Testimony of Omar F. Freilla,
of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance before the
Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Wednesday, August 1st, 2001
Good morning, my name is Omar Freilla and I am here today representing the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. We are an alliance of community-based organizations fighting the continued presence of racism and classism in environmental protection. Our groups all represent communities of color that are largely poor and working class. They are in neighborhoods that bear a disproportionate amount of environmental hazards, receiving all of the burdens and none of the benefits. We are the first to breathe the dirtiest air and the last to see a green tree.
There are lots of people in this room, including myself, trying to convince each of you that the federal government must do everything in its power to slash air pollution levels and dramatically improve the quality of the air we breathe. And there is a mountain of evidence to back up that call to action. The overwhelming consensus of public health studies in this area all come down on the side of more air pollution equals more asthma attacks and more deaths. But it would seem to me that that should be of no surprise to anyone. No one needs a Ph.D. to figure out that large cities with major traffic congestion like New York have the dirtiest air on the planet. And anyone with a lung and half a brain should be able to realize that dirty air will make you sick. So I’m not going to try to convince you of the obvious. What concerns me more is whether or not you care.
To effectively deal with emissions from motor vehicles requires you to emphasize the places where they are concentrated…cities. But ever since the era of highway building and the loss of urban manufacturing encouraged whites to flee to the suburbs, cities have not received much attention on capital hill. For communities of color like ours the apathy is blatantly obvious. That’s because many of our neighbors are the noxious facilities that wealthier and whiter communities neither desire nor receive.
I live in the South Bronx, in a neighborhood known as Hunts Point. My neighborhood is a magnet for trucks. Approximately 11,000 diesel trucks enter and exit each day. They head for one of the world’s largest regional food distribution centers and 26 waste transfer stations. We are home to a sewage treatment plant and a sludge processing plant. In an adjacent neighborhood four partially diesel-fueled power turbines went online last month. From my window I can see the three giant smokestacks of a power plant right on the waterfront in Queens, just two football fields away from the waterfront of my neighborhood – a waterfront that is almost completely inaccessible without trespassing. And as if all that were not enough, the city plans to relocate the Fulton Fish Market – the world’s largest fish market – to my neighborhood, complete with its almost 1,000 trucks a day. On an adjacent lot developers are seeking to build a 5,200-megawatt power plant. Whenever I walk to the subway, or anyplace outside of my neighborhood for that matter, I have to cross a ten-lane road underneath an elevated highway that carries 130,000 vehicles a day. My community is completely surrounded by pollution and no one in the neighborhood sees it as mere coincidence.
I’ve noticed that no matter what I do I cannot keep my apartment clean because of the dust from outside that settles near the windows. I never had that problem in an apartment until last year when I moved into the neighborhood. It’s a common complaint of people in my neighborhood. So is asthma. It is of no surprise to anyone in my community that we’ve got one of the highest rates of hospitalization for asthma in the country - six times the national average. When I go to the Laundromat I hear mothers trading asthma remedies as if they were dinner recipes. Thirty percent of the children in my neighborhood suffer from asthma. It is a disease that has reached epidemic proportions in similar communities throughout New York City and across the country.
Time and time again the community groups that are members of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance have fought with city, state, and federal agencies that do not seem to value the lives of people of color and poor people. How else do you explain lax environmental reviews in communities of color on the one hand and strict enforcement in white communities on the other? Our communities have been turned into sacrifice zones where any and all forms of environmental abuse are allowed to take place. You will not even scratch the surface of air quality issues as long as you fail to focus attention on overburdened communities like Hunts Point. The reason is that as long as polluting facilities have access to a community where environmental enforcement is lax they will continue to pollute. This includes dirty-diesel dependent facilities.
With all this in mind I urge the members of the Senate to act in three key areas of transportation:
I urge you to take these issues to heart and begin to rectify past practices that turned low-income communities and communities of color into sacrifice zones. By addressing air quality issues in this manner you will be addressing the need of our communities for environmental justice.