South Bronx Unite Toxic Tour

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What is a Toxic Tour?

A Toxic Tour highlights specific locations where inadequate urban planning and poor decision-making by city officials negatively impact health and environmental outcomes for a given community. These sites contribute to the perpetuation of environmental injustice. The goal of the tour is to raise public awareness about these sites in an effort to motivate local, state, and federal officials to take action in shutting them down or take steps toward remediation. The Justice40rward New York City Toxic Tour highlights 17 areas of concern in the South Bronx and Northern Manhattan.

River Harlem Yards Area

The Harlem River Yards is a 96-acre parcel of public waterfront land (New York State Department of Transportation) that sits in a flood zone and is the largest Significant Maritime Industrial Area in New York City. This valuable land is leased to Harlem River Yard Ventures, which is subleasing it to a number of fossil-fuel intensive businesses, from last-mile warehouses to peak power plants to waste transfer facilities.

1. Waste Transfer Plant & Lincoln Avenue Streetend

Waste Management processes up to 4,000 tons of waste per day at this facility, including all of the Bronx’s household waste brought in by the New York City Department of Sanitation, as well as waste from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the New York City Parks Department, and private carters. There is a constant stream of garbage trucks bringing waste into the facility from as far away as Riverdale, a residential neighborhood bordering the Hudson River in the northwestern portion of the Bronx, traveling through pollution-burdened communities and adding to congestion and air pollution.

The Lincoln Avenue Streetend is part of our Mott Haven Port Morris Waterfront Plan. South Bronx Unite would activate this space as one of the eight interconnected green areas in its plan. Currently, it is the only access point to the 96-acre waterfront area, though the access can be treacherous as there is no sidewalk and garbage trucks use the same road to reach the Waste Management facility. Three combined sewer overflow (CSO) points are also located here. Just across the river, on the Harlem side, are three additional CSOs. Even a modest rain event results in sewage waste draining into this area, which also harms marine life. Superstorm Sandy breached the shore here at low tide, inundating the community with four feet of water.

Waste Management, a $15.2-billion company, is currently reinforcing the shoreline adjacent to the road that garbage trucks use to travel to and from its processing facility. It is doing so with a hard-edge bulkhead retaining wall, which is not WEDG certified; it does not provide any meaningful defense against flooding or storm surges.

2 . FreshDirect & 3.FedEx Shipping Center; Hell Gate Peak Power Plants

Emissions from truck traffic are a major source of pollution in the South Bronx. This source of pollution, combined with pollution from other facilities and infrastructure, have cumulatively devastated the South Bronx community, resulting in a host of health issues, from asthma and cognitive impairment to diabetes and heart disease. The FedEx and FreshDirect warehouses alone account for nearly 2,500 daily truck trips through our neighborhood. Trucks, especially older ones, emit among the most dangerous pollutants, specifically fine particulate matter known as PM 2.5. Exposure to PM 2.5 is linked with increased illness and death, primarily from heart and lung diseases. Adjacent to FreshDirect and FedEx are the Hell Gate peak power plants, which are adding to our community’s immense pollution burden.

4. Harlem River Yards Peak Power Plants & 132nd Street Pier

There are 16 peak power plants in New York City, commonly referred to as peakers. Twenty-five percent of these plants, a total of four, are in Mott Haven-Port Morris, including the Hell Gate peakers and the Harlem River Yards (HRY) peakers. Peakers are known to be among the dirtiest, least efficient, and most expensive energy sources. They were built to operate only during peak energy demand days. However, we know that they have been operating far more regularly in the last couple of years, adding to the area’s disproportionate pollution burden. The New York Power Authority recently applied for another five-year renewal permit for the HRY peakers; the public was only given notice on December 21, 2022, in the middle of the holiday season, which meant that much of the 30-day period during which the public could comment on the proposed permit fell between Christmas and New Year’s Day. South Bronx Unite has requested a 60-day extension of the commenting period.

Adjacent to the HRY peakers is the 132nd Street Pier, which is part of the Mott Haven-Port Morris Waterfront Plan. A pier had existed before at this location, the remnants of which can still be seen. There was even a floating pool in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, a ConEd explosion destroyed the pier, and the company never replaced it. Currently residents crawl through the holes in the fence to fish along the banks of the shore. South Bronx Unite plans to bring this previous community gathering space back to life, allowing for local residents to enjoy it once again. It would be one of the eight interconnected green spaces in the plan.

