NY's Diesel Delays Keep Kids in Harms Way

Last fall, our Executive Director issued a statement in which he said that the President-elect and agency heads had “declared war on our lungs.” Now that they are in office and we see the Trump administration’s massive cuts to the EPA budget and efforts to roll back smokestack and tailpipe pollution standards, it appears that we really are facing a war on our lungs.

In Albany where the response to Trump should be a renewed commitment to making New York the progressive leader the nation needs, Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers once again failed to protect our health from harmful diesel pollution. By delaying the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act (DERA) of 2006 for an eighth consecutive State Budget, New York’s children suffering from asthma are hit the hardest.

Nearly seven years have passed since DERA was supposed to take effect. In that time, asthma rates among children have continued to soar throughout the State. With 1.4 million adults and 315,000 children living with asthma, it is disturbing that legislators and the Governor continue to kick the can down the road when it comes to DERA compliance. These continuous delays come with a hefty price tag – medical costs and lost productivity from asthma costs the State $1.3 billion.

DERA is simple: New York State shows leadership by cleaning up its own fleet (as well as those of contractors which can include projects like the State Fair renovations, and Tappan Zee Bridge replacement). Instead of taking action, a lack of transparency and accountability in terms of the diesel pollution spewed by the state’s fleet prolongs and exacerbates the asthma public health crisis.

Governor Cuomo and legislators had all they needed to finally act: funds coming from a court settlement with Volkswagen for cheating on emissions standards, to the tune of $117 million, which was dedicated for diesel pollution cleanup programs. That would empower New York to provide filters for state trucks to cut diesel pollution. Shockingly, stonewalling on the part of agencies and a total lack of political will meant that the common-sense approach was never seriously on the negotiating table.

When it comes to resisting DERA, state agencies, which refuse to provide important information on how many of their vehicles are DERA complaint, should be held accountable. Without clear data on how many applicable vehicles are compliant, it is impossible to know how far the State has to go. If an agency is not willing to be transparent, they cannot be held accountable.

Curiosity into compliance percentages within the different agencies arose in 2016 when MTA Chairman, Tom Prendergast, stated emphatically that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) was in compliance with DERA. In a bid to get the true story in terms of compliance, over the past year we gathered data from different agencies including the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the MTA through Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests. However, the responses we received proved fruitless in many instances. MTA’s response was particularly concerning. When asked how many applicable vehicles they had that were compliant with DERA, they stated they did not have any records or information on DERA. This stands in direct contracts to Chairman Prendergast’s comments in 2016.

It doesn’t add up. For instance, Senator Cathy Young insisted she supported use of the Volkswagen money to fund the rest of non-compliant vehicles. But then voted for, and defended, another delay. Similarly, Senator John DeFrancisco, in 2015, justified a DERA delay as too costly. Yet even with unanticipated settlement funds available from a corporation who harmed our air, lawmakers refused to move forward on diesel reductions. Senator Young’s comments can be heard here at 2:46:15. Senator DeFrancisco’s comments can be heard here.

In the end, another delay proposed by state Senate Republicans and the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference won out, despite the medical science clearly showing that cleaner air reduces asthma attacks, and cases of lung cancer and lung disease. For more information please see the report, Sitting Idly By.

Troublingly, members of the Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference (IDC) who hold themselves out as champions on “issues facing working- and middle-class New Yorkers” refused to look out for the wellbeing of their constituents, many of whom reside in areas with extreme diesel pollution. These IDC members went so far as to actively support DERA delays by including them in their budget resolution. 

Unfortunately, this side-stepping and lack of commitment to public health has become all too common in Albany. The difference now is that federal protections are falling. New York State cannot rest on its laurels or the status quo, and must do more.

Kids across the state are left literally struggling to breathe, all because New York continues to disregard beneficial laws that have statewide support. It is time for our elected officials to realize that asking children to hold their breath is not a viable solution to air pollution.