Bayonne Bridge Expansion Project Must Not Threaten the Health of Neighboring Communities

Yesterday afternoon, NRDC filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Coast Guard and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.  The lawsuit challenges the Coast Guard’s decision to authorize the raising of the Bayonne Bridge without sufficiently evaluating the very real public health and environmental risks the current project poses to neighboring communities.  NRDC brings this lawsuit with the Coalition for Healthy Ports, North Shore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island, Elm Park Civic Association, and Eastern Environmental Law Center.

The current project will increase the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, asthma, other respiratory illness and premature death in Newark, Staten Island, Bayonne and other communities near the port.  That’s because the project will increase cargo volumes handled at the port, which will mean more harmful, diesel-polluting trucks, trains and ship traffic through these neighborhoods.

Construction of the project also risks exposing residents in Staten Island and Bayonne to arsenic, lead, asbestos and PCBs.  This is particularly troubling because Staten Island children have a long history of being exposed to lead.  In fact, the EPA designated the North Shore of Staten Island an “Environmental Justice Showcase Community” because of the number of children in that community with elevated levels of lead in their blood due to former industrial uses in the area.

Our lawsuit alleges that the Coast Guard violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by failing to thoroughly evaluate these public health and environmental risks before authorizing the Port Authority to raise the Bridge.  Our lawsuit does not seek to kill the project.  In fact, we are in favor of renovating the Bridge.  Rather, our lawsuit calls on the authorities to disclose how the project may harm local communities and identify measures that can mitigate this harm.  This is what NEPA requires.  We are suing the Coast Guard and Port Authority to ensure they comply with the law.

The Bayonne Bridge crosses the Kill Van Kull, which is the primary shipping channel between the New York Harbor and several major cargo terminals.  More than 2,000 vessels passed beneath the Bayonne Bridge en route to and from these cargo terminals in 2010.  Shipping companies are increasingly using larger vessels (taller, wider, deeper draft) to transport cargo between foreign ports and the U.S.  The existing height of the Bridge, however, restricts the port’s ability to service the influx of these larger vessels.  As a result, the Port Authority sought authorization from the Coast Guard to raise the roadway of the Bridge so that larger ships can pass under it and access the port’s terminals.  Before the Coast Guard could authorize the Port Authority to raise the Bridge, however, it was supposed to comply with NEPA.

But instead of taking a hard look at how the project could harm public health and the environment, the Coast Guard and Port Authority attempted to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, in an attempt to skirt the law and avoid addressing these harms.

For example, the Coast Guard denies that raising the Bridge will enable the port to handle increased cargo volumes even though the Port Authority has represented to the Department of Transportation in a funding application for millions of dollars that the purpose of the Bridge project is to enable the Port Authority to remain competitive and handle increased trade in the future.  The Port Authority made similar statements to President Obama when it asked that the Bridge project be “fast tracked.”  The Port Authority’s clients, the business community, and EPA, among others, have also linked the Bridge project to increased cargo volumes at the port. 

As stated, greater cargo volumes at the port means more diesel trucks and other vehicles and equipment operating around the clock to move cargo in and out of the port and through neighborhoods in Newark and Staten Island.  The Coast Guard concedes that Newark and Staten Island are environmental justice communities.  Moreover, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and EPA have already found cancer risks from air pollution in both communities that far exceed what EPA deems acceptable.  Despite this, the Coast Guard refuses to provide an honest assessment of how the project may exacerbate pollution levels in these communities.

To make matters worse, the Coast Guard’s environmental analysis for the project was based on an allegedly proprietary model that the agency refused to release to the public for comment and review.  By refusing to release the basis for its conclusions, the Coast Guard insulated itself from public scrutiny, essentially thumbing its nose to NEPA’s purpose, which is to foster public input and informed government decision-making.

The Coast’s Guard’s NEPA violations do not end there.  The soil, structures, and groundwater where construction will occur contain pollutants such as lead, PCBs, arsenic and asbestos.  The Coast Guard and Port Authority admit this but refuse to disclose what the potential harm to local residents will be when construction activities in Staten Island and Bayonne disturb and release these contaminants.  This is the case despite the North Shore of Staten Island’s past exposure to lead.

Instead, the Coast Guard takes an “act now study later approach” in violation of NEPA.  The Coast Guard green-lit construction with a promise to study the extent of the harm later, and with a vague commitment to deal with any problems by abiding by existing law.  The Coast Guard’s promises are hardly reassuring to local families, and don’t come close to complying with NEPA.

The “construction zone” includes dense residential areas, at least seven schools, multiple churches, at least five parks, and a number of businesses that may be affected by these activities.  Approximately 10,000 Staten Island residents and approximately 7,000 Bayonne residents live within this area.  These individuals have a right to know how the project will affect their health.

We want the port to thrive economically so that good jobs can be brought to the region.  But we also want to make sure that the risks that accompany the benefits of the Bridge project are disclosed and dealt with.  We can raise the Bayonne Bridge and protect the health of surrounding communities at the same time—but the Port Authority and Coast Guard must stop cutting corners.  By taking the time to properly evaluate the risks and identifying how to protect against them, we can capture the economic promise of a renovated Bridge without sacrificing the health of its neighbors.  That’s not asking for much and it’s what the law requires.