if we read and re-read them, helps us to identify how in our day, in our time, the color line endures and the inequality continues to fester undermining generation after generation.

By Robert Hennelly

MORE FROM Robert Hennelly

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Environmentalism Pollution Racism White Supremacy