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Generating Environmental Inequality

Research & Commentary
January 21, 2015

by David Bensman

In New Jersey’s Ironbound community, environmental inequality is a stark reality.

By David Bensman

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Government decisions have generated environmental inequality in New Jersey’s Ironbound community of low-income and minority residents.

Environmental inequality is even more pronounced than income inequality, but how is that inequality produced? Obviously, where corporations build factories is a major factor. But does government also play a part?

If you focus on the Ironbound, in Newark’s East Ward, where the U.S.’s third largest seaport is located, it’s clear that government actions—and inactions—play a major role. While the Ironbound is largely known to outsiders as a lively Portuguese-dominated commercial district, it is also a densely settled residential community with woodframe houses and all-brick public housing projects.

Ironbound is home not only to the second and third-generation Portuguese families but also to recent immigrants from Brazil and Ecuador and a large African-American population. On the southeastern edge of the Ironbound is a half-abandoned industrial district where roads are frequently clogged with trucks.

Despite the fact that industrial sources made the Ironbound’s environment highly toxic, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began building mammoth container ports adjacent to the neighborhood in the 1950s. To make a bad situation worse, the Port Authority leased land in 1990 to a private company that built the East Coast’s largest garbage incinerator. This incinerator draws more than 400 highly polluting garbage trucks into the Ironbound daily. [pullquote] Environmental inequality is even more pronounced than income inequality, but how is that inequality produced? [/pullquote]

Today, ocean going ships carry more than five million containers to Port Newark and the adjacent Port Elizabeth every year. With the widening of the Panama Canal and the raising of the Bayonne Bridge, the arrival of megaships will mean that the volume of traffic will double by 2035 not only at the docks, but through the neighborhoods that lie between the seaport and the inland warehouses.

The ships deposit poisonous mixtures of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and fine diesel particles, because international regulators allow them to use “bunker” fuel that is sixty times dirtier than EPA-approved diesel fuel. Old drayage trucks hauling containers to and from the port make a dirty environment even worse. More than 10,000 daily trips send even more particulate matter into the air than the ships do.

At the Hawkins Street Public Elementary School, located in the eastern Ironbound, students recruited and trained to count the container trucks passing by their school regularly report that more than 250 container trucks per hour pass by during the school day Not surprisingly, one in four Newark children suffer from asthma, compared to 1 in 12 children in New Jersey as a whole. That means children in the Ironbound are missing school due to port-related illness. According to the EPA’s National Scale Air Toxics Assessment, the communities surrounding New Jersey’s ports rank among the nation’s top 10 percent in exposure to diesel particulates. These microscopic bits of poison cause not only asthma, but also lung disease, lung cancer, and heart disease. [pullquote] Not surprisingly, one in four Newark children suffer from asthma, compared to 1 in 12 children in New Jersey as a whole. [/pullquote]

All this is in addition to the pollution thrown off by the surviving factories in the area, which according to Boyce et al’s study of “Three Measures of Inequality,” keep the area in the top ranks of communities suffering from toxic air pollution from stationery sources. Not surprisingly, a study by the Rutgers University of Medicine and Dentistry found that Newark’s rates of hospital admissions and mortality are double those of suburban towns in the western part of Essex County.

Ever since passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, government agencies in freight-moving districts around the country have been under pressure to clean up the air. In some regions, they’ve succeeded. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s largest seaports, the air is noticeably cleaner. The EPA reports that fine diesel particle emissions are down 60 per cent over the past five years, largely because the Los Angeles Harbor Commission forced the trucking companies to replace old trucks with a new fleet of trucks with engines meeting 2007 emission standards.

Not so in the Ironbound. Your nose can smell the difference. No one can be sure just how much the New Jersey ports lag behind the Southern California ports in terms of air quality because the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates no monitoring stations at its terminals. In contrast, the Port of Los Angeles’ Harbor Commission operates three air monitoring stations which provide real-time data available to the public on eight different pollutants. [pullquote] The Port Authority pretends to clean up diesel emissions while doing as little as possible to inconvenience its business partners. [/pullquote]

PANYNJ’s refusal to monitor is an important component of the Authority’s effort to pretend to clean up diesel emissions while doing as little as possible to inconvenience its business partners—the shipping lines, terminal operators and trucking firms that deliver imported goods for big box retailers to metropolitan area consumers. This month, the Port Authority released a so-called Clean Air Strategy which will do exceedingly little either to reduce pollution generated by port commerce or to mitigate the impact of that pollution on the health of Ironbound residents.

The plan does almost nothing to reduce pollution from the two largest sources of pollution, the ships unloading at the docks and the port’s aging fleet of container trucks. While progressive ports all over the world are installing electrical hook-ups to power the ships as they are being unloaded—a process that can take more than two days—PANYNJ’s plan doesn’t propose a way to make cold-ironing possible in New Jersey.

When it comes to replacing the old trucks that pour diesel particulates into the Ironbound’s air, the Port Authority is similarly clueless. Although its feeble previous plan to subsidize leases of new trucks by the owner-operators who make up the bulk of the drayage fleet failed miserably, the PANYNJ tried to bluff its way towards clean air by proposing a similar funding mechanism this year. When critics pointed out that the plan imposed an impossible financial burden on the misclassified independent contractors who currently drive old, obsolete, dirty diesel truck rigs—and didn’t even contain enough money to replace a significant number of the trucks with pre-2007 engines—the Port Authority apparently withdrew the plan. It isn’t mentioned in recent versions of the Clean Air Strategy.

[pullquote] A new government proposal contains no air monitoring, no cold ironing, and no truck replacement. That’s how you generate inequality. [/pullquote] Now the Authority is pressing port-adjacent municipalities to sign on to a proposal that contains no air monitoring, no cold ironing, and no truck replacement. That’s how you generate inequality.

At least three of the Mayors of port-adjacent communities are progressive, however. Mayors Baraka of Newark, Fulop of Jersey City, and De Blasio of New York City all have a chance to reject the plan and to insist that the Port Authority take the issue of environmental justice for the port region’s low-income, largely minority population seriously.

 David Bensman is Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Practice of Solidarity: American Hatters in the Nineteenth Century, Graduates of Central Park East: Learning by Heart, and Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community (co-authored with Roberta Lynch). Professor Bensman has published articles in The American Prospect,The Nation, Dissent, The New York Times, and The New Labor Forum.

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