Schumer and Cuomo's Dirty Little Secret

If you're not from Western New York, home to the Buffalo Bills and the region of New York west of Albany and bordering with Canada, you probably have never heard of The Peace Bridge, the connecting highway between the U.S. and Canada.

This ironically named project has been a bone of contention amongst community leaders, scientists, politicians and developers for years.

The Bridge was built in the 1920s but a major sticking point has been the expansion of a large truck plaza adjacent to a one particular community on Buffalo's West Side, which already experiences a disproportionate amount of air pollution from the bridge.

Why should you care? Unless you're dwelling in a forest somewhere, chances are you live or work near a highway and/or bridge -- and what happens here in Buffalo may impact the cost/benefit analysis your city makes between your health and what it gains from commercial interests.

Because Buffalo is an international city, trucks and vehicles travelling across the border experience additional checks, resulting in a number of idling vehicles in the Peace Bridge plaza. And plans are afoot to expand the plaza to accommodate even more traffic.

The state's Democratic leaders have also put forth the notion that speeding up this inspection process, something they're calling pre-inspection, will lessen the impact of Peace Bridge traffic.

But the way they have framed this issue only reveals that they fundamentally misunderstand the problem and how to solve it. Or, perhaps more cynically -- that they've decided to put economic interests ahead of public health.

Why will pre-inspection not improve air quality on Buffalo's West Side?

The fact is, despite the rhetoric of Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, it's flawed logic that speeding the flow of traffic by inspecting a percentage of trucks in Canada will fix the problem. They are wrong.

For them, this is about money. As Schumer says in a press release, "The Peace Bridge is an economic artery for Western New York, pumping in vital investment and job growth;" Higgins claims, "The Peace Bridge traffic bottleneck leads to frustration and unpredictability that keeps people away from the border and closes off economic opportunity."

Governor Cuomo is equally impervious to the impact pollution actually has had on the community. Here's what he had to say on this topic in a February 24 press statement:

"After decades of dysfunction and delay, today's announcement is another common sense step forward in making long talked about improvements to the Peace Bridge a reality," Cuomo said. "This move is a win-win for residents on both sides of the bridge, resulting in quicker trips across the border, reducing congestion and pollution, while improving the flow of traffic and health of neighboring communities."

Is this really a win-win for residents when each day scores of West Side children are hospitalized for asthma complications?

Who is really being asked to pay the price for growth?

The reality is whether truck inspections occur on U.S. or Canadian soil, prevailing winds continue to blow toxic diesel exhaust from Fort Erie across the Niagara River, and into the lungs of West Side children. Do these children not deserve the clean air others enjoy?

We have been told that new federal emissions standards will reduce pollution on the West Side. This is false.

A cloud of smoke trailing out of big rigs' exhaust pipes contains billions of microscopic pollution particles. Only the largest of these toxic particles are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. West Side residents are being made sick by much smaller "ultrafine" particles.

Institutions across the country are beginning to unpack the causes of asthma and other illnesses, and there are several things we do now know:

According to my research at the University at Buffalo and internationally renowned experts from leading research institutions -- the Harvard School of Public Health, Clarkson University, Columbia and University of Washington -- ultrafine diesel exhaust particles are definitively linked from Peace Bridge truck traffic to the disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer and other diseases among West Side residents.

Some argue that this research is "woefully out of date." They contend that recent changes to EPA emissions standards have improved West Side air quality. However, ultrafine particles are not regulated by the EPA and remain as plentiful today as they were in 2011, when our research was published by the Health Effects Institute.

New York State officials, on the other hand, have attempted to invalidate this research by releasing an invalidated study of their own in October 2013. Their studies not only employed a flawed methodology, but failed to examine the alarmingly high concentrations of ultrafine particles in the West Side. The State Department of Environmental Conservation cannot study ultrafine particles because it does not have the necessary equipment.

Pre-inspection is not the answer to the West Side's asthma epidemic, and no one should say otherwise. Business as usual will create another permanent generation of sick community residents on the West Side. This will not stop until you, your family and your friends call upon local leaders to cut the rhetoric and produce a responsible solution based on scientific facts, not science fiction.

The public is beginning to wake up to the fact that a number of health issues they may be experiencing are directly impacted by vehicle exhaust and idling traffic in densely populated areas.

Advocating for health may put you at odds with politicians and business interests -- but it could also save lives.

A version of this article was originally posted in The Buffalo News.

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