Albany’s South End Gets Long-Awaited Air Quality Study From NYSDEC

Oct 23, 2019

A long-awaited air quality study of Albany's South End neighborhood has been released. Officials say new city and state-led actions will help address air pollution in the area. 

Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos briefed reporters on the grounds of Ezra Prentice apartments on the results of a 15-month air quality study.    "From a very high level perspective, and I think it will be no surprise to anyone standing here today, that local truck traffic is the cause, by far and away the largest cause of air quality concerns here at Ezra Prentice Homes."

The study found activities at the adjacent Port of Albany including emissions from locomotives and port shipping transport to be "minimal in comparison to local traffic."

  • Key Study Findings:
  • The Ezra Prentice community is disproportionately impacted by truck pollutants. The study found truck pollutants on South Pearl Street at Ezra Prentice homes are higher compared to the rest of the Albany South End community. Portable air monitoring also found higher concentrations on the east side of South Pearl Street and closer to the road. Traffic pollutant concentrations are relatively similar in the rest of the complex and drop to background levels approximately 250 feet from the road. While total traffic volume at Ezra Prentice and a comparison road (Southern Boulevard in Albany) are similar, Ezra Prentice has approximately six times the truck volume.  
  • Benzene sampling found higher levels near operations that store and transfer gasoline and petroleum products, and the community monitor shows Port activities contribute to local benzene concentrations. Benzene concentrations are slightly higher at the monitor near Albany County Health Department compared to other DEC network monitors in urban areas. Benzene concentrations are lower at Ezra Prentice, compared to the Albany monitor, because the Albany monitor is more frequently downwind of gasoline and petroleum terminals.

The 400 or so residents of the South Pearl Street complex had complained for years. They mobilized in 2013, a few months after the oil train derailment that killed 47 people in Quebec. In May 2014, DEC said it would monitor air quality.

By that August, the agency announced it had studied the local air, proclaiming it was safe to breathe in Albany's South End.

Concerned residents, who have a higher than average rate of lung related diseases and cancers, ramped up their concerns. Those efforts paid off in 2017 when DEC secured $500,000 to launch a comprehensive study.

DEC spent 15 months continuously monitoring, collecting street-level measurements of air quality at strategic locations.   "780 miles walked by our researchers obtaining 260 hours of backpack air monitoring, you can see one of the backpacks right here. 6,480 hours of portable monitoring, 8,570 photos of vehicles traveling through the area, 70,000 hours of fixed air monitoring data from this equipment right behind us. That's the equivalent of eight years of data. 4,400 hours of traffic data. Benzene sampling at more than a hundred locations around the region. And really unprecedented detail about the contaminants that we're experiencing."  

  • VIDEO featuring DEC researchers and partners conducting the study is available here.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan addressed a June 2018 community meeting at Ezra, saying she had directed city trucks to avoid the neighborhood if they have no official business there, greatly reducing truck traffic along South Pearl Street. She gave an update Monday: "Ezra Prentice is a community that's disproportionately impacted by truck pollutants. And when we started down this path, the initial concerns that were raised by the community were concerns about trains and concerns about what's happening at the port. But as we met with the community and talked more about what the challenges were, the additional challenge and the quality of life issues associated with truck traffic became apparent."

Potential contributors to pollution had long been identified as heavy vehicles including city buses, school buses and tractor-trailers that enter and exit the neighborhood on ramps leading to and from I-787, a conduit for industrial traffic.   "One of the things that people had suggested was that there be an easy solution. Just close these roads to anything but local truck traffic. And our response was 'wait a minute, folks.’ We need to understand where this truck traffic is generating because simply closing it to anything but local truck traffic, probably isn't going to be enough. And the study proved that out. 80 percent of the truck traffic that is impacting this neighborhood is locally generated truck traffic."

Sheehan added local truckers previously worked with the city to change their routes, resulting in a 30 percent reduction in truck traffic. She sees a bigger reduction in the cards.    "We have now been able to change the classification of roads within the port to make them federal-aid eligible, and our goal is to create a through-street within the port that would take all truck traffic off of Pearl Street."

DEC monitoring station at Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany. The agency says it designed the study as a model that can be replicated in other communities across the state.
Credit WAMC photo by Dave Lucas

Meantime, the oil trains ceased rolling through the Port of Albany and behind Ezra Prentice before the air quality study began, thanks to a moratorium imposed by Albany County Executive Dan McCoy.  "I'm glad that I did what I did for the people of the South End, because we probably wouldn't have had the study that was done today. And people say 'well oil traffic stopped in the last two years.' No, when the study started two years ago, that's when it all stopped."

Neighborhood activist and former common councilor Dom Calsolaro says now that the numbers support what residents already knew...   "I would like to see an interchange made directly to 787. If they can find $33 million to put exit for the Albany Airport, to make it easy for people to get the airport, I think the governor and the state of New York can find some millions of dollars to build a direct interchange. Maybe they can call it 'Albany Port Interchange' for a study that was done 20 years ago that recommended that."

Calsolaro believes the state Health Department has much more work ahead to help make the Ezra and South End communities healthier. DOH officials met with residents one-on-one Monday evening.

A formal presentation of the study will be held for residents November 6th at the Albany Housing Authority office on South Pearl Street.   If you are viewing this on a mobile phone the survey is posted here.