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Attention Kmart Protesters

A demonstration against Martha Stewart products containing PVC turns into a phsyical confrontation with store manager

Not in my store: Kmart manager Jim Wieche approaches Metroland photographer John Whipple. Photo by John Whipple

According to Kmart manager Jim Wieche, the allegations against him are simply “wrong.”

Wieche, who was involved in a scuffle last Thursday that ensued when a handful of Citizens Environmental Coalition activists turned out at the Albany Kmart, at 1860 Central Ave., to protest the use of polyvinyl chlorine plastic (vinyl) in the Martha Stewart Everyday line of housewares sold in Kmart stores. Three activists dressed in HAZMAT uniforms entered the Kmart and began cordoning off Stewart’s products with yellow tape that read “caution: chemical hazard.” Metroland photographer John Whipple said he was taking photographs when Wieche came storming up the aisle and pushed him, and then shoved his camera in his face. Whipple had his 8-month-old daughter Lucinda on his back.

“They knew that we were coming here, it was announced in the Gazette the day before,” said Kathy Curtis, CEC’s co-executive director. “Here we are having a peaceful protest and this guy resorts to excessive violence.”

“This guy was out of line,” said Whipple. “You expect a person in a leadership position, like a manager, to handle these situations better. After all, it was a completely peaceful protest but he was like a loose cannon.”

Jennifer Barns, a protest participant, said that after Wieche pushed Whipple, he “shoulder slammed” her. Wieche then proceeded to call 911.

“It’s an abuse of public resources to call 911 and behave as if a completely peaceful protest is some sort of an emergency,” said CEC’s Curtis.

Wieche initially declined comment for this story, but when told of the allegations against him, he said, “If you print that, you are wrong.”

The protest was part of a national campaign to get Stewart to stop using PVC in her products, like shower curtains, place mats, table clothes and the packaging of her goods. Curtis said that PVC’s lifecycle—its production, use and disposal—results in the release of toxic chlorine-based chemicals. These toxins build up in the water, air and food chain, resulting in severe health problems, including cancer, immune-system damage and hormone disruption. PVC, Curtis added, is also difficult to recycle because the high amount of chlorine content in them often contaminates other recyclables.

The Vinyl Institute, a lobby for the plastics industry, did not return calls for comment, but according to its Web site, PVC is safe and has been used in products for decades without any evidence of harm to human health. “These products are regulated for safety by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” a statement posted at the site noted. “It is used in pipes certified to meet American National Standards Institute and the National Sanitation Foundation Standard 61 for safe use in drinking water services.”

The Web site also states that to ensure environmental safety, the vinyl industry has instituted its own “voluntary programs” to improve efficiencies and to reduce emissions created from the manufacturing of PVC.

But, many companies, such as Nike, General Motors and Ikea, have agreed to phase out the use of PVC in their products. The phaseout is expected to eliminate 3 million pounds of PVC. When Stewart was asked to consider following suit with her Everyday line, she told advocates that they would have to take the issue up with Kmart, which is the exclusive retailer of her line.

“This protest went off without a hitch all across the country,” said Barns. “In fact, in some cities the protesters were able to stay for an hour to an hour and a half, handing out fliers and speaking to shoppers about the concerns of PVC. But here it turned ugly.”

—Nancy Guerin

Radiation on Board

A U.S. Senate-approved plan to create a nuclear-waste storage facility in Nevada could possibly mean tons of nuclear waste traveling through the Capital Region

By road or rail, nuclear waste will be passing through a town near you from now until . . .

The reality of spent nuclear fuel being transported through the Capital Region moved one step closer to fruition last week when the U.S. Senate approved Nevada’s Yucca Mountain as the site for the construction of the nation’s largest nuclear-waste storage facility.

The proposed storage facility would house the nation’s supply of waste from its more than 100 commercial and military nuclear reactors for the next 10,000 years (the length of time the Environmental Protection Agency will regulate the site) in a remote section of the Nevada desert.

For safety and efficiency reasons, the U.S. Department of Energy wants most of the transportation to take place via rail, but according to preliminary mapping, Interstate 90 has also been pinpointed as a possible delivery route. Fuel rods from New York and New England’s dozen or so active and decommissioned nuclear power plants, currently acting as temporary storage sites, may travel as near as two miles from the city of Albany.

