NEWARK, N.J. – Vehicular behemoths are a familiar (and unwelcome) sight to residents of New Jersey’s largest city. Planes rumble above homes as they soar into and out of Newark Liberty International Airport. Trucks roll through neighborhoods, moving cargo from the Port Newark Container Terminal, and belching smog from their tailpipes as they go. And floods of passengers make a daily rail commute to Manhattan via Newark Penn Station.
Things are about to get a whole lot busier, thanks to a plan to widen the Panama Canal – a project that’s slated to be completed sometime in 2016, and that would result in additional traffic into and out of Newark’s port. But environmental groups and concerned citizens in New Jersey, the location of one of several ports around the country preparing for the expansion, are ringing the alarm bells, arguing it will result in additional and significant traffic and air pollution, negatively impacting surrounding communities in lower income and minority neighborhoods.
“We cannot afford to have one more dirty truck. We just can’t,” said Kim Gaddy, a 50-year-old fourth generation Brick City resident and environmental justice organizer for Clean Water Action, who is concerned about increased port truck traffic. Her three children, ages 10 to 26, all have asthma—something she attributes partially to port-related emissions (Newark has a higher rate of asthma-related hospitalization compared to surrounding areas). Gaddy says she has repeatedly counted 200 to 400 trucks passing through every hour at several intersections in her South Ward neighborhood.
“Unfortunately, they come right through our community. Our children are playing in playgrounds adjacent to truck routes, they’re playing softball, they’re playing baseball, they’re active. Now you have these trucks spilling this diesel pollution. It goes directly into their lungs,” said Gaddy.
So how exactly does the Panama Canal expansion affect Jersey? Perhaps the biggest aspect of the project is the planned raising of the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge, which connects New Jersey with Staten Island, New York. The move would allow for bigger and taller cargo ships, some coming from the Panama Canal to pass beneath it and drop off cargo containers in and out of nearby Port Newark. Several ports around the country are similarly renovating and gearing up for the larger ships to come through.
Last year, several environmental and neighborhood groups sued the Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is spearheading the project, to halt raising the bridge’s roadway 64 feet until a fuller environmental study has been conducted. The groups maintain the Coast Guard’s initial environmental assessment was limited in its scope and did not address a number of issues, including how Newark residents would be affected by the project.
The lawsuit also alleges the project could expose New Jersey and Staten Island communities to elevated levels of air pollution and toxins, including asbestos, lead and arsenic.
Construction on the bridge began in May 2013 and should be open to one lane of traffic in each direction in the summer of 2016, and two lanes in each direction in late 2017.
Officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey , which is overseeing the raising of the Bayonne Bridge roadway, have praised the project – arguing it’s critical to the 300,000 New York and New Jersey residents working at the ports. The construction itself provides 6,300 direct and indirect jobs.
Patrick Foye, the executive director of the Port Authority, told msnbc that the ships coming through will be newer and more fuel efficient than the existing fleet. He also said a number of alternatives to raising the roadway were discussed, including building a new bridge or tunnel—projects, he said that would have even worse environmental impacts.
Not making way for the larger ships “would be devastating in the long term,” said Foye. “We believe that from a community point of view, there are less community impacts with raising the roadway than any of the other alternatives. This is about preserving jobs. It’s about growing and maintaining the competitiveness of the busiest port on the East Coast, and it’s also about protecting and enhancing our environment.” The Port Authority maintains that through clean energy programs it has reduced particulate matter in recent years by more than 40%, despite an 8.6% increase in cargo.
The Port Authority has also pointed to a program that will encourage truck drivers lugging cargo from the ships to get rid of older models in exchange for more fuel efficient ones. The Coast Guard has previously said the project will result in an additional 54 truck trips per day.
But Amy Goldsmith, the chairwoman for the Coalition for Healthy Ports, is skeptical, insisting more goods coming through bigger ships means a lot more trucks. “Why would anybody spend $1.3 billion to raise a bridge for only 54 more trucks? I think the statements and data is at best disingenuous … Even if you have the cleanest trucks possible, you’re going to add to the pollution. The communities are going to feel the impact.”
The Port Authority has offered grants and low interest loans to help truckers buy new vehicles that generate less pollution, but Goldsmith said the program isn’t realistic because it places the burden on truck drivers – many who make an average of $10 to $11 an hour. She suggested the onus should be placed on shipping companies and trucking outfits instead.
“A cleanup strategy on air is dependent on someone else footing the bill because the drivers don’t make a living wage … it shouldn’t be on the backs of drivers,” she said.
Joann Papageorgis, program director of the Bayonne Bridge Navigational Clearance Program at the Port Authority, said after the issue of truck pollution was raised, the U.S. Coast Guard set aside an additional six months to review the concerns. “None of the federal agencies had any additional questions. We did pay attention to that.” She also pointed to an agreement in the spring of 2013 with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection – before the lawsuit was filed—that said truck traffic and air quality in the region would be monitored for five years. “If it was higher than expected, we said we would commit to additional mitigation.”
Concerns over the project aren’t just about truck pollution either. There would also be added rail pollution (carrying cargo) and from ships that won’t rely on shore power and from cargo handling equipment, maintained Goldsmith.
Aaron Kleinbaum, legal director of the Eastern Environmental Law Center and one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit, said both sides are slated to file additional briefs and a federal district court judge is expected to make a ruling sometime in March 2015 at the earliest.
It’s not just in Newark where minorities living around ports may feel the brunt of the environmental impact. Ports near Oakland, Calif., Baltimore and Los Angeles are also making moves to expand.
“The environmental impact is felt mostly in poor and minority communities, which has unfortunately been a legacy in this country. This is a nationwide problem,” said Kleinbaum.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the death rate from asthma and hospitalization from asthma in Newark is nearly twice that of the suburbs. And according to the Office of Minority Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, African-Americans are 20% more likely to have asthma than non-Hispanic Whites in 2011 and had 2.8 times of asthma-related emergency room visits in 2009. In cities like Newark, the percentage African-Americans is high, 52.4%.
The EPA has not drawn a direct link from the trucks to cases of asthma in Newark, but the EPA does indicate that there is mounting evidence showing diesel exhaust can exacerbate allergies and asthma symptoms.
It’s a concern that rings true for 47-year-old Nancy Mincey, a Newark resident. Both of her children, ages 13 and 15 have asthma—a condition she believes is a result of truck traffic in the city. Her older son, Mincey said, “seldom plays outside.”
Mincey, a concessions manager at the Meadlowlands Sports Complex, said she’s very concerned about additional truck traffic expected from the port expansion. “It’s [already] impacting our community so bad. It’s not just my child I’m concerned about.”
The environmental groups stressed they aren’t against the Panama Canal expansion project (something President Obama fast-tracked) itself. “We’re not against raising the Bayonne Bridge. We’re against the impacts that come from raising the bridge,” said Kleinbaum.