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Ezra Prentice Health

Ezra Prentice Health — The Next Stage 

By Tom McPheeters 

  In one whirlwind week, the Ezra Prentice Health Survey, which began last winter by AVillage…, Inc. and the Radix Center, went from being a barely noticed outreach effort in an isolated and neglected community to being a very big deal. The health of Ezra residents has gone from being the concerns of a few to a problem now shared by the entire region.  

  Our task from here on out will be to ensure that the new interest by all levels of government translates to actual benefits to the more than 300 residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes, as well as to former residents who have been affected by the environmental hazards long ago.  

  I will skip the background for now and cut to the chase. Most of the action flows from Dominick Calsolaro’s success in setting up a meeting at Ezra by the regional staff of the federal Environmental Protection Agency for Aug. 17th. It also helped a lot that Paul Grondahl, journalist for the Times Union, started making calls earlier this week for his Wednesday column on our health study and the EPA visit.  

  Our role was to make sure that residents knew about this meeting and were prepared to speak for themselves. At our first full-blown community meeting on August 9th, 23 residents showed up, and also Assemblyman John McDonald. It was clear that we would have a good turnout the following week, and that residents had educated themselves to the core issues — the trucks, the trains and lack of reliable air quality data. They also knew that many of them were sick.  

  McDonald in turn got to work in his sphere, and there was a meeting with State Senator Neil Breslin, contacts to the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and emails flying around with other elected officials. On Tuesday, Aug. 16, the day before the EPA meeting, Dominick received a call saying Basil Seggos, the EPA commissioner, would like to meet with us that afternoon.

  Commissioner Seggos brought an entourage and met with Willie White, Councilwoman Vivian Kornegay, Dominick Calsolare, and myself (Tom McPheeters). Also attending were Mayor Kathy Sheehan, Assemblyman McDonald, State Senator Neil Breslin and Mike McLaughlin, who was representing County Executive Dan McCoy.  Seggos started with a long apology, stating that the DEC should have been at this table much sooner, and pledged to be a partner from here on in. There was some discussion about that, as well as about the first round of air quality testing that left everybody feeling unsatisfied. 

  Mayor Sheehan spoke about current efforts to address the diesel truck traffic saying that she has met with Port of Albany staff to explore ways to move the traffic through the port, and has learned that much of the traffic is not directly related to the port. The next step is to sit down with the state DOT officials, since South Pearl (Rt. 32), is a state route. There is also the issue of the school bus depot just south of the Center for the Disabled. The solution to this issue will require a "broader community conversation," she said. 

  Mayor Sheehan also expressed concerns about the health survey not being conducted by AVillage. She said it is very difficult to pin down causes of health problems, and wants to be sure that we do not go off with incomplete or possibly misleading data. Tom McPheeters replied with a brief explanation that the health survey is a work in progress, and the numbers reported so far were for the information of the residents. We understand that more data and a thorough analysis is needed, but we cannot in good conscience withhold the data we do have from the residents and the community. Tom said the data, coupled with the heavy truck traffic, is cause for immediate concern. It is impossible to ignore the intensity of the diesel truck fumes on South Pearl, he said.  

  To address those concerns, and to make sure this very valid study does not get discounted, they have already set up a meeting with Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, the Albany County Health Commissioner. Stacy Pettigrew, our partner in this endeavor, will go over the survey and how it is being administered, and we will also start a dialogue about bringing county health services to the Ezra Prentice site.
  Commissioner Seggos said he thinks DEC can quickly to install air monitoring at Ezra Prentice that will answer many questions. He said he would work with his team and have a proposal in time for the Aug. 17th meeting. He noted that it was a DEC “pullover” action the previous day that took place at the Center for Disabled to measure emission levels and safety compliance of diesel trucks. The trucks were found in compliance, although he noted that NYS has long petitioned the federal government to put more stringent standards on diesel emissions.  

Seggos concluded by committing to three things:
  • A credible air quality study at Ezra Prentice 
  • Funding for a traffic study 
  • Funding for a health study of residents.  

  Later that evening, Seggos called Dorcey and told her that DEC was committing one half million in funding to meet those commitments. The press release on that followed on the 17th Here’s the press release.

  Quite a week! 

AVillage's Willie White speaks out about what Ezra Prentice residents want to say.
EPA administrator Judith Enck listens at his right.

  And then there was Wednesday, August 17 — the EPA comes to Albany and everybody jumps to attention! 

