Joy Sian, a Brooklyn mother of a three-year-old, recently reached out to us for help with a local problem. Apprehensive about the ramifications of a subway construction project in her neighborhood, she saw an issue that needed attention. Her concerns go beyond just being a hyperlocal story. They represent a mom facing conflicting matters of health, environmental safety, politics, influence, and money.
Here’s an overview of the issue:
The boroughs of New York City depend on its subway system to move people of all ages from one area to another. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy created plenty of damage. One of the lines that took a pummeling was the L, which transports residents between Brooklyn and Manhattan.
For those who faced a fifteen-month shut down of their primary form of transportation, the situation looked dim. Then, at the eleventh hour, New York state governor, Andrew Cuomo, stepped in. He decided to institute a “slow-down” rather than a “shut-down,” touting “new technology.”
Many residents were relieved. Others, like Sian, saw a new set of problems coming into play. These involved the core conflict between safety vs. expediency and convenience.
Perhaps Sian’s background in “sustainability” work made her more conscious and attuned to potential hazards. For her, the red flag at hand was about airborne silica dust from construction.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand this,” Sian told me as she related her misgivings about the “gray areas in the health and safety risks.”
Apparently, Sian wasn’t the only one. Various community groups sprang up, several working with the local community board and elected officials, to get facts and discuss mitigations to the shut down — all before Cuomo got involved.
Despite the consequences that would have transpired for the neighborhood with the subway out of commission, Sian sees the alternative to closing the subway as a “50 percent containment plan.”
Sian outlined that there as 250,000 commuters during peak times. “They will be waiting on the platform for an extra twelve minutes.” This includes kids from the local high schools, parents on the commute into Manhattan with youngsters being dropped off to daycare, pregnant women, and older residents.
Sian’s fears were exacerbated when she saw transit employees wearing masks and handing out flyers about their working conditions. “It made me wonder, why aren’t I wearing a mask?” The laborers are tasked with cleaning up the dust before each Monday morning’s commute.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has stated that they will do testing to gauge what the levels of silica dust are. However, there are different points of view about what safe levels actually are. A minute amount of the extremely fine respirable silica dust can create health hazards, as it is a carcinogen. The MTA has released their first report, detailing stats for April 26 through April 29.
“There is no active voice for citizens, which is important to me,” said Sian. Noting that OSHA has delineated clear regulations around silica dust, she emphasized, “We need an outside body to oversee regulations.”
When I asked Sian for her reaction to the MTA data testing, via a third party “independent monitor,” her reaction was less than effusive. She qualified MTA responses as “vague, deflective, and not dealing with core issues.”
In order to pick up the slack on the altered train schedule, there has been an increase in car services and buses coming into the area. This added factor will inevitably impact ambient air pollution.
Sian worries that the situation will become “normalized.” She wonders if enough attention is being focused on what health liabilities could be evidenced down the road…in a decade.
My top takeaway from the conversation with Sian was clear. She understood what was problematic about the subway construction and decided, as a mom, to be proactive about it. In this case, Sian demonstrated that protecting the health of our communities and its children against potentially toxic air pollution, landed squarely on those most impacted. Is that fair?