A Breath of Air in Harlem

by Peggy Dye

In the 1930s, Robert Moses, master planner for New York, stripped Harlem of potential park along the Hudson River where, further down the river, his engineers preserved land for white Manhattan communities. In Harlem, planners laid a highway directly on the waterfront to give commuters a delicious view while driving to and from their city offices.

Today, the state of New York has built Harlem a new park along the river and the highway-Riverbank. Restitution for the 1930s racist planning?

Depends on how you see the environment.

If you like clean water, Riverbank is an engineering marvel. The park sits on the roof of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, a 28-acre concrete leviathan in the Hudson with aerating tanks, endless pipes and 100-foot pipestacks. North River processes the sewer slop of most of Manhattan’s west side, replacing direct dumping. The billion dollar plant has won awards for contributing to the Hudson River’s cleaner waters in the 90s. At the same time, the $128 million park on top-the costliest in the state-has given Olympic-scale recreation and a breather to needy city dwellers and tourists.

But breath is also the problem.

If clean air is your priority, consider this: At the plant’s completion 14 years ago, the air it released stank and sickened area residents so much that their demonstrations made network news and spread the term “environmental racism” through the national vocabulary. Scientist Barry Commoner did a study which found design defects in North River and indications of harmful sulfur hydroxide and sulfur dioxide emissions, exacerbating Harlem’s asthma epidemic.

In 1992, the City and State of New York entered a consent agreement to spend $55 million on a five year plan to correct the defects in the plant and to monitor the air.

The result? By June 2000, with the millions spent, Sara Allen, whose apartment overlooks the river, says “It smells-not as bad as it used to, not every day. But two days ago I had to shut my windows when it came up strong for awhile.” The smell could mean toxic sulfur hydroxide. “After all these years, we still have not yet had a comprehensive presentation on all the emissions,” L. Ann Rocker, neighbor to Allen, wrote in a three page letter of issues to state and city commissioners. Rocker chairs the North River Community Environmental Review Board (NRCERB), the local watchdog group that started the research that attracted the attention of Commoner, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the city’s first black mayor David Dinkins, and federal EPA and prompted the repair program.

Although the state put lids on the giant tanks of plant sewage being oxidized, and placed eight air monitors nearby to additionally police dangerous emissions, government reports on the results have been spotty. For example, high levels of formaldehyde, a carcinogen, were recently detected, and warning given to Rocker and NRCERB by engineers inside the plant. Yet E-Magazine’s question, “What’s coming out in the air?” elicited from the city’s public affairs officer for the plant, Natalie Millner, “Are you sure you need such technical information for a magazine article? Any problem we had is long gone. If you want that kind of detail, I have to ask you to write a letter.”

Along with such disclaimers, documents which E Magazine obtained independently reveal that city and state commissioners are considering ending the air monitoring system altogether. In fact, a consultant is to be hired to do a “six year review of technical data” to determine “if the system can be terminated,” wrote New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Cahill, March 31, to Ann Rocker.

Rocker is not buying. As long as sewage flows to Harlem, “monitoring our air needs improvement and not removal,” she says. The six year report is promised for this fall. “We’ll be preparing. The park was an appeasement. But we want to know what we are breathing.”

Cleaner water for dirtier air? A trade-off only to affect Harlem? Breathe again.

An edited version of this article appeared in E-Magazine, Sept.-Oct. 2000. Peggy Dye is a journalist in New York City.

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