The South Bronx Fights Air Pollution in “Asthma Alley”

BY ON April 3, 2015

Strollers carrying environmental messages

Parents want the best for their children. Lois Gibbs said of her fight to clean up the poisonous dumpsite Love Canal, “The government wouldn’t help me, so I decided to do it myself.”

From necessity, activists are born.

In the South Bronx, a father who cares about his infant son and the other denizens of his community, has taken up the call to arms. A. Mychal Johnson, co-founder of South Bronx Unite, has squared off against a formidable foe — the food delivery service FreshDirect.

Johnson’s narrative of the facts pits him against the Bronx Democratic Machine, public officials, and big money.

On his side of the equation are those who live in Mott Haven-Port Morris, where elevated death rates and children with high levels of respiratory disorders are the norm.

This area is not called Asthma Alley without reason.

It is here that FreshDirect has “broken ground” to site a 500,000-square-foot facility. A Federal Express hub, a printing and distribution center for the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, a waste transfer station and sewage treatment operation — all impact the area’s air quality. “Enough of dumping in our communities,” said Johnson with palpable frustration.

Mott Haven-Port Morris is predominately populated by people of color, with almost 75 percent Latinos.

“Over one-third of the residents live below the poverty line…We’re five miles from Wall Street, New York City’s financial district. The tale of two cities doesn’t exist anywhere else like the South Bronx.” 

That comment referenced the tagline that Bill de Blasio ran on to capture the Mayor’s seat. According to Johnson, politics has played a large role in the genesis of the FreshDirect project. This includes $140 million of taxpayer-funded subsidies to keep FreshDirect in New York State.

Johnson’s engagement has been an unrelenting fly in the ointment to FreshDirect’s plans. His leadership is also the reason he was chosen to be a civil society delegate at the UN Climate Summit in September 2014.

In a phone call to FreshDirect, their spokeswoman maintained that the community was behind FreshDirect. She sent me an “official comment” and documentation from an Empire State Development memo (2/19/15).

In answer to the apprehension that 1,000 truck trips would impact the neighborhood, FreshDirect stated that their “green fleet” would “represent a tiny fraction of the vehicle traffic in the area.”

Presented with FreshDirect’s assertions, Johnson responded without missing a beat.

“Their stuff doesn’t hold water…Even at its lowest estimate, that’s a lot of truck trips through Asthma Alley.”

Five bridges and three highways already intersect the neighborhood. Traffic congestion adds to the idling of cars and trucks. Johnson reiterated that nothing in the way of FreshDirect’s numbers was binding.

“When you bring in more vehicles, the air pollution goes up exponentially…We’re oversaturated.”

Air Pollution demonstration in the Bronx

In the South Bronx Environmental Health and Policy Study (April 2009), part of the report is devoted to the results of an NYU School of Medicine research initiative called the “Backpack Study.” Over a three-week period, ten fifth-grade students with asthma carried devices in a backpack to measure the air pollution they encountered on a daily basis. The data was then examined in relationship to the asthma symptoms they experienced.

Top takeaways included:

  • There is a strong association between Bronx zip codes with high asthma rates and those with a large concentration of industrial facilities.
  • In the South Bronx, approximately 50 percent of the children attending pre-Kindergarten through the 8th grade go to schools that are “less than two city blocks” away from a truck route or a highway.
  • More green spaces and green buffers, especially around sources of environmental health risks, need to be developed.

Johnson outlined a plan that would benefit the community through open space. “It’s about a robust park waterfront that creates sustainable green jobs and related businesses,” he said. It also considers solutions for storm mitigation by building “resilient barriers.” Superstorm Sandy showed the ramifications of flooding. “All of these ideas add up to a quality of life improvement,” Johnson pointed out.

Dr. Bob Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice, wrote the following via e-mail in response to my request for a comment:

“There is nothing ‘fresh’ about FreshDirect’s proposal to relocate its dirty diesel trucking operation in a community that’s already overburdened with pollution and where residents suffer elevated asthma and respiratory problems. This is a classic example of toxic dumping that further identifies the South Bronx as an environmental ‘sacrifice zone.’ ”

Johnson is resolute. His final thoughts were clear.

“I have a right to speak up…We’re working to create the solutions we want. We love where we live and the people who live here. When we started this fight three years ago, one in five kids had asthma. Now it’s one in four. Children are dying…We’re going to sound the alarm.”

Photos: Courtesy of South Bronx Unite


TOPICS: African-American Community, Air Pollution, Asthma, Latino Community, New York, Social Justice