Members of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation met with residents of the Ezra Prentice community Wednesday night (Jan. 10) to provide a six-month update on their year-long air quality study, set to be completed in August 2018. They were met with a packed house of residents and allies who contributed told-you-so nods and outcries of frustration after representatives from the DEC Division of Air Resources concluded that while levels of vehicle-related pollutants in and around Ezra Prentice are significant, “all of the measurements are well below the level of the standards” set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
This specification also pertained to the levels of benzene collected in and around the Port of Albany where the “bomb trains” carrying crude oil offload and park. So far, the benzene sampling from August 22 to mid-December 2017 has concluded a concentrated range of .10 to .32 parts per billion (ppb). The EPA action level for benzene is 2.8ppb.
“I’m really disturbed by the fact that I keep hearing this is below standard,” AVillage… Inc. executive director and the evening’s resident spokesperson Willie White said following the presentation. “We’re in an environmental disaster area, I believe. The Port of Albany is here, 787 is here, the recycling plant down the street and thousands of diesel trucks coming through here every single day–you’re telling me this area is OK being ‘below standard’ for human habitation? [This] is telling us to just breathe freely because it’s all good, it’s below standard… I think that’s a crock.”
After four years of meeting with representatives from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office and state agencies, Ezra Prentice residents are done with studies, they are looking for action. Multiple residents who spoke up at the meeting said they had been told local pollutant levels had been referred to as “below standard” since the first day they spoke up about the issue.
White also called out the continued absence of the Department of Transportation and called on the DEC to reroute truck traffic and issue an order to Global Partners–the oil company with a terminal at the Port of Albany–to paint their storage tanks white instead of blue, minimizing heat absorption and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions.
“You can talk to the governor and stop these trucks from coming through this community, there’s one step. It won’t stop the problem but it will cut down on the air pollution in this community. DOT can stop them tomorrow if they wanted to but do you know why they don’t want to? Because this is a low income, minority community that they don’t give a hell about. They send you guys here with these appeasement studies and we just have to put up with it,” he exclaimed, later adding, “When you come back for another update, make sure to bring DOT with you.”
Representatives from the DEC argued that their studies offer them a chance to pinpoint high polluting sources that may be flying under the radar.
“As we go and we find issues, we’re gonna try and solve them. That’s part of what this is about,” DEC representative Dirk Felton said.
“We are really committed to working with other agencies who have a role in addressing traffic and in exploring solutions. This [study] is attempting to identify, what is the nature of the problem?” Deputy Commissioner Jared Snyder said.
For the study, the DEC Division of Air Resources set up three fixed monitors in and around the neighborhood, located in the Ezra Prentice community building parking lot, along 3rd Ave. and atop the Albany County Health Department building in August 2017. The monitors are able to pick up particulate matter (PM) pollutants of 2.5–the smallest particle size measured so far by government agencies–and 10 microns, which pick up larger, often visible, particles of dust and pollutants.
In a 116-day average of weekday traffic through Ezra Prentice measured by the hour, the study found that the measure of PM 2.5 pollutants measured within the same averages as the 24 largest and most populated cities in the U.S. as measured by the EPA.
The fixed monitors also track the unregulated and largely unstudied ultrafine particles of nanoscale size (.1 micron) that can infiltrate the bloodstream and lungs.
The unregulated particles present a challenge for scientists in identifying in what way or how much the pollutants are harmful, but also give them the freedom to present their findings without the limitations of preset EPA standards.
“I think it’s very clear that pollution from traffic does not have a very good effect on the community but the thing that we can’t see is, in the particles that we are measuring, we don’t know what levels of those are harmful or not,” DEC Division of Air Resources scientist Brian Frank said.
Frank, who runs the portable monitoring portion of the study and helped to introduce and test the program with residents last year, presented findings based on 47 days of data collection on the portable monitors and mini-stations. This equipment measures by the second as opposed to the hourly check-ins by their fixed monitor counterparts, tracking high levels of what Frank calls Traffic Related Air Pollutants (TRAP). The portable monitors can also be used in the winter as long as the temperature maintains 40 degrees F or more, where the fixed monitors will not be functional again until spring.
Located only three feet back from South Pearl St., the portable monitors take a closer measure of traffic pollution.
“Statistically, most of the vehicles are making a contribution but some of the vehicles are, in some cases, about six times higher than the other vehicles,” Frank said, referring to an ultrafine particle concentration level graph measuring the roadway near Ezra Prentice. “We’re focusing on these vehicles…what we call the ‘high emitters’–these high emissions are coming from just some of the vehicles that are making a big contribution.”
Frank quantified that less than 10 percent of vehicles are contributing more than 25 percent of TRAP emissions.
“We’re building a map around the complex to try to understand: Where are the places that pollutants are high and where are the places where the pollutants are low? This is the way we can focus on a small portion of the traffic that is having a really large effect,” he said.
Frank further explained the DEC will be able to do this with the data provided by the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC) traffic study, in which they can match individual high emitters with spikes in DEC monitor data.
Members of the transportation committee were also in attendance and presented some preliminary findings. The committee is in the process of a multi-agency collaborative study with City of Albany, the Department of Transportation and DEC using 15 license plate readers at six locations in Ezra Prentice, the Port of Albany and along Interstate 787. With these readers, the committee has identified and monitored what types of vehicles pass through the community (classified by size and weight), how often they pass through and what route they take.
“That matters in making recommendations about how can we reroute them or whether [those] opportunities are there,” representative Chris Bauer said, explaining that the CDTC can reach out to businesses with their data to explore whether they are able to make alternative routes of travel.
As compared to the traffic study completed by residents in the summer of 2016 that measured an average of 1,000 diesel trucks that pass through the neighborhood, the CDTC found there to be more. It should be noted that the committee also accounted for local CDTA and school buses that also use diesel fuel. “Considering every vehicle from highway authority class 4 to 15–larger vehicles from school buses to tractor trailers–we are considering over 1,600…vehicles passing through,” Bauer said.
The full draft report of the CDTC study, which will include route mapping and vehicle data, is expected between February and March and the DEC will provide further updates in the coming months, however Ezra Prentice is expecting more than numbers and graphs.
“It’s good to have the data, yes, but it’s nothing we don’t already know,” Ward 1 Albany Common Council member Dorcey Applyrs told The Alt.
Photos by author