Less than a month after Gov. Christopher Christie gave his blessing to the raising of the Bayonne Bridge roadway, environmental groups filed suit to delay the project start, saying not enough has been done to assure that there will be no negative impact on air quality and other issues in neighboring cities like Newark.
The project, which was fast-tracked by President Barack Obama in 2012, was given the necessary approvals by the U.S Coast Guard in May, 2013, despite very vocal opposition from environmentalists claiming that too few environmental-impact studies had been done to assure the safety of residents.
Ports in Staten Island, Elisabeth, and Newark could see a major negative economic impact if the bridge is not raised in time to receive larger container ships, which are expected to arrive with the completion of the Panama-Canal widening in late 2015 or early 2016.
These ports represent one of the largest sectors of the local economy and affect hundreds of thousands of jobs directly or indirectly, such as those at the ports, trucking jobs, warehousing jobs, even wholesale and retail jobs in the region.
Officials say that by raising the bridge, local ports can receive ships and avoid ships seeking ports in Boston or Virginia. They say that the negative impact of possible increased traffic is offset by a number of things done to modernize port operations, such as eliminating older trucks and vehicles that pollute, and shifting a significant number of containers from trucks to rail operations.
The project will raise the bridge to 215 feet above the high-tide levels of the Kill Van Kull, which is necessary for larger ships to pass under the bridge. The $1.3 billion project is expected to start later this year.
U.S. Senator Robert Menendez said New Jersey needs the project to ensure the port remains competitive in the global economy throughout the 21st century.
The decision will allow post-Panamax cargo vessels from Asian nations to travel under the Bayonne Bridge once the Panama Canal expansion provides direct access to the East Coast for these larger ships.
Environmentalists want more study
A coalition of organizations representing neighborhoods in Newark, Bayonne, and Staten Island surrounding the Port of New York and New Jersey filed suit in Federal District Court in Manhattan on July 31 against top U.S. Coast Guard administrators and all the members of Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ or Port Authority). The coalition cites repeated attempts by these officials to ignore evidence about the enormous hazards to public health of the current plan to raise the Bayonne Bridge. The lawsuit calls on the U.S. Coast Guard to complete a full, legally required study of the likely harmful health and environmental consequences.
“The U.S. Coast Guard has given the green light to the Port Authority to expand without any mitigation or even acknowledgement of the unfair burden that the raising of the Bridge will have on our communities,” said Ana I. Baptista, PhD., environmental and planning projects director Ironbound Community Corp, and Coalition for Healthy Ports Steering Committee member.
“Ironbound residents will continue to suffer the health consequences from increased air pollution that this project will bring. We asked them for a fair assessment and the reasonable mitigation of these impacts, but what we got was complete disregard for our concerns and for our residents’ well being.”
The U.S. Coast Guard, which gave its blessing to the project in May, and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey awarded bids for construction in July. The Coast Guard found in its environmental review that there were Findings of No Significant Impact (FONSI). The permit for the project will be issued within the next week or so.
But groups such as the New Jersey Sierra Club believe the Coast Guard is wrong because it did not look at the entire scope of the project or the impact on surrounding communities. They maintain that since many in these communities are people of color and low-income residents, there is not an adequate environmental-justice analysis or air-quality analysis that would show the effects of increased air pollution. The groups claim that there was no baseline health study done to look at potential health impacts from additional pollution from the volume and size of ships coming into the port. There was no study assessing impacts from additional pollution from port equipment unloading and moving cargo. They did not look at pollution from an increased volume of diesel trucks idling in the port area. The groups also said that these communities already have some of the worst air pollution in the nation, especially for particulates. The increase in port and truck traffic will directly impact those communities.
The environmental assessment did not call for any mitigation plan, these groups pointed out, and the assessment did not address issues to offset air pollution, such as using electric power to move goods in the port facilities or using cleaner diesel and other hybrid technology to limit pollution or having clean diesel ships. The Environmental Protection Agency’s concern about this project was not addressed in the Coast Guard’s assessment, according to environmentalists. The assessment did not look at the increase in noise and shipment of hazardous materials through these communities or pollution from additional traffic jams because of an increase in port activity. It also did not look at the impacts of construction activities on traffic or health. They also tried to fast-track the project without adequate public education and scrutiny. Documents, they said, were not available in a timely manner, and there were no materials available in Spanish.
“We looked at the U.S. Coast Guard’s ‘No Significant Impact’ statement in connection to the raising of the Bayonne Bridge as a death sentence for the people in our communities,” said Beryl A. Thurman, Executive Director/President, North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island, Inc. “Their decision in the Environmental Assessment to ignore the severity of the cumulative, adverse and hazardous exiting conditions in the environmental justice communities of Port Richmond, Elm Park, and Mariners Harbor and along our waterfront is immoral and unethical. It is also an outright violation of our people’s civil, human, and environmental justice rights.”
The groups also claim that the Coast Guard and Port Authority told Obama and the U.S. Department of Transportation that the project was needed to generate increased business for the port, while the Coast Guard claimed there would be little or no increase in cargo.
In their suit, environmental groups questioned the Coast Guard’s conclusion that there would be no significant environmental impact and that it had not released findings that show no increase in the volume of cargo and accompanying truck, train and ship traffic in the region. These groups claim that the volume would be 44 percent higher if the bridge were raised.
While the Port Authority would not comment on the lawsuit, the Coast Guard at public hearings held in Bayonne earlier this year received testimony from port officials who said impacts of increased cargo would be reduced by the need for fewer ships to deliver current levels of cargo containers, and the newer ships meet higher environmental standards than the fleet of ships currently in operation in these ports. Increased traffic as a result of increased volume, port officials told the Coast Guard, would be offset by rail transport and the banning of older, less environmentally friendly vehicles coming and going to the ports, as well as upgrading the fleet of port vehicles that move containers from the ships to various port locations.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.