The Clean Air Act Was Supposed To Protect Us. Here’s Why It’s Not

ALBANY, N.Y. — When Deneen Carter-El moved to the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany’s South End two decades ago, she thought the beige-colored townhouses and trimmed lawns would be a welcome change from high-rise public housing.

But appearances were deceiving.

The 16-building complex borders the Port of Albany — a 200-acre shipping hub that’s home to landfills, bus depots, a cement plant and a large terminal where crude oil is transferred from railcars to barges and tankers. Only a chain-link fence separates the housing project and its playground from the railyard. Today, Carter-El is convinced that Ezra Prentice is “a toxic dump.”

“Not a day goes by when we go out of the apartment and don’t smell stuff,” said the single mother and cancer survivor who walks her 8-year-old daughter to the bus on school days. “You’re almost scared to come outside.”

The mostly African-American tenants of Ezra Prentice complain of recurring headaches and nosebleeds and keep their windows shut, even on muggy July days like this one, to avoid gas-like odors they suspect come from idling trains and trucks. Across the tracks, volatile, explosive crude oil from North Dakota is offloaded at Global Partners’ Albany Terminal, a distributor to East Coast refineries and one of the largest sources of local air pollution.

The South End is less than a five-minute drive from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the chateau-style state Capitol, but people here say the proximity hasn’t helped them. “Weeks go by, and months go by, and it’s pushed under the rug again,” said Carter-El, who’s attended numerous meetings with regulators and politicians over the past three years.

Deneen Carter-El is a longtime resident of the Ezra Prentice Homes in Albany, N.Y., a public housing project next toan industrial port. She and others have urged state and federal regulators to work harder to improve the area’s poor air quality.
With the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970, Congress pledged to protect public health with the guarantee of safe air. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that reduced emissions associated with the law prevented 160,000 deaths in 2010 alone.

The act relies on cooperation between federal and state regulators. But experts, including some at the EPA, say its benefits aren’t being fully realized because enforcement remains wildly inconsistent.

The EPA has had trouble coordinating with recalcitrant states and territories, which are responsible for day-to-day policing despite significant federal and state cutbacks. Incomplete and inaccurate data supplied by states to the EPA, along with a patchy air-monitoring system, complicate attempts to identify problem areas.

The scarcity of data prompted the Center for Public Integrity to file public-records requests with all 50 states, as well as the EPA and the U.S. Census Bureau, to try to assess Clean Air Act enforcement nationwide. Among the Center’s findings:

-Forty state environmental agencies have reduced regulator head counts in recent years, even as federal and state responsibilities have proliferated and the country has largely recovered from the recession.

-North Carolina — which the EPA criticized earlier this year for coddling polluters — has suffered some of the deepest cuts, its agency’s 2014 workforce cut by a third from 2008 levels. In Illinois and Arizona, staffing has fallen by more than a third since 2007. Over the same period, New York’s workforce has been cut by nearly a quarter and Michigan’s by a fifth.

-Florida has filed only one Clean Air Act case involving asbestos — a deadly mineral long used in building materials — in the past three years. Georgia has handed over asbestos enforcement to the EPA, and Connecticut is considering doing so.

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