“In a hospital you have to sign a release form, but the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] regulations allow the casks built to carry this waste to emit radiation equivalent to a hospital X-ray,” said Lisa Gue, policy analyst for the public interest group Public Citizen. “At a distance of six feet, that affects everyone sitting in a car next to these trucks.”

Gue said the correlation between exposure to low levels of radiation and the contraction of fatal diseases and cancer, especially in pregnant women, makes the risks of transporting nuclear waste dangerous—even without an accident.

Spent fuel assemblies still generate significant amounts of radiation and heat, even when they have been determined useless in a nuclear reactor. Due to the enduring hazard, this waste must be shipped in containers commonly referred to as “casks” that shield and contain the radioactivity and dissipate the heat.

Tom Pollog, a nuclear engineer for the DOE’s Waste Acceptance and Transfer Division, is confident the casks can perform the task of shipping the some 77,000 tons of nuclear waste headed to the Yucca storage facility.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission puts the casks through a fairly robust series of tests,” Pollog said. “They are designed to meet and perform under hypothetical accident conditions.”

The transportation casks, created in the private sector, are tested against these hypothetical accident conditions through a number of stylized computer-model and scale safety tests by the NRC before being given a licensed seal of approval. Through these methods the NRC tests casks to five extremes: a free drop of 30 feet, a puncture test (a 40-inch drop onto a spike six inches in diameter), a shallow-water immersion test, a pressurized test (equivalent to immersion in 200 meters of water) and a thermal test (a 30-minute exposure to flame fully engulfing the cask at 1,475 degrees Fahrenheit).

But Gue said that one of the major problems with the casks is tied to these very testing standards.

“The NRC doesn’t require full-scale testing, and this presents a problem in determining cask response,” Gue said. “Some things are difficult to determine in scale testing. Any cask applying for a license should be physically tested, full scale.

“A severe accident in a rural area with a fire could contaminate up to 42 miles, take 462 days and cost $620 million to clean up,” said Gue quoting a 1986 DOE environmental impact assessment for the Yucca project.

Gue, citing a recent “worst-case scenario,” said hypothetical accident conditions do not measure up to the possibilities of a real-life major accident.

“Fires are known to burn out of control for more than 30 minutes, and we had a real-life situation in the Howard Tunnel in Baltimore where the fire burned for five days and at temperatures over 1,500 degrees,” she said. “A cask certified by the NRC might not have survived. These NRC standards date back to the 1970s, and with the tens of thousands of shipments to come, the questions become where and when will an accident happen.”

Though the DOE touts its nuclear-waste transportation safety record, the amount of waste being shipped, and the frequency with which it would be shipped, has never before been undertaken. In fact, the 1986 DOE study for the Yucca site estimates that nearly 300 accidents could occur throughout the duration of waste delivery.

The DOE states that there have been 2,700 nuclear-waste shipments traveling over 1.6 million miles since the 1960s. Should the Yucca waste-disposal site become a reality, nuclear-waste shipments nationwide would nearly double (to 4,700 shipments) over the next 24 years. On that schedule, a shipment of nuclear waste would leave for Yucca Mountain every two days over that quarter-century.

Shipping concerns aside, many have said that the transportation of this nuclear waste will become obvious targets for potential terrorist attack. Gue likened the shipments to moving dirty bombs, but Pollug disagrees.

“An attack on nuclear-waste storage cask is not a major concern from a public health standpoint,” Pollug said. “It is easy to see the psychological threats of such an attack, but it is difficult to quantify the technical effectiveness of an attack on one of these casks.”

Though shipment to Yucca Mountain is not expected to begin until 2010 (and a number of regulatory, legislative and legal battles surely await), Gue fears that the approval of the Yucca Mountain site for a storage facility of this size means the United States can look forward to nuclear waste traversing through its backyard for a long time to come.

“There is no magic wand that can be waved to make this stuff go away,” Gue said. “Unless we decide to end the 50-year flirtation with this dangerous energy source we’re looking at a nonstop shipping campaign.”

Travis Durfee

We Can Change the Hill

Schenectady residents band together to take back neighborhoods blighted by years of decay and neglect

An almost visible line divides the repaved sidewalks and decorative lampposts of downtown Schenectady from the boarded-up houses and empty lots in Hamilton Hill.

Jarring distinctions are not limited to these neighborhoods’ landscapes. Six of the seven people murdered in Schenectady since December were killed in Hamilton Hill. Under the scorching sun there on a recent Friday, a young man asked passersby for cigarettes—and if paid any attention, offered to sell them drugs while two children played on a sidewalk nearby.

