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Breathing Uneasily
American Lung Association gives several upstate counties failing grades on air quality—but are its standards too tough?
By John Gallagher

Mention air pollution, and places like Los Angeles, Houston and New York City come to mind. But a recent report by the American Lung Association gave several upstate New York counties the same failing grade as the above-named metropolises, which are notorious for poor air quality.

The Clean Air Report, published May 1, grades air quality across the nation on a county-by-county basis. The ALA studies air-quality and ozone-saturation data from the Environmental Protection Agency. A county receives an F if its ozone saturation exceeds the EPA standard for three days or more during “ozone season” (May to September), when higher temperatures and more intense solar rays react with pollutants in the air and form ground-level ozone.

In upstate New York, Albany, Duchess, Essex, and Saratoga counties all received this failing grade.

“[Ozone is] a highly reactive form of oxygen and a corrosive agent,” said Pete Iwanowicz, director of environmental health at the ALA of New York state. “It’s certainly not something you’d want to be breathing in in high quantities.”

According to the ALA, areas where the pollutants are highly concentrated can be damaging to children, the elderly, and especially those with respiratory diseases such as asthma. Major causes of the area’s pollution, Iwanowicz said, are vehicle exhaust from local traffic and smog from Midwestern power plants.

The surprise of the group is rural Essex County, which straddles Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks in northeastern New York. But Iwanowicz compared it to a nonsmoking section in a smoky restaurant, saying that Essex County residents breathe from “the same polluted air mass that wafts in from the Midwestern states.”

Critics of the report accuse the ALA of using unnecessarily stringent grading standards. “The report vastly exaggerates air-pollution levels,” said Joel Schwartz, senior fellow at the Reason Public Policy Institute in California, a California think tank promoting free-market capitalism and automobile-friendly transportation policy.

“Albany averaged 3.3 days per year, exceeding [the EPA standard], and [the ALA has] given Albany the same F grade as the worst location in Kern county [Calif.], which is Arvin, which had 80 exceedences,” Schwartz said.

Shwartz also contended that the ALA is ignoring signs of air-pollution reduction, trends he said will only increase in the years to come.

“There are ways to make [air pollution] decline more rapidly that are much less expensive and much less intrusive than the kinds of measures that the lung association are pushing for,” Schwartz said. For example, he said, the RPPI favors government incentives to get America’s worst-polluting vehicles off the road.

The report also has been criticized by the EPA and state regulators, according to Iwanowicz. Officials from Albany and Essex counties, as well as regional officers of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, did not return calls for comment.

Currently, the ALA of New York state is lobbying the Legislature for two bills: one that would eliminate the sales tax on ultra-clean and zero-emission vehicles, and another that would require the production and use of cleaner fuels.

“Clearly, [the Clean Air Report] indicates that there is a problem,” said Ann Reynolds, Air and Energy program director at Environmental Advocates of New York.

According to Reynolds, the report gives an important measure of air- pollution health risks. “The ALA is looking at a very important snapshot that has an effect on human health,” she said.

Bob Kelly, regional air modeler for the EPA, works with state governments to bring their air quality up to EPA standards. He said that air pollution is at least leveling off and probably decreasing.

“[The ALA has] used air-quality data that are collected from our states. The ALA takes the numbers the states provide and they do their interpretation of it . . . ” Kelly said. “They’re entitled to present the data as they think is appropriate. We give the data and we let the public decide.”

Regarding criticism from the EPA and state regulators, Iwanowicz said, “They think we grade too hard, but as we always tell them: We’re talking about kids’ lung tissue, so we have to grade hard.”


Stop the smokestack: South End residents protest the proposed asphalt plant. Photo by John Whipple

Clearing the Air
A proposed asphalt plant causes controversy in Albany—and prompts charges of environmental racism
By Shawn Stone

Banging drums and shouting slogans, protestors outside Giffen Elementary School let it be known that an asphalt plant was not welcome in Albany’s South End. The protest preceded a May 7 New York state Department of Environmental Conservation-sponsored public hearing which drew close to 100 people to the school. Tri-City Aggregates, an Altamont-based firm, wants to build a 480-square-foot asphalt facility on their property at 850 S. Pearl St.—and dozens of people voiced their opposition.

Though representatives for Tri-City Aggregates have said that the asphalt plant will pose no significant environmental hazard, residents remain unconvinced. Speaker after speaker came out against the proposal. Among the interested parties were health-care advocates, representatives from neighborhood institutions (including Doane Stuart School and Kenwood Covent of the Sacred Heart), elected officials, and dozens of local residents.

Dr. Nancy De Korp, representing the American Lung Association, detailed the possible negative effects of the asphalt plant on the region’s air quality. The chief concerns, according to De Korp, are fine particle pollution, and the combination of diesel exhaust from delivery trucks—which will make a projected 100 trips to and from the plant each day—and emissions from the plant’s two 40-foot smokestacks. These will contribute to the creation of ozone, explained De Korp. High levels of ozone, a major component of smog, have been directly related to respiratory problems ranging from coughing to asthma.

“Seven percent of hospital admissions in the summer can be attributed to smog,” De Korp said.

Noting that Albany county had just earned an “F” rating in the ALA’s annual State of the Air report, she asserted that “air quality in the Capital District is on the decline,” and asked that the DEC perform a coordinated, full review of the plant proposal.

