Clearing the Air

The Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point has one of the highest asthma rates in the world. Home to the world’s largest food distribution center, the Hunts Point Terminal Market, which accounts for nearly 20,000 diesel truck trips per week, it is also the site of over two dozen waste transfer stations, a raw sewage de-watering facility, and a sewage sludge processing plant. These facilities rely almost exclusively on diesel trucks for transport. Nestled amidst all this is a community of 10,000 residents.

Growing up in Hunts Point, I don’t remember seeing trucks run through the residential core as they do now. Classmates with asthma were then the exception, not the rule. Today, many people ask, “Could the diesel fumes of the increased truck traffic have anything to do with the overwhelming increase in asthma over the last decade?”

Though The Point Community Development Corporation is by no means a research organization, The Point has always recognized that doing research can only strengthen one’s position, if for no other reason than to let the community know exactly where they stand and what they need to work on. A series of studies have helped us organize for cleaner air.

Knowing that trees might be able to help ease some of the air pollution load in Hunts Point, two summers ago we sent a group of young adults out to count the street trees in our neighborhood. The results were worse than expected: only one tree per acre. We took that survey to private foundations and the city council and used it to lobby for more trees in the area. Over the next few planting seasons, Hunts Point will see close to 1,000 new trees. We never would have achieved those results without doing the research first.

From that experience, we understood the power of numbers. Last summer, we worked with the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance on Truck Watch, a truck counting project to get a sense of the actual amount of truck traffic that enters and exits Hunts Point. Beyond the sheer density of trucks (25 percent of all traffic), we found rampant use of illegal routes and idling beyond the three-minute limit.

Soon after our study was completed, a six-year-old girl from Hunts Point named Crystal Vargas was killed by a truck while riding her bike on her street, which intersected a truck route. This tragedy spurred community activists to force the issue of pedestrian safety to the table, and they had our study to back them up. Community groups referenced the study as additional evidence that truck traffic endangered the safety of Hunts Points residents. As a result, the spring of 1999 saw a barrage of traffic calming devices and street direction re-routing. It was an amazing victory.

The question of diesel fumes and asthma is more complicated. We knew that if we were to take a position it would have to be supported with real scientific research that was beyond reproach or dispute. So this past summer The Point worked with Suvendrini Lena and Patrick Kinney of the Columbia School of Public Health, and Victor Ochieng and Jose Holguin-Vera at the Institute for Transportation Systems at The City University of NY and the Hunter College School of Health Sciences to design a study that would analyze the effect of diesel truck concentration on air quality. Led by myself and The Point’s Cristina Melendez, a group of Hunts Point residents and interns from Hunter College’s Environmental Sciences Project served as monitors.

Waking up by 5 a.m. three times a week for three weeks straight to get ready for half a dozen drowsy people to ring my doorbell to begin the first 12-hour monitoring shift was tough. But such a project was worth losing sleep. Our intergenerational team of community monitors (including my mom) knew the importance of what they were doing and took it very seriously. They felt empowered by the fact that the institutions were participating to strengthen our community’s case.

The results are not yet in. Whatever they show, this study will not be the magic bullet that saves the Hunts Point community from the evil diesel monster. But it will be an organizing tool to prove that our quality of life is severely degraded by the overabundance of diesel emissions in our neighborhoods, and to work for community-supported solutions such as traffic calming, converting diesel trucks to compressed natural gas, and greening traditionally tree- and parkland-devoid areas.

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As a whole, Hunts Point is stronger now than it has been in years. We are finding our voice and using it to speak volumes. We are hopeful that the 21st century will give Hunts Point much to breathe easier about.

 

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