Other kids on Emmett Street, one of Hamilton Hill’s most violent spots, have encountered worse.

“There was a little boy shot on the 900 block when he was riding his bike, and he got shot in the process of the fellow [actually targeted] running past him,” said Beverly Perryman, who lives on the street. “I’m not sure if they’re gang members, but they’re not good shots.”

Perryman is among many people in Schenectady making the most organized effort to date to take back the streets in neighborhoods like Hamilton Hill, Vale and parts of Mont Pleasant. Some area residents claim the city hasn’t done enough to reverse the decline of these neighborhoods; most agree that the battle cannot be won without more involvement from community members. So Emmett Street United, a group of residents who meet weekly and are led by Perryman, was formed after the city unveiled the Emmett Street Pilot Project this spring.

Written up by the Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association and Schenectady Inner City Ministry, the project laid much of the groundwork for today’s efforts. With roughly 14 agencies actively participating, it aims to coordinate the area’s community services in addressing the roots of the area’s problems.

“We’re in the genesis of this,” said Chauncey Williams, president of the neighborhood association.

Pulling a copy of the project plan from the trunk of his car, Williams was eager to get more people involved with the neighborhood association.

“We meet every third Thursday of the month at the United Methodist Church,” he said. “Write that down. I want people to come.”

One facet of the pilot targets boarded-up or abandoned buildings used by gangs for safe havens or drug sales. Residents can now notify the city about these houses, and the city uses a computer database to track down the landlord, who can either make improvements or sell the property. Hamilton Hill’s residents are almost all renters, and it is hoped that some will be able to buy the homes.

Viable jobs and businesses, more police patrols with better response, communication among the city’s neighborhoods, and literally cleaning the streets are other priorities. The plan urges each block to choose a “captain” to represent them to other streets and keep the block informed.

“There are a lot of people that don’t want to talk to the police because they’re afraid of repercussions or the police coming to their homes,” Perryman said. “If there’s any kind of complaint, instead of calling the police, they can give it to me or one of the block captains.”

Communication among the residents is key, Perryman added.

“These [gangs] in the street are very organized—they know exactly what we’re doing, and we need to get organized to know what we’re doing,” she said. “I wasn’t doing anything, nobody was doing anything, but I said, ‘This is crazy, I can’t let these [gangs] run my house.’”

Leroy Fogle, director of youth services and gang prevention at the Carver Community Center in the Hill, said that residents have to contend with several gangs.

“We have Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Cash Money—the usual ones,” Fogle said last Friday. “But they went underground—they’re not flashing all the colors you would usually see.”

Boxes of computer parts crowded Fogle’s office. He explained that the kids at the center took them apart, and if they are able to rebuild them and pass a test, they can keep them. The computer-repair program is one of many programs Fogle runs to supervise and educate children, and in the nine months he has been at Carver, active membership has increased almost 10 times.

Fogle remembered the funeral for Leonder Goodman, a teenager shot down on Emmett Street.

“I’ve never seen so many adolescents in one spot and not enough adults there comforting them, and I think as a community, we have to take a look at that,” he said.

Reverend Van Stuart, pastor at the Friendship Baptist Church, leads the Coalition for a Livable City. The local NAACP, neighborhood associations, and other activists formed the group in March. They have organized four marches, the most recent two weeks ago, through Schenectady’s struggling neighborhoods.

“The march is sort of a celebration and public-information dissemination,” Stuart said.

Stuart’s church is not in any of the most troubled areas—it is downtown on Union Street—but Stuart said he is only doing his job.

“My belief is that if we worship God . . . it’s not just a spiritual thing, it’s to help people, it’s administering to people for their physical and spiritual needs,” he said last week.

The city has also made an effort to get more involved: Community police patrols have increased and Mayor Al Jurczynski drives with Williams around the neighborhoods to discuss problems. Many are pleased with the mayor’s interest, but some are critical, and the fear some residents have of the police highlights the difficult balancing act the municipal government must play.

“There’s no one who talks against what we advocate, but there’s really no one speaking for us,” Stuart said, pointing out that the only elected official at the last march was Schenectady County Legislator Karen Johnson. “What was to be lost by showing up? If you’re afraid to stand on what you’re doing, you probably haven’t been doing much.”

