Ward 1 Common Council member Dorcey Applyrs speaks at Jan. 12 press conference at Ezra Prentice Homes. Also, starting second at left: Rev. Peter Cook (Council of Churches), Thomas McPheeters (secretary, AVillage) and CommonCouncil President Carolyn McLaughlin. Photo by Katie Cusack.
Dozens of Albany officials and activists gathered in the community room of Ezra Prentice Homes on the late morning of Jan. 12 to hear updates from the neighborhood’s coalition. The group of residents, local activists and elected leaders had organized the press conference on the three-year anniversary of the initial meeting calling for action against the hazardous industrial pollution that they claim harms community residents on a daily basis: The poisonous gases emitted from the oil car trains at the Port of Albany and the diesel trucks that travel through South Pearl Street, the main road runs right through the middle of the Ezra Prentice community along State Route 32.
Despite such a long fight with little proof of progress, the group shed some light on the steps they have made towards their goal of reducing pollutants and worrisome noise from the transport vehicles that persist day and night for the residents.
“For the last three years, we the people of this community have been waiting for Global Oil and these trucks to be rerouted but nothing has happened yet,” Deneen Carter-El said in the coalition’s press release. Carter-El has lived in the community for over 20 years and feels frustrated by her everyday struggle of unsafe living conditions while action seems at a standstill. She spoke Thursday on behalf of the community members who couldn’t attend due to family members or work. “There’s not a day that goes by where I’m not smelling something,” she said in reference to the acrid chemical smell that fills the air along the railways on the river. “The wait is unbelievable. . . . If you were living down here, I’m quite sure that you wouldn’t want to be breathing what we’re breathing for a long time and getting sick.”
In addition to the oil trains that park dangerously close to residential housing and emit toxic fumes as they are opened for unloading, the diesel emissions are particularly harmful to the respiratory health of residents and the noise from the trucks keep residents up at night. The presence of north and southbound diesel trucks traveling along South Pearl street between the hours of 6 AM and 8 PM has been recorded at 997 total for each day. The data collection was organized by AVillage Inc. while they had been conducting their community health survey in the summer of 2016. “We couldn’t help but notice all of the constant traffic,” organization secretary Thomas McPheeters said. So they decided to count. On a warm and sunny June 20–and a rather overcast and drizzly Aug. 1–volunteers each took shifts of an hour to take note of northbound and southbound traveling diesel trucks.
“We just went down [to the street] with lawn chair, umbrella and clipboard,” McPheeters explained. But soon adjustments had to be made. After sitting there for nearly an hour, volunteers began to complain of itchy eyes and throat.
“We had to start giving out masks and eye drops,” he said. “We didn’t ask residents to get involved. They were already suffering the effects.”
The data collected is used to advocate for the rerouting of the trucks away from South Pearl Street. Additionally they ask for the relocation/rerouting of the crude oil trains, which pass what they say is dangerously close on tracks behind Ezra Prentice Homes. In the meantime, they want a sound barrier built between the trains and the houses. Global Oil has stated they “hope to make this a reality.” The oil cars crash into each other as they park on the rails and the noise is alarming and disruptive to residents. Finally, the coalition is advocating for a comprehensive long-term air quality study to be done as well as an extension to the health survey done to include Mount Hope and surrounding areas.
“This community has a dream that one day they will live with clean air,” Willie White of AVillage Inc. said.
The DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos announced a $500,000 air quality study to be done in the spring of this year. However, every day that passes until then, is another day of toxicity for the South End residents. While the speakers at Thursday’s press conference focused on the forward movements the coalition and its activists have already made, they agree that action has to happen soon. Common Council members, Assembly members, Mayor Kathy Sheehan and the DEC Commissioner have addressed the concerns of residents in saying that they will continue to stand with the community in the face of what Commissioner Seggos has referred to as the “specter of possible pullback on a federal level.”
“As leaders . . . our voices have got to be loud and clear that we will not take no for an answer,” Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin said. “We don’t want to continue to create an atmosphere where [the stakeholders] think, ‘If we stall long enough, they’ll get tired.’ No, that’s not going to happen… We are not going away.”
The room seemed hopeful for change, and as the speakers and attendees exited the Community Center parking lot and made their way to South Pearl Street, a train of oil cars rolled into their place of rest behind the Ezra Prentice community playground.
The overview of the oil trains that pollute the air of Albany and especially South End’s Ezra Prentice development was featured in issue five of The Alt.
At the Port of Albany “…they empty the oil right at the port and leave the tops open and those fumes are permeating the neighborhoods…,” Cynthia Herbach of the South End Improvement Center said.
In 2015, AVillage Inc., resident outreach workers (ROWs) and the Radix Center took a resident health survey: 196 residents in 77 households reported cases of asthma, COPD and other respiratory illnesses as well as skin issues and high blood pressure.
Though several meetings with Global Inc. the coalition has gotten the oil cars removed during the nighttime. A $500,000 comprehensive air study will be conducted by the DEC in the spring.
Now, the community coalition has organized a press conference to discuss their progress over the last three years and outline their goals for the future.