Like many families during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic on Staten Island, New York, I visited parks outside of my neighborhood. As a new resident, it was an opportunity to get more acquainted with the borough’s well known open green spaces. But primarily it offered an opportunity to breathe cleaner air for my family as a result of living downwind from an oil refinery.
From my home, I have an unobstructed view of Graniteville Wetland and Forest — a safe haven for many migratory birds which protected local homeowners from flooding during Hurricane Sandy. The landscape here of common reeds and sunsets are beautiful, yet paradoxical for a dense concrete mega-metropolis like New York City.
But there are many days where I can clearly see large vapor clouds streaming upwards from the Bayway Refinery in Linden, New Jersey — a major player in the regional economy as well as an emitter of sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants. This colorless gas is pungent at very high concentrations and while the odors are intermittent, it can sometimes make it unbearable to be outdoors.
To complicate matters, there are plans to develop a big box store near my home will result in an estimated 1,700 trees being destroyed, further increasing the already high levels of CO2 emissions generated by the Staten Island Expressway and other nearby commercial activities near my home.
Despite initially being reticent about publicizing this issue, I decided to contact the appropriate local authorities about the areas poor air quality only to be told that any potential resolution will have to come from the federal government given the interstate nature of the problem. This doesn’t seem plausible yet given that the current administration is actively rolling back climate protections as we speak. It also seems that New York State could be doing more for Staten Islander’s given its progressive laws such as the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act which was created to combat climate change and protect disadvantaged communities.
Burning Oil and Inhaling Dirty Air
The Bayway Refinery, constructed in 1909, currently converts crude oil into gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil. It also houses a petrochemical plant which produces over 775 million pounds of polypropylene per year. As the largest polluter in Central Jersey, the facility is immediately noticeable crossing the Authur Kill from the Goethals Bridge. You can often smell a pungent odor while driving by the predominantly diverse working-class community of Linden, New Jersey. In fact, since 2005, New Jersey has cited the refinery nearly 200 times for repeatedly violating environmental laws, mostly for air pollution.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protections Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), there are 78 polluting facilities within 10 miles of my home, mostly based in New Jersey. Approximately 2.7 million pounds of chemicals were released into the air near my community over the past 10 years. Of the 50 chemicals identified by the TRI data on local air pollution, twelve chemicals have been identified as carcinogenic.
There was a local push to get the waterways and marshes around the refineries restored, which would have cost $2.5 billion. But the former New Jersey Governor settled for $225 million. For many activists and local community members this legal decision shortchanged Central New Jerseyans. But it also impacts neighboring Staten Islanders since we live downwind from these facilities.
Make the Invisible Visible
For the past few years, environmental justice activists have raised alarms about the current administration’s weakening of clean air regulations and its leniency towards the oil industry. This includes amending rules that govern how refineries monitor pollution in surrounding communities. Nevertheless, there seem to be examples of converting refineries into renewable plants and an emerging research on examining the effects of biofuels use on a regional scale and how it affects air quality in surrounding areas.
Nationally, most Americans are in favor of limiting pollution and transitioning to clean energy sources, something the Biden campaign was keen to articulate in the recent presidential debate. His $2 trillion plan to make America 100% a net-zero carbon emissions country by 2050 could blunt the impact of Trump’s rollbacks and protect our climate and energy security. Hopefully, Biden’s environmental justice plan is not just bold rhetoric that stands only in the moment of campaigning.
It’s also exciting to see how local communities are pushing back on the status quo. For example, the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project used community air mapping and leveraged technology to hold industry more accountable. Closer to home, there’s a grassroots campaign to preserve Graniteville Forest and protect our ecologically sentitive wetlands from overdevelopment.
Despite anti-pollution policies over the years, one’s air quality still depends on their zip code, race, and income. If we’re truly going to have an equitable recovery from our global health pandemic we have to address these issues, including ensuring that local community has adequate input on land use policies and procedures. Fighting for cleaner air also requires lawmakers taking local stakeholders health and environmental concerns seriously. After all, residents have a nuanced understanding of the issues and will have to live with the long-term effects of whatever is built.
We’re at a historic moment when we can decide what path we take toward equity and sustainability. As the least developed of the five boroughs of New York City, Staten Island still has a tremendous opportunity to protect its green spaces for the community and wildlife that depend upon them. To quote Chief Settle,“we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”. With that in mind, we can’t reverse our industrial past. But we can use the tools we have at our disposal for the next generation so they can enjoy cleaner air and a healthier future.