Monday, June 21, 2010

NYC Council Committee on Waterfronts Hearing - "Greening New York City's Working Waterfront"

On Thursday, last week, the New York City Council's Committee on Waterfronts, under the Chairmanship of Councilman Michael C. Nelson, held a hearing titled, "Oversight - Clearing the Air: Greening New York City's Working Waterfront". The hearing was convened so the Committee could hear testimony on this subject from the various entities who operated and made decisions about New York City's working waterfront, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the NYC Economic Development Corporation (EDC), representatives in government, as well as hearing testimony from environmental groups and residents who are directly impacted by the harmful pollution that is created as a result of the operations of our city's ports.

The hearing was also attended by various other committee members who, like the Chairman, seemed to come in and out during its course, apart from Councilman Brad Lander, representing the 39th District that includes Carroll Gardens and the Columbia Street Waterfront District in Brooklyn, who was in attendance for the entire three hour hearing, listening to all of the testimony and asking the bulk of the well informed questions.

The hearing covered a range of issues relating to the "greening" of the ports, and the representatives from the Port Authority and EDC outlined some pollution mitigating measures that are currently under way, including the recent beginings of an L.A. style clean truck program (though not nearly as extensive) - called the "Truck Replacement Program" - that is being set up to allow drivers of drayage trucks that move containers in and out of ports to upgrade from older polluting trucks, to newer cleaner ones. There was also mention of an incentive program to promote the use of lower sulfur diesel in ocean going vessels while in New York City waters. Also mentioned was the plan to plug cruise ships into "shore power", allowing them to turn off their extra-dirty diesel engines while in port at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal in Red Hook (this is called "cold ironing"), instead of idling in port, as they are currently doing. Despite the previous statements from the Port Authority saying that this action, with the cruise ships alone, would save Brooklyn residents $9 million per year in health costs, the plan is still in limbo due to recalcitrance on the part of Con Edison, and seemingly ponderous - if not callous - feet dragging at the Public Service Commission (PSC) in setting an economically viable Con Edison power rate (called a tariff) for the ships to use. This new rate could be applied whether it be in Brooklyn or elsewhere in New York City, such as is being proposed (as I heard at the hearing) at the newly planned "cold ironing" 4th Berth at Howland Hook Container Terminal in Staten Island. One piece of news was that the EDC has committed to subsidize the shore power rate for ships at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal if the case isn't settled at the PSC. No doubt there's stuff to iron out there, but that was a bit of good news.

Rather than go into all of the detail of the hearing, I'd just like to touch on some broader issues - the main ones raised within the testimony presented at the hearing - and raise some questions that still need to be asked.

First, there is the issue of responsibility. In his testimony to the Committee, the Port Authority's Director of Port Commerce, Richard Larrabee, mentioned all the undeniable benefits that the activities of the ports bring to our region - economically, with jobs and otherwise. He also mentioned that these activities were predicted to grow significantly over the next decade and that the ports of New York and New Jersey would have to accommodate that growth. Given the subject being addressed at the hearing, at this stage it would have been expected that the Port Authority acknowledge the fact that the activities of the ports that they own and operate contribute significantly to the pollution that affects the health of the residents of our city and particularly the port communities that they abut, but the stance taken by the Port Authority was a different one. Mr. Larrabee said that their ports were within a "non attainment" region, where the levels of pollutants such as NOx, SO2, Particulates and Ozone constantly fail to meet federally mandated air quality standards. He went on to state that "although" their NY NJ Maritime activities only contributed 2% of the total of all sources of these pollutants for the region, they were "committed to reducing this contribution in an effort to help bring the region into attainment."

Well, let's get a couple of things straight. The "non attainment" region is a huge area that covers large chunks of Connecticut, New Jersey, New York City and State including all of Long Island. So, any figures that the Port Authority quotes surely shouldn't be in relation to this huge area - it renders them meaningless. Rather, they should be in relation to our city and its close suburbs, where their emissions' negative impact is being acutely felt.

