South End air samples cleared
States says its tests showed no short-term risk to neighbors of oil trains
Published on 8/14/2014 by the Times Union written by Jordan Carleo-Evangelist Updated 10:56 pm, Thursday, August 14, 2014
The levels of potentially dangerous oil-related chemicals found in the air around the South End in recent months were "well below" the state's short-term exposure guidelines, state officials revealed Thursday.
But that news — delivered during a two-hour community meeting at the Ezra Prentice Homes beside the Kenwood rail yard — hardly comforted fearful and frustrated residents searching for explanations for ailments they say have plagued them and their neighbors.
"The bottom line is that we didn't find anything that would be considered a health concern with these concentrations that we measured," Randi Walker, a research scientist with the Department of Environmental Conservation, told the crowd of about 60 at the South Pearl Street public housing complex.
The tests for volatile organic compounds associated with petroleum products — like cancer-causing benzene — yielded results in line with state averages, which led DEC officials to conclude no further monitoring is warranted, Walker said.
Still, residents and environmental advocates at times angrily demanded more in-depth testing, noting the levels of some chemicals did exceed state guidelines for long-term exposure — exactly the kind endured by those living and working next to the tracks.
Walker, however, cautioned against drawing conclusions about long-term exposure based on short-term tests and said there's virtually no place in New York — not even the seemingly pristine Adirondacks — that doesn't exceed the state's stringent annual guideline for benzene.
That guideline, which is based on a one in a million cancer risk, is 100 times more conservative than the one used by the federal government, Walker said, adding: "We didn't see anything that necessitated further sampling."
Ezra Prentice resident Deborah Clay, who suffers from chronic bronchitis and has two grandchildren with asthma, was among those in the crowd not buying it.
Clay, 54, said her sister shuts her windows to avoid waking up nauseous with a headache. The two moved into the complex in 2011, but, Clay said, "I just feel like I've aged 10 years since I've been here."
DEC launched the screenings amid community concerns about the health effects of the surging oil business at the Port of Albany, where Massachusetts-based Global Partners wants to expand its facilities with boilers to heat the oil to ease its transfer from rail cars.
The tests were conducted by DEC staff over five days in May and June at three locations: the Ezra Prentice playground, Krank Park and at Franklin and Gansevoort streets.
Those results were supplemented by six samples collected by a DEC-trained community volunteer timed to coincide with neighborhood complaints of oil fumes.
Each DEC sampling lasted one hour and was targeted to days — warmer and with little wind — that officials said should promote higher readings.
Citing the difference between acute danger and chronic health effects, Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and a former acting DEC commissioner, said further testing is needed and Global should help pay for it.
"What we really need is a long-term, robust health assessment," said Iwanowicz, who is also chairman of an advisory panel convened by County Executive Dan McCoy to study the health threats of the oil train traffic through Albany.
Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin and council members Dorcey Applyrs and Vivian Kornegay, who represent the area, echoed that call.
Former Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, also a member of McCoy's panel, said DEC failed to properly consider the heightened vulnerability of residents who live in poorer, under-served communities.
"Spend the damn money," Calsolaro shouted at agency officials. "We're taxpayers, too."
Michele Tucker, a former three-decade resident of Ezra Prentice, said she attended the briefing on behalf of the many people she knew there over the years who became ill. Tucker said she suspects South End residents struggle to have their voices heard in part because it's a largely African-American, low-income community.
"Sometimes I think they think we're stupid," Tucker said. "We're not stupid. We're not ignorant. We're human."