City Councilman Mark Blanchfield applauded the groups’ efforts, pointing out that these communities have always had a vein of social activism, and said that the City Council is trying to set up similar community-activism programs in Vale.

“Could we be doing more if we had more resources?” he asked. “Certainly. The problem is, to a certain degree, our hands are tied.”

Jurczynski did not return calls for comment. Stuart said the mayor, a former resident of Hamilton Hill himself, did not attend the march because he said he was not specifically invited, though Stuart claimed that an invitation was hand-delivered to the mayor himself.

“The mayor has been very strong behind this,” Williams said. “There are people who say he isn’t—crap. He is Hamilton Hill.”

Disagreements aside, all agree that fixing the problems of Schenectady’s most troubled neighborhoods will take time.

“Wherever there is systemic poverty . . . folks will resort to anything they can to survive,” Stuart said.

“Right now, Schenectady is trying to make a comeback,” he added. “That will come to a slamming halt if right adjacent to all this great activity, two blocks away is a dying neighborhood.”

—David Riley

A Coping Mechanism

New program aims to help Albany residents deal with grief and loss after violent events in their community

When Tisha McKey was 14 years old, she witnessed an event that changed her life forever.

“I will never forget that day,” said McKey. “Fifteen years later that image keeps creeping into my mind and waking me up in the middle of the night.”

McKey and her 17-year-old cousin, Raymond, were sitting on the front stoop of their Syracuse apartment complex when two teens came up and confronted Raymond about an argument that had taken place the day before. “The fight was over some girl that Ray Ray liked,” said McKey, who now lives in Albany. “Before I knew it, one of them pulled out a knife and started stabbing my cousin.”

The teens fled and left McKey screaming for help. By the time her cousin got to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. “It was the first time that I ever lost someone close to me, let alone watch someone get stabbed,” said McKey. “We were all in shock, and my family never recovered from it.”

According to McKey, there were very few services available for her after the event happened. Nor were there any programs in place to help the community deal with the shock of such a tragic death. “By the next year, I was failing my classes, very depressed, and starting using drugs and alcohol,” said McKey. “For everyone in the outside world, life went on, but for me and my family, everything stopped that day.”

It took McKey 15 years to get her life back on track. The drugs and alcohol she turned to helped her deal with the constant flashbacks of her cousin’s death. “Had there been someone,” she said, “anyone to explain to me or to validate what I was feeling, and that I was not crazy, I think I would have been a lot better off.”

It seems that not much has changed, when it comes to services available in poor urban neighborhoods to help people cope with tragedy and loss. In June, for example, 16-year old Ayvontasjaie Turner was shot and killed on Albany’s Third Street. McKey said she was angered that there was no support in place to help the community deal with such a tragedy. “It’s like people are still expected to deal with it in their own way,” said McKey. “The problem is that they don’t deal. They take it out on others, or, like me, turn to substances or other destructive behaviors as way to deal.”

McKey is not alone in her concern for lack of such services. Isla Roona, director of development for the Albany Restorative Justice Center, and Lisa Good, program director of the Homer Perkins Center, are working together to change that. The two women have founded the Trauma Response and Grief/Bereavement Project for the city of Albany, and a training session will take place this weekend at Parsons Children and Family Services.

Teams, consisting of mental-health professionals, religious leaders, social workers and community peers, will be trained in critical-incident stress management and debriefing. They will offer emotional support to the people in the community following a violent act. The services will be available citywide, although the project will focus on the city’s poorer neighborhoods, where the need likely is greatest.

“If we know that acts of violence and experiencing sudden loss causes mental and emotional trauma that then gets reproduced in all sorts of unhealthy coping patterns,” said Good, “then why is it that in our community, we don’t have the resources to give that emotional first aid that people need?”

According to Roona, the goal of the program is to provide community members with an appropriate way to grieve and cope with feelings of fear, anger and depression that are often the result of distressing and violent situations. “We are trying to meet the needs of the community in a way that is not necessarily involving any full-scale counseling or professional intervention, although they could get referred to those areas if they needed it,” said Roona.

Neither the Albany Office of Child and Family Services nor the New York state Department of Child and Family Services returned calls to comment for this story.

“We recognize trauma,” said Good, commenting that those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11 had many support services available to them. “But there is often no community-based support to meet the needs of people in our communities, specifically Arbor Hill, the South End and West Hill area. We just want to afford people the same opportunity to receive the type of services and emotional first aid that are offered to other victims.”

—Nancy Guerin

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