The facts are, according to the Environmental Defense Fund (via this article from John Kaltenstein, Friends of the Earth) the yearly operations of the Ports of NY and NJ create as much pollution as 7.8 million cars. That's 7,000+tons of NOx (nitrogen oxides), nearly 5,000 tons of SO2 (sulfur dioxide) and 600 tons of Particulate Mater (PM).

Ships create 91% of the SO2, 47% of the NOx, and 62% of the particulates the operations of the port produces - that's information from the Port Authority. Trucks that service the ports also contribute significant percentages of these substances, with 25% of the NOx, 12% of PM and 37% of CO2. The EPA calls ship emissions "harmful to the pubic generally, and especially to our children, the elderly, people with lung disease, those who exercise outside, and low-income and minority communities located near ports." This statement is a living reality for residents of port communities who suffer high incidence of asthma, respiratory disease and cancer clusters - to name a few of the negative health effects resulting from port emissions.

For Mr. Larrabee to preface his testimony with the statement that implied that the contribution of harmful pollutants that the Ports of NY and NJ add to our city's air was minimal - but despite that, they were going to be "good guys" and clean it up a bit anyway, was a bit rich. If the Port Authority wants to adequately address these issues, they need to "come clean" on the facts, so that meaningful and appropriate action can be taken - as would be demanded by the public who employs them, if they also knew the facts. How can Mr. Larrabee's "back-slapping" statement that the Ports of NY and NJ eventually hope to be the "greenest" in country be taken seriously, if the Port Authority doesn't truthfully acknowledge how dirty they are?

The person speaking on behalf of the NYCEDC who (sometimes controversially) plan waterfront development for the City, was Vice President of the Maritime Department, Andrew Genn. His testimony covered a lot of the same ground as the Port Authority's, but spoke specifically about the Sunset Park Waterfront Vision Plan that lays out a future for Sunset Park's industrial waterfront that includes maritime industrial use (a possible new container port), waterfront access, a 20 acre park and even public housing. In relation to Red Hook, Mr. Genn also mentioned the proposed "cold ironing" at the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal and the "new paradigm" that the relocation of Phoenix Beverages to Pier 11, facilitated by the EDC, was bringing to Red Hook's waterfront. ( The fact that Phoenix are using 2 piers - both Pier 11 (where they only do recycling) AND the larger Pier 7 wasn't mentioned - I wondered why?)

Now, I keep hearing this "NEW PARADIGM" stuff from the EDC. I heard it from Mr. Genn and from Executive Vice President, Madelyn Wils, at the Brooklyn Workshop for the Vision 2020 Plan. Well if a "new paradigm" means breaking promises, misleading the public, inflicting more pollution and congestion on an already burdened population without Environmental Impact Studies, ignoring Community Board 6 guidelines, casting aside 197a Plans, cutting off much desired access to the waterfront, thwarting the will of the residents and ignoring common sense - when there was a workable, and viable alternative that would have also accommodated Phoenix Beverages and satisfied almost everyone - then, by George, EDC, you've done it. That's some "New Paradigm".

My advice to the EDC - stop repeating it. It's embarrassing. Much like your short sighted and expedient planning for the cruise terminal in the first place - which you should also stop referring to as "world class" - have you seen the rest of the world's terminals? They have windows with views of the water, and kitchens and loading docks for functions and conventions, and outdoor spaces and public access (no razor wire), and .... well, I could go on. Really, I could.

The EDC will play a role in the greening of the city's ports and waterfront, but again, they need to be truthful and cognizant of the role they have played in undermining people's confidence in their decision making. They don't have a great track history in Red Hook - so I'm taking everything they say with a grain of salt - as big as the 5 storey salt pile currently being stored on Red Hook's waterfront.

The other theme that kept coming up with the hearing was that the cost of "greening" the ports had to be weighed against the cost to shipping and building the infrastructure in the first place. The Chairman made this point a number of times, almost as if that was an insurmountable problem.

On the West Coast, I've seen many articles stating that the additional cost of green practices, cold ironing etc. amounted to the addition of a couple of cents to the cost of a pair of sneakers. That doesn't seem insurmountable. The Ports of LA and Long Beach are thriving, despite extensive investments in green practices, incentives and sometimes requirements for trucks and ships to clean up their acts.