Dominick Calsolaro, 1st Ward alderman, drew a picture of a low-income, high-minority population neighborhood being dumped on yet again. This position was reiterated by a number of local clergy, as well as Rodney Davis of the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Corp. Davis—who spoke at the meeting at the invitation of Albany County Legislator Lucille McKnight—referred to previous environmentally questionable projects suggested for the South End, including a defeated proposal for a waste-transfer station. Davis called the attempt to cite the asphalt plant on North Pearl Street a case of déjà vu.

Nell Stokes Holmes, a decades-long resident of the neighborhood whose home is only 100 feet from the proposed plant, said that “where I live there are 27 families on my street (including) many young children and seniors. . . . The traffic and smell is already tremendous; what will be the longterm effects of this plant?”

A number of speakers directed their harshest criticism at the DEC for not initially scheduling any public hearings and rubber-stamping Tri-City Aggregates’ application. On Feb. 26, the DEC first announced that they had received the permit application. At that time, no public hearing was planned and the deadline for written public comments was March 28; in fact, the DEC determined that the plant would not “have a significant impact on the environment.” After receiving complaints from local officials, the DEC scheduled the hearing and extended the comment period to Friday, May 9.

With the DEC public comment period now ended, activists have turned their attention to Mayor Jerry Jennings and the city of Albany’s planning board. A coalition of concerned citizens held a press conference in front of City Hall on Wednesday, May 14. The planning board will review the proposal on Thursday, May 15 at 9 AM.

No matter what the city decides, opponents urge the DEC to make a full review of the proposal. As resident Daniel Van Riper argued, “there is no compelling reason to site the plant in the South End.”

Sunday Is Like Every Day
Legislators and liquor-store owners wrangle over proposed amendment to New York’s “blue laws”
By Travis Durfee

On Monday, Scott Reilly was looking ahead to another long day.

Reilly, who operates Wheeler’s Liquor Store at 1145 Central Ave. in Albany, planned on working a full 12 hours on Monday even though his partner—and only other worker—was scheduled for the afternoon shift.

“My partner, he’s just not with it—he’s not responsible,” Reilly said. “But with part-time help, it’s tough. First you’ve got to hope that they show up and then hope that they only steal from you a little.”

Reilly said he operates his liquor store the old-fashioned way: He has little help in a no-frills store to keep his costs low, and he lets the prices draw the customers in.

Reilly said he worked 12-hour days the previous Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and was grateful when Sunday rolled around. On Sunday, he had to shut his doors, as per New York state law, and so he had a day of rest. But he fears that proposed changes to the state’s law regarding the sale of alcohol may force him to change his routine.

In the hopes of generating additional tax revenue in the face of New York state’s fiscal crisis, legislators included a proposal in their budget that would change the state law regulating the sale of liquor and wine. Under the state’s “blue laws,” liquor stores currently are not allowed to sell wine or liquor on Sunday, and beer cannot be sold from midnight Saturday until noon Sunday.

The proposed change would allow liquor storeowners to sell their goods from noon to 9 PM on Sundays, but in exchange they would have to choose another day during the week when they’d close their doors.

That decision to regulate liquor stores into closing one day a week is an attempt to appease small storeowners, like Reilly, who feel that they shouldn’t be forced to compete by staying open a seventh day.

According to Assemblyman Ronald Canastrari (D-Cohoes), since Sunday is a busy shopping day for many, allowing liquor-store owners to open their doors that day could add $26 million to $30 million in new tax revenues in addition to what is already collected from the sale of alcohol.

“Sunday is the second-largest retail day in the nation, and it will make a difference,” said Canastrari, who has long sponsored a bill calling for repeal of the restriction on Sunday sales. “The attractiveness of Sunday sales was additional revenue, but [legislators] were also cognizant that storeowners didn’t want to have their stores open seven days a week for religious and other reasons.”

But according to Craig Allen, owner of All Star Wine & Spirits in Latham Farms, one of those “other reasons” is a lack of willingness to work.

“It just amazes me when I see all these other businesses complaining about not wanting to be open seven days,” Allen said. “Do you know any other industry where the retailers fight for more and more restriction on their own industry?”

Allen, who operates his store with 11 full-time employees and two part-timers, has long lobbied the state’s elected officials to remove the Sunday sales restrictions. Allen said he expects to be one of the few storeowners to take advantage of the change should the governor sign it into law. Allen’s rationale: Since he pays taxes seven days a week, he should be able to open his doors for business seven days a week, like most other businesses in the state.

“I guess as a compromise it is better than nothing,” said Allen. “The main thing is that we are breaking this prohibition that Sunday isn’t a sales day. But I’d like to be open seven days—I’d like to have the choice at least.”

Should the governor sign the change into law, it will be evaluated after five years to see if it was worthwhile.

“I suppose the public’s response will gauge the change’s success,” said Canastrari. “Will there be an outcry against it? Will the revenues justify the experiment?”

Reilly said he would not take advantage of the change unless competition from other businesses forces him to, and he raises another point: Heavy drinkers could use a day of rest as well.

“I don’t think the politicians are thinking about the guys who drink a magnum of vodka a day,” Reilly said. “Those guys need a day of rest, but nobody wants to think about that. But this isn’t about what’s better for the community—it’s about who gives the most money to the state.”


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