Harlem Fumes Over Bus Depot

Israel Torres Penchi Oct 15, 2003

On Sep. 7, a bus depot was inaugurated on 100th St. and Lexington Avenue in El Barrio. It will house 115 diesel buses. Its exhaust fans spew out diesel gas and very powerful lights illuminate the sky all night. Recent studies indicate that children living in the neighborhood suffer from the highest levels of asthma in New York City. The pollutants that the buses emit are also linked with cancer.

The irony is that while officials were opening the depot in a community of many low-income residents, a similar one on Hudson Street in the West Village was being closed to build a park.

A lawsuit recently filed by West Harlem Environmental Action alleges that MTA practices discriminatory politics in constructing their bus depots and stations north of 96th Street, in neighborhoods where mostly African-Americans and Hispanics reside. The numbers are startling: of the eight depots in Manhattan, seven are located north of 96th Street.

Here are some other recent examples of environmental racism in El Barrio and the South Bronx:

*The Department of Sanitation plans to divide Manhattan in two halves and rearrange the garbage disposal system. All of the garbage from the East Side, from 14th Street to 148th Street, will be taken to a transfer and compacting station on 91st Street, where it will be loaded onto barges and transported to other destinations. “Why don’t they divide Manhattan into four zones, and each area be responsible for a part of the garbage? Why do they have to bring the garbage from 14th Street all the way uptown?” Asks Jimmy Vázquez, a legislative aide to Senator Olga Méndez.

*In the South Bronx, Waste Management Inc. has requested a permit to add 1,000 to 3,000 tons of garbage to the load sent to the Harlem River Rail Yards on 132nd Street and St. Ann Avenue. It is safe to say that more garbage for this location means more vehicle traffic and a deterioration of air quality.

*The New York Power Authority constructed 11 power plants, all of them in communities of color, in 2000. Four of the plants are in the Harlem River Rail Yards and Hell’s Gate in the South Bronx, adding another source of pollution in poor communities. These plants were to be temporarily operational during summer months in the period of high energy consumption. But the Authority is seeking a permit for five additional years that would permit them to exceed the current limitations on pollution.

Meanwhile, one department’s effort to reduce pollution levels was cancelled out by the practices of other departments. For example, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has a program to combat restaurants throwing fat into the sewage system. Sewage treatment plants aren’t prepared to treat such fat, and restaurants must install grease “traps.”

However, on 99th Street in El Barrio, garbage trucks are washed and all the fat goes into the sewage system and eventually into the East River, a river in which the Department of Environmental Protection has invested around $70 million to improve water quality.

A version of this story originally appeared in Siempre.

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