  My one regret for this meeting was not reserving a block of seats for the actual residents of Ezra Prentice. More than 100 people tried to cram into a pretty small room (Albany Housing had brought in extra chairs, but there was seating for only about 60) and many of the late arrivals from the neighborhood ended up standing in the halls and outside straining to hear.  
Willie White spoke about the purpose of the meeting and summarized the goals we have heard from Ezra residents: 
  • Stop the diesel trucks from passing through Ezra Prentice. We don’t care how they do it. 
  • Measure the air quality at Ezra Prentice and provide us information that is reliable, verifiable and actionable. The residents want either an independent air quality monitoring system operated by a credible third party or a system that can be verified by credible independent parties.  
  • Move the oil trains that are parked behind homes at Ezra Prentice to another parking place within the Port of Albany. 
  • If a wall is to be built to separate the track from the homes, it must be built by the railroads, not from settlement money from Buckeye or Global. We emphasize that a wall is not an adequate protection against accidental fires or explosions. 
  • Reject the Global proposal to build boilers to heat heavy tar sands crude for shipment out of the Port of Albany.  
  • Reject the Pilgrim Pipeline proposal with its northern terminus at the Port of Albany near our homes.  

  We distributed the summary of the health survey to date as well as the diesel truck traffic count. The numbers for all to see set the tone for the meeting.  You can find that posted here

  The news coverage was extraordinary. In addition Paul Grondahl’s front page story on Wednesday morning, there were two good articles in the Times Union the next day, one on the meeting and one on the EPA’s attempt to rein in Global Partners’ excessive air pollution. And there was blanket coverage by all of our local TV stations, and our local public access channel was there as well.  
  Spot news coverage like this inevitably leads to a few inaccuracies (I’ve been accused of worse than sneering). The only one that concerns me right now is to make sure people know that our health survey is not done by the SUNY School of Public Health, but is entirely our work. This is not because we don’t want to give the School of Public Health credit (indeed, their professors have been extremely helpful, and we would be lost without the wonderful students and interns), but because we care about their credibility and want to continue to work with them in the future. 
  I do not need to say much more right now. When you have this kind of event, and get this kind of overwhelming reaction, you need a few days to process and figure out what’s next. Several of us did a very quick debriefing after the meeting, and the major theme was the need to keep the pressure on, to hold all the public officials accountable, and to make sure that the residents are included in all decision making and that we stay united 

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos speaks to a packed house on August 17th, at Ezra Prentice.

UPDATE: On Monday, the Times Union called for closing Ezra Prentice. They did not offer any ideas on how to accomplish this. We are interested in your opinion. You can comment on our Facebook page, or by emailing us at avillageworks@gmail.com.


Saturday Farmers' Market

Good afternoon residents of Albany.
   Once again, we are having our Farmers' Market this Saturday at Lincoln Park in the South End of Albany. But, this time, we are going to change a few things up. Our new hours are going to be from 11am-2pm, so get here before all of the food runs out!!! Also, in a slight replacement for our Nutrition Classes, this Saturday we will be having smoothie demonstration led by our newest volunteer, Julia Nye. So, come out, and learn about healthy and tasty ways to prepare smoothies.


As many of you are well aware, and for some new viewers, the mission of AVillage is to improve the quality of life for residents of the South End and beyond, by reclaiming the neighborhoods, and by encouraging, engaging, and empowering the communities. We cannot complete that mission without input from the community. So, when you come to the Farmers' Market this weekend, we ask that you complete a short survey after purchasing food, so we can get an idea of what the community expects from us, and what we should do to help you. Check out our sample survey....


We look forward to seeing you here, rain or shine. Cheers.


Fourth Avenue Garden

Early last spring, JoAnn Morton, who is both the president of the South End Neighborhood Association and an avid gardener, bought the vacant lot at 121 Fourth Avenue from the Albany County Land Bank. At the same time, AVillage and Radix were working with Cathe Bullwinkle, a NYS Department of Health official who has done wonderful things with Brownfield grants and new gardens in Utica. She was anxious to find similar projects here in Albany, and was working with us on the lead testing projects. 

"The Fourth Avenue garden is close to completion,” she reports. "We still have a few beds to fill. I was there working over the weekend and the front garden boxes and arbor look very nice. JoAnn is working with her neighbors to bring people into the garden. We had to make some revisions to the original plans to accommodate a neighbor, but the garden still works. I have two picnic tables and umbrellas ordered for her site to add an area for gardening class or resident relaxation space. We put together a tool package for her site with wheelbarrow.” 

A communal garden on Fourth Avenue is a great thing on its own, but especially so now that the Land Bank has three pretty good looking buildings on Fourth Avenue for sale. This can only help bring new home owners to our neighborhood. 

Another project on Alexander Street got a late start, but should be under way soon.