The Mayor of Long Beach, CA, Bob Foster, when these mitigating measures were being proposed there years ago, didn't accept the argument that a small added cost borne by shipping or passed on to the consumer was unbearable. His quote was, "We’re not going to have kids in Long Beach contract asthma so someone in Kansas can get a cheaper television set.”

That is an attitude I'd like to see more of from the Waterfront Committee, and from the City as a whole. If the Chairman's suspicion of "greenies" runs any deeper than some of the rhetoric he used at the hearing - suggesting that a "radical environmentalist" agenda could make shipping uneconomical - I don't have much hope for that. If "radical greenies" had more influence, perhaps we wouldn't be dealing with the horror that is now being visited on the Gulf Coast right now, with regular people bearing the burden of careless business practices. In a gesture of appeasement, the Chairman stated, half jokingly, that everyone had environmental issues to worry about. He said that he had to worry about Tsunamis where he lived (presumably Sheepshead Bay, the area he represents), so we shouldn't be so worried about living with the pollution of our neighborhoods' ports. Even though I'm sure this was a well intended statement, it was a little bizarre, and not really respectful of the concerns of the people who were in that room in an attempt to rid unnecessary toxins from the air that their children are breathing.

Just a quick note about effectiveness. The PA Truck Replacement Program's effectiveness was being questioned at the meeting with, as a way to strengthen it, Federal Legislation being developed, initiated by Rep. Jerry Nadler and supported by unions and environmental groups, that would allow for the establishment of a more robust program that couldn't be legally challenged by big trucking companies and the operators of ports, as has been the case in LA with laws suits, etc. After questioning from CM Brad Lander it was noted that LA's program had already replaced 6,000+ trucks, and that NY's program only had funds for under 700, with only 93 applications so far due to the prohibitive cost of replacing the dirty trucks, despite the programs incentives. A professor from Rutgers University said that a new model needed to be developed and that the current plan "can't succeed".

The PA's low sulfur diesel incentive was also having limited results, thus far, again as revealed by questioning from Brad Lander. This was partially a result of the fact that NY doesn't tax dirty bunker fuel, so there was still not enough incentive to switch to the cleaner fuel. The tax issue was one that Councilman Lander addressed a number of times, calling for the taxing of the fuel, as is done in New Jersey, so as to de-incentivize its use in the ports.

I have to say, a large amount of the hearing was occupied by testimony and questions relating to the Truck Replacement Program and in support of the legislation I mentioned above, championed by Rep. Nadler, calling for reform of trucking practices that unfairly classified truck drivers "independent contractors". We heard heart wrenching testimony from desperate truck drivers, stating that they could barely earn a living wage because of the overheads that they personally had to carry - including replacing lights, maintenance, and any work done on their trucks - despite being, in essence, "employed" by the same company for many, many years - without benefits. The drivers said that this mis-classification was costing them enormously, not only financially, but in health costs, as they were forced to drive older, polluting trucks, which often had fumes coming into their driver's cab, and, additionally, they were driving through the very neighborhoods in which their families lived, polluting their air, and causing health and safety risks to their children. The advocates of a strengthened "Truck Replacement Program" stated that, if the legislation passed, the employer would then carry more of the costs, the drivers would be compensated more fairly, and that this would not only provide better work conditions for the drivers, but the newer, cleaner trucks would bring the pollution reductions and health benefits that this Committee's hearing was addressing. Among the organizations supporting this cause - outside of the political force of Congressman Jerry Nadler - were the Coalition for Healthy Ports, the Teamsters Union, the Drum Major Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It was great to see this show of strength for the truck issue. It's a worthy one - because this is an issue of exploitation and workplace conditions as much as anything - and it's something I fully support, having asked, "Where is Red Hook's Clean Truck Program?" in my second ever post on this blog.

I did however think that the truck issue, with it's heavy-weight supporters in government, unions and other organizations, overshadowed the wider issue of port pollution and the main contributor to that pollution - the ships.