5. Con Edison Substation

In 1914, the company that would eventually become Con Edison opened the Sherman Creek Power Generating Station. Months after the opening, noise complaints became so frequent that the plant had to add a silencer to its generators. Due to air quality concerns, Con Edison closed the plant in 1966, and demolished it in 1997 after a series of failed plans to repurpose the structure. In 2011, a smaller Con Edison Academy Substation was opened at that site, raising concerns among residents and advocates.

6. Sherman Creek Site

Sherman Creek Park, a former illegal dumping site, began as a shore cleanup and now encompasses five reclaimed acres along the Harlem River – including Swindler Cove, the Peter Jay Sharp Boathouse, Riley-Levin Children’s Garden, and renovated shoreline.

7. George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal

The terminal feeds into the 12-lane Trans-Manhattan Expressway and serves about 20,000 passengers daily on approximately 1,000 buses. Many of the people who come through the terminal are commuters from New Jersey or upstate New York, and the bridge is one of the most heavily used in the world, with daily traffic nearing 300,000 vehicles. To make room for the massive highway, bridge, and bus terminal, the city demolished 76 buildings and relocated more than 8,000 people. Facing plummeting tax revenues after the removal of residents and business, urban planners decided to build residences above the expressway. Architects assured critics the buildings would be safe, modern, and affordable, but once costs overran, many safety features, including interior ventilation and air conditioning systems, were dropped. The apartment complex welcomed its first tenants in 1964, under a state program for middle-income residents. Tenants saw their quality of life plunge as the indoor air quality worsened. Visiting the complex in 1967, Senator Robert F. Kennedy blasted the planning decisions that led to the building’s placement: “The choice of this location for these apartments, astride one of the most heavily traveled highways in New York City, shows a total disregard for environmental factors on the part of our city planners.”

8. Morris-Jumel Mansion Former Slave Quarters

Morris-Jumel Mansion is one of the oldest houses in Manhattan located in Washington Heights. Built in 1765 originally for the Morris Family, it served as headquarters for both George Washington and the British Military during the American Revolution War. It went on to become a tavern for years before Stephen and Eliza Jumel purchased the house in 1810. The Morris-Jumel Mansion became a landmark in 1967 and is part of the Historic House Trust of New York City.

9. One45 Truck Depot

Last spring, a one-block stretch of 145th Street in Harlem was at the center of a battle about affordable housing: how much was enough and what affordability meant in a neighborhood where the median income is about $45,000 – and just $36,804 in the immediate vicinity of 145th Street, according to New York City Councilmember Kristin Richardson Jordan. While the proposal for a massive two-tower complex and a civil-rights museum was withdrawn by the developer when it failed to get Richardson Jordan’s approval last year, the fight around the five-lot parcel continues to drag on. In place of the proposed housing, developer Bruce Teitelbaum has proposed turning the parcel of land into a depot for diesel truck fleets, which officially opened in January 2023. WE ACT for Environmental Justice (WE ACT) is in opposition to any proposed truck depot as it would add to the already high rates of asthma in Central Harlem, which needs deeply affordable housing instead of additional sources of air pollution.

10. Mother Clara Hale Bus Depot

The Mother Clara Hale (MCH) bus depot – named for the founder of a renowned Harlem center for the care of infants born addicted to drugs or infected by HIV – used to fill an entire city block. Before closing for remodeling in January 2008, the depot housed 123 buses: 60 diesel-electric hybrid and 63 standard diesel buses. After a long campaign by WE ACT and other community organizations, the bus depot was torn down in 2009 and reconstructed, reopening years later, to house 122 ultra-low-sulfur diesel buses. Designed under the watchful eyes of local community residents, elected officials, and environmental justice organizations like WE ACT, the MCH Depot became the first LEED-certified bus depot in the nation. It has a green roof that uses plants to cool the facility, absorb CO2 from the air, and reduce storm-water runoff; thermal insulation to save energy and reduce emissions; a solar wall that serves as a passive heating device; and other energy-saving features.

11. Old 126th Street Bus Depot 

The 126th Street Bus Depot managed the second busiest bus route in the United States. It is also the site of a colonial burial ground for African slaves and freed slaves. The bus depot has closed, and a 126th Street African Burial Ground Memorial is in the works.

