By Mike McPhate
Harlem community leaders are accusing transportation officials of racism for polluting the area’s air.
Lawmakers met last week to condemn the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for maintaining a high concentration of bus depots, which pump out diesel fumes, in northern Manhattan. Six of the island’s seven depots are stationed north of 96th Street, even though the section of land comprises less than a third of the island.
More than 1,000 buses – parked, fixed, and re-fueled at the storage areas – release the seeds of asthma into the air, say health experts. The fumes leave black soot on the window sills and curtains of neighboring hospitals, nursing homes, and schools, according to locals. The asthma rate among children is quintuple the nation’s average.
“For far too many years to count, Harlem has been the dumping ground in Manhattan for things no one else wants,” said Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright in a statement. “This is no accident, this is ignorance and discrimination and it is an outrage.”
The MTA said in a statement that it has invested more than $500 million on clean fuel technologies in recent years, dramatically reducing total emissions of pollutants. It added, “It must be remembered that NYC transit bus depots have occupied the same locations anywhere from 57 to 116 years.”
Countering the claims of public health experts at the Harlem gathering MTA Spokesperson Charles F. Seaton said, “There is no indication that these depots are having a detrimental effect on health.”
No studies have specifically linked the depots to health problems in northern Manhattan. With so many outside variables it would be nearly impossible to devise such a study, say experts. New York University however recently released the results of a five-year-long study in south Bronx that found soot particles from diesel trucks create “alarmingly high rates of asthma symptoms among school-aged children.”
Lawmakers said the MTA had made promises to address the pollution problem—to renovate bus depots, quit idling the buses, limit the number of vehicles, and convert the fleet to natural gas and hybrid vehicles—as long as two years ago, but never took action.
Councilmember John Liu said the transportation agency had judged the lives of minorities to be less worthy of clean air than their caucasian counterparts. “It’s environmental racism,” he said.