This week, a South Bronx community might have a rare chance at environmental justice.
In 2012, the city approved a proposal to relocate online grocer Fresh Direct’s headquarters from Queens to the Harlem River Yard site in the Mott Haven community of the South Bronx.
Under the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act ("SEQRA"), anytime New York City or State agencies take an action that may have significant adverse environmental effects, they are required to conduct an environmental review before moving forward with the project. This review requires that the acting agencies evaluate all potential environmental impacts, identify all practicable mitigation measures for such impacts and, ultimately, select any alternative action that will minimize or avoid environmental harms to the maximum possible extent.
It’s a great system that requires everyone involved to take a hard look at any proposed action and think of ways to minimize related environmental harm to the community. The SEQRA process has improved (or even halted) countless projects that would have otherwise been much more environmentally damaging.
In this case, however, the quality of environmental review that the city and state conducted was uncharacteristically poor. In fact, the government made many of its determinations about the project’s environmental impacts on the basis of a 20-year-old environmental impact statement from an entirely different project.
But the neighborhood has changed significantly since 1993 and is more residential than when the original environmental evaluation was done. The current Fresh Direct project is also a departure from the development that was originally envisioned on the site 20 years ago, so much of the environmental review is based on a project that will never be, instead of the project that’s actually expected to be sited there.
NRDC, which isn’t a party to this dispute, weighed in with a “friend of the court” amicus brief, asking the court to rule that this environmental review was inadequate and undercuts the purpose of New York’s environmental review statute. At minimum, the government should update its old review to consider changes in the character of the neighborhood and the project, and to closely evaluate viable design alternatives that could mitigate the project’s impacts on the community.
As attorneys on both sides of this case argue it out in court today, let’s hope that everyone remembers SEQRA’s purpose and what’s really at stake here – public health and environmental protection, as well as fairness for a community that often seems to get the short end of the environmental stick.