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How the NY/NJ Port Authority Misspent Millions in Federal Money Meant to Cut Air Pollution

In 2010, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced a plan to drastically reduce air pollution in the impoverished Ironbound section of Newark, New Jersey, by replacing outdated, environmentally harmful freight trucks. Over the next six years, the Port Authority received some $35 million in federal grants to do so. But today, many of the trucks are still on the road, and air quality has hardly improved. The Port Authority eventually – though very quietly – abandoned the plan, and Newark children today continue to suffer some of the highest asthma rates in the country. Freelance writer Max Rivlin-Nadler uncovered the story of the failed program for the Village Voice earlier this month; on this week’s podcast, he tells us how he did it.

Shipping containers stacked at the Port Newark Container Terminal. (Reuters/Mike Segar)

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Sapien: I want to start with the photograph that was on the front page of the issue of the Village Voice that featured your work. It's an African-American child, looks to be about 6 or 7. She's wearing a dust mask and staring blankly into the camera.Who is this kid and why the dust mask?

Rivlin-Nadler: That child is Hope Garner. She's the daughter of Tanisha Garner. And Tanisha is a woman who moved to the Ironbound with her three young daughters around a year ago. The Ironbound is a section of Newark which is known for its large Portuguese community, its high-density affordable housing. It's really a huge mix of different income levels and nationalities. The piece is looking at the kind of east section of the Ironbound which is kind of in this, as I describe it in the piece, a bowl of smog. It's wedged between the Passaic River, which is a Superfund site; the massive port of Newark, which is the third largest port in the United States and the largest on the eastern seaboard; as well as a ton of different chemical plants. ... The young woman in the photo -- this is the air quality that she's breathing every day.

Sapien: You learned that the Port Authority got $35 million dollars or so to address air pollution in the Ironbound but that money was spent on other things that didn't work. How'd you figure that out?

Rivlin-Nadler: I was talking with an environmental activist and she laid the number on me, $35 million, 429 trucks. The light bulb went off: the math doesn't add up. So I started looking into, Does the Port Authority have public records for their spending? No. Does the Port Authority release annual reports on how much they've spent and how much it's gone? Sure, but in the very abstract sense. Okay, we spent 10 million on X-amount of trucks. But who got the money? Where did the disbursements go? All of this paper trail and stuff, it was very difficult to track down. That's when I was put in touch with Professor Ana Baptista at the New School, and she has kind of made it her life's work to look into the finances of the Port Authority and their capital budget. It reveals a lot of really interesting truths about the Port Authority and how much they actually spend on the port itself.

What has the Port Authority's response been to your questions?

Rivlin-Nadler: The Port Authority tried to gauge general good will when they appointed Molly Campbell, who has overseen the successful Los Angeles and Long Beach truck replacement program. When she came in, she had specified that she would be committed to the truck replacement program and the ban. Not only did she walk that back, but when speaking to me in March, she said "We're going to look into this, we're going to meet with environmental activists and we're going to come up with a new plan." And to be fair to them, they didn't technically get rid of the truck replacement entirely. They're going to get rid of trucks from 1994 and 1995, which at this point are over 20 years old and will be taken off the road by their own accord relatively soon. They're junkers. So that's a pretty low bar to set. But in interviews with me, they had signaled their willingness to revisit this.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more read, Rivlin Nadler's story, Hell on Wheels: Port Authority's Broken Promise Is Choking Newark's Kids.

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