Capping-off Earth Week, Erin Heaney, Executive Director of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, gives the State of the Environment Address for Western New York. Airing on Earth Day, you can listen to the Address this Sunday, April 22 at 6 AM on the public affairs program of four Cumulus Media stations: 103.3 The EDGE, 97 Rock, 104.1 WHTT, and Swing 1270 am. You can also listen to the State of the Environment Address online by CLICKING HERE.
OPINION / COMMENTARY
As children we are taught to think about the environment as a place of refuge; a place where we head off to escape. When we think about our nature preserves, and our state and national parks, we think of places of pristine beauty.
I would argue that our environment includes those places, but it is not limited to them. In reality, our environment includes the places that we live, work, play, and pray. Everyone knows the expression – you are what you eat – but it is perhaps more the case that “you are where you live.”
The quality of the air you breathe, the soil you play and work in, and the water you cook and wash yourself with, it all impacts our health and our quality of life. Our environment is intimately connected with our health and our economy. When we think about the environment not as a place of refuge, but as the spaces we move through on a daily basis, it becomes very clear that the environment is something that impacts everyone’s life.
In Western New York, we have the 22nd worst air quality in the nation, the Town of Tonawanda having the highest concentration of air-permitted industrial facilities in the state, and the west side hosting the nation’s third largest land-port. We are home to a coal-burning power plant, a coke plant, the world’s largest sponge-making facility, several chemical storage and distribution plants and several petroleum distributions centers. On Buffalo’s west side, we have the Peace Bridge Plaza – that processes 3,500 trucks and nearly 20,000 cars every single day throughout neighborhoods – that has contributed to an asthma epidemic on the west side that impacts families and children.
Our region has a high concentration of brownfields and hazardous waste sites; an outdated sewer system that dumps raw sewage into local waterways; and a nuclear waste storage at West Valley Demonstration Project, the nation’s only commercial nuclear fuel reprocessing facility. Our region is not particularly bike-friendly and our public transit system is under attack. Our industrial development agencies have promoted sprawl and other poor planning decisions. The threat of fracking threatens nearly all of our communities. As evidenced this summer, our neighborhoods and workers need stronger protections when our industrial factories go up in flames.
All of these challenges are happening as corporations have gained unprecedented power in our political system. As a result, we have elected officials who are everything from corrupt to decent on environmental issues. With a few exceptions, we have policymakers who have made decisions that have destroyed the environment, the economy and our health.
Like most significant social problems, we’re going to need an organized movement to fight back. We need a strong movement of real people dedicated to tackling these problems, and we’re in luck. There is a growing movement in Western New York to protect and enhance our environment.
A few years ago, the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo brought together our region’s dedicated environmental organizations to develop a shared agenda to tackle these tough challenges. Since then, our organizations have continued to work together under the umbrella of the Western New York Environmental Alliance. Now nearly 100 organizations strong, the Alliance’s member organizations are doing incredible work to improve the environment in Western New York.
My organization has taken the lead on protecting and improving air quality in our region.
We’ve dedicated ourselves to two of the largest sources of air pollution in Erie County: industry in Tonawanda and the dirty diesel trucks on the lower west side of Buffalo. We’ve pushed our regulatory agencies for enforcement action at Tonawanda Coke Corporation and other major polluters in the town. Our direct action organizing has resulted in 20 indictments of Mark Kamholz, Tonawanda Coke’s environmental control manager and over 150 notices of violation were issues by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Since then, the company has signed a consent order and benzene emissions in the plant next to the neighborhood have dropped by 86%.
In July, we brought together several diverse groups to sign a charter committing them to reducing air pollution in Tonawanda by supporting lean manufacturing. The E3 partnership is one of those groups, they offer free audits to manufacturers who would like to reduce their environmental impact and increase their bottom line. Furthermore, the NYS Pollution Prevention Institute is offering free audits to companies who would like to participate in the program!
On Buffalo’s west side, we have joined a growing group of neighborhood groups fighting for a Peace Bridge plan that prioritizes public health. We’ve taken air samples that show elevated levels of several hazardous air pollutants, joining the body of peer-reviewed science that shows the neighborhood is a known toxic hotspot.
Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper has grown tremendously and this summer began the ambitious project of dredging the Buffalo River – a river that was pronounced dead and was lit on fire!
PUSH Buffalo has made home weatherization a reality for residents throughout the region with their green jobs green New York legislation. They are putting west side residents back to work by improving the efficiency of our homes. Their campaign against National Fuel secured significant dollars towards furthering this vision.
Fracking activists have bravely pushed back against the natural gas industry, passing a resolution in the City of Buffalo banning the practice in our city. Niagara Falls rejected a proposal that would have brought dirty, fracked water through our neighborhoods to the Falls where it would have been processed. Our local groups have also been instrumental in getting the moratorium on drilling extended in New York State.
Green Options Buffalo continues to be our local champion for making our city a healthy, bikable place to live. This April they are hosting a Complete Streets Summit to educate our policymakers about the importance of building roads and streets that can accommodate all kinds of people on all modes of transportation – cars, bikes, strollers, wheelchairs, and shopkeepers.
The local chapter of our Sierra Club has been working hard to ensure our region becomes a place where we create jobs through clean energy and are working to eliminate our need for coal. The Apollo Alliance has brought together labor and community groups to advocate for clean and green jobs in our region.
Buffalo CarShare is a wonderful nonprofit run by UB grads that are helping Western New York residents reduce their footprint by sharing cars! They are providing low-income folks with access to a car to run errands and they are helping others stop buying cars to reduce their environmental impact.
We need corporate champions – those who harness the power of business to solve social problems. Buffalo First! does just that. One of their member organizations, Warren & McCullagh Coffee understands the economic benefit of being a fully environmentally sustainable company. McCullagh has time after time made responsible decisions -- from transportation to machinery -- to be both cost effective and embody the company's core values of the triple bottom line.
Grassroots Gardens supports communities who want to make their neighborhoods a beautiful place to live and a place that can support food production! Last year when faced with challenges to access to land, the gardeners came out in full force to educate the common council on the benefits of their gardens. Their testimonies resulted in an outpouring of support from local government and the signing of a new lease with the city of buffalo to add 34 new lots to their work!
On Buffalo’s east side, the Environmental Justice Action Group of Western New York is working to bring fresh, healthy food to their neighborhoods. Our nature preserves and youth agencies are providing kids with outdoor and nature education, developing a new generation of youth who are connected to the earth.
Civil society, the non-profit sector, and community activists can only do so much. In reality, most decisions that will determine whether our region can overcome our poisoned past depends on this growing movement’s ability to engage with government, and with corporations to move this vision forward.
We need champions in the government who will champion strong regulations, sustainable zoning, and choose infrastructure projects that enhance our environment, and finance the right kinds of economic development. We need government to open up, be transparent, and actually let residents be part of these decisions.
Some problems do not require broad-based popular support; savvy lobbying or small changes in spending habits can make change. The environmental challenges we face here in Western New York are not those kinds of problems.
We need a movement, and it needs to start pushing back. None of us can do this alone. One person standing on a street corner yelling sounds crazy. A whole block, a neighborhood, a city, a region standing together screaming the same thing has to be taken seriously. Our growing movement needs to make politicians shake in their boots. Elected officials need to know that if they continue to poison our land and our communities they won’t be voted back in.
At PUSH Buffalo they have a great expression: “going green is not a lifestyle – it’s about survival.” The survival of our region is dependent upon our ability to “go green.” CLICK HERE