A spokesperson for the Environmental Defense Fund called "cold ironing" at Brooklyn Cruise Terminal a "no brainer", stating that plugging one cruise ship in would take the equivalent of the pollution from 12,000 cars, per day, out of the air. He noted that in L.A., when a container ship is plugged into "shore power", it has the effect of eliminating emissions equivalent to 33,000 cars.

Other speakers gave testimony about the environmental and health challenges that living next to a port posed. A woman representing the North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island spoke passionately of environmental justice, of residents needs and welfare being overridden by the pursuit of "economic development". She spoke of trucks roaring through the streets, and precious waterfront land with little public access being eaten up by industry that couldn't care less what effect it was having on the surrounding population. She said that "business was being done at the expense of people". It was something a lot of Red Hook residents could relate to. She, as did others, skipped over the subject of the pollution from ships, but did question how the establishment of a new "cold ironing" berth at Howland Hook could be called "green", if it came at the expense of land-filling their unique wetlands, Arlington Marsh.

Other testimony included that coming from the National Resource Defense Council, South West Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, representatives of Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez and Congressman Jerry Nadler, as well as the others I mentioned (and some I didn't - sorry).

There was also testimony from representatives of residents of the Bronx waterfront concerned about the impact of waterfront activities on their communities.

Unfortunately, the hearing was very long, and the testimony of residents who are actually bearing the burden of port pollution - from Staten Island, from the Columbia Street waterfront and Red Hook - was mostly relegated to the final minutes of a 3 hour hearing. I was second last to present my testimony, and as the hearing had already gone on nearly three hours, I was asked by the Chairman to keep my (what would have been 7 minute, as requested) testimony short. As a result, I tried to skim through most of the material that had been presented before, and tried to keep to my main points. I presented my testimony as a father, a resident of Red Hook, as someone who writes a blog on these issues, and as a board member of RHED - Red Hook Economic Development, a non for profit group that aims to create partnerships between businesses, residents and industry, to vitalize economic development while enhancing quality of life in Red Hook.

You can read the whole written testimony HERE.

As I finished up, the Chairman said, somewhat sympathetically (I think in reference to the so called "world class" Cruise Ship Terminal being built in 2006 without any pollution mitigating infrastructure), "I know. It's not what you expected."

Well, as the final speaker from the Bronx gave her testimony, I thought to myself, it's not really about "what I expected". It's about "what is to be expected" ... from governments, or agencies of governments, or industry, or any other entity that brings business - say cruise ships, or beer trucking companies, or more container ships - to anyone's residential or mixed use neighborhood. Are they expected to be good neighbors and, like the doctors' Hippocratic oath, "first do no harm". Or is it OK for them to avoid doing Environmental Impact Studies, then pump a few more unmitigated tons of carcinogenic Sulfur, or Nitrogen Oxides, or asthma inducing Particulate Matter into your kids' lungs (kids with 40% asthma rates, as is the case in Red Hook) - as long as it's in the name of "economic development" - even if it doesn't do anything for economic vitality, small businesses, etc. in your neighborhood?

I hope the voice of Red Hook came through loud and clear in my testimony. My fear is that these meetings or hearings are often convened so that it can be said that the community had a chance to voice their concerns, then the status quo can continue, with a few little concessions around the edges to appease the locals (think: the cruise terminal bus parking lot).

My hope is that, like the issue with the trucks (whose advocates are on a roll), the comprehensive issue of port pollution, especially concerning the emissions from ships, gains more traction.

This issue needs its "heavy weight" advocates in Congress and in government. We need some local organizations to start speaking out more on these issues - environmentalists, advocates of environmental justice, community representatives. They're out there - there's just not much noise being made yet - which isn't helped by the total neglect and down right negligence of the local press in covering this issue. ( e.g. - Port Authority says cruise ship pollution costing Brooklyn residents $9 Million a year in health costs. Response from press - SHRUG).

As I said, in my testimony,

"We have to get going on this so we can finally take these dangerous, yet totally avoidable pollutants, out of our harbor city’s air.

Then, Red Hook residents and the residents of our entire city will finally be able to breathe easy."


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