12. East 125th Street Corridor

A steadfast anchor for Black social and economic life since the late 1800s, the 125th Street corridor in New York City has been the birthplace of some of the country’s most prominent cultural, political, and religious movements and icons. But along East 125th Street, from Fifth Avenue to the Harlem River waterfront, the streetscape takes a visible turn, reflecting an overarching pattern of uneven economic growth in the East Harlem section of the corridor. With the extension of the Second Avenue Subway line and the increasing impacts of climate change, East Harlem, one of the last bastions of affordability and Latinx culture in the city, is on the verge of an unprecedented transformation, one that threatens the environmental character and cultural identity of this historic community. Without community-driven solutions, East Harlem will continue to be hit the hardest by the harmful effects of climate change and gentrification.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has plans to create a transit hub by connecting the Second Avenue Subway extension with the Lexington Avenue Subway line and Metro-North commuter railroad at East 125th Street. Knowing the subway extension is coming, along with the redevelopment it will bring, WE ACT is working to implement the East 125th Street Community Visioning Action Plan to catalyze the economic, cultural, and sustainable revitalization of East Harlem by leveraging new investments in the 125th Street Transit Corridor. The visioning plan creates more local economic opportunity using the cultural heritage and assets of the neighborhood as both a driver and enabler of economic development, and a conduit to mitigate gentrification and advance greater climate resilience and environmental sustainability.

13. West Harlem Piers Park

Once a location for trade and ferry transport, the West Harlem Piers were vacant for many years until WE ACT helped establish the West Harlem Piers Park. Looking to provide the community with waterfront access and a green space to enjoy, WE ACT worked with Community Board 9 to transform the vacant waterfront area into a two-acre park (completed in 2008) instead of a hotel, as originally planned. To ensure that the park is maintained and protected, WE ACT set up the Harlem Waterfront Council. The park has recreational piers, bike and pedestrian paths, and landscaped open space. And there are many activities available, such as yoga, Zumba, dance classes, and WE ACT-hosted movie nights during the summer.

14. Pipeline Natural Gas Pumping Station

This gas metering station is part of the high-volume Williams Transco gas pipeline, which provides natural gas to Con Edison and other customers in the city. In addition to being the source of greenhouse gas emissions and harmful indoor air pollution, the natural gas pumped through this facility is monitored remotely, which has raised safety concerns in the community.

15. 135th Street Marine Transfer Station

The 135th Street marine transfer station, a 28,000 square-foot facility, handled at least 1,000 pounds of household trash every day when it was fully operational. No fewer than 93 trucks unloaded waste onto barges bound for the massive Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island. Trucks came, went, and idled 24 hours a day, bringing with them the stench of garbage while pumping diesel exhaust into the air and attracting cockroaches, rats, and flies.

West Harlem residents believed they were spared when Fresh Kills and the marine transfer station both closed in 2001. By 2003, however, then Mayor Bloomberg was preparing to reopen and expand the station under its Solid Waste Management Plan. Determined to block the reopening, WE ACT along with a coalition of environmental justice advocates, community leaders, elected officials, business groups, environmental organizations, and tenant associations mounted strident opposition. The coalition succeeded in closing the station again, and through WE ACT’s Trash to Treasure campaign, West Harlem community members have been working with the city to turn the abandoned station into a community asset instead of a liability.

16. North River Sewage Treatment Plant 

New York City’s North River Sewage Treatment Plant serves more than a million people on Manhattan’s west side – from Bank Street in Greenwich Village to Inwood Hill at the island’s northern tip. The plant spans more than 28 acres and processes 170 million gallons of raw sewage per day.

Originally planned for white and middle-class neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, this sewage treatment plant was relocated to West Harlem, where they assumed it would encounter less community opposition. It was opened in 1986 and so poorly designed that the stench of raw sewage contaminated much of West harlem. In addition, its emissions were not up to federal standards. Community activists – including Peggy Shepard, Vernice Miller-Travis, and Chuck Sutton – protested this overt act of environmental racism. The City tried to pacify the activists by building Riverbank State Park on top of the facility, but the activists filed a lawsuit against the City, which led to a complete retrofit to stem the stench and bring the emissions up to code. The settlement included financial compensation for the community, which led to the formation of WE ACT for Environmental Justice in 1988, co-founded by Shepard, Miller-Travis, and Sutton.

17. Riverbank State Park

Renamed Denny Farrell Riverbank State Park in 2017 in honor of the late New York State Assemblymember – is 28-acre multi-level landscaped recreational facility that includes an Olympic-size pool, a covered skating rink for roller skating in the summer and ice-skating in the winter, an 800-seat cultural theater, a 2,500-seat athletic complex with fitness room, an educational greenhouse, two playgrounds, and a 150-seat restaurant. Outdoor sports amenities include a 25-yard lap pool, a wading pool, four tennis courts, four basketball courts, a softball field, four hand/paddleball courts, and a 400-meter eight-lane running track with a football/soccer field. In January 2023, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul announced a $26-million renovation of the park.

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