Op-Ed: It is Unconscionable that the Department of Environmental Protection Wants to Reduce Air Quality

idling montage with schnell

Last week, Streetsblog published an exclusive story about the Department of Environmental Protection’s plan to change the rules about illegal idling in a way that advocates say will weaken the law and lead to more pollution from idling commercial vehicles. As part of that coverage, we quoted a pediatrician who lambasted the agency at a hearing about its plans, as well as Spectrum’s application to be allowed to idle. To present a fuller picture, we present his testimony in full below:

Dr. Patrick Schnell
Dr. Patrick Schnell

I am a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics who has worked for several years as a hospitalist and emergency department physician at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx where asthma rates are among the highest in the country. In addition, I have worked at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan, and as a pediatric Chief Resident at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. I have also spent two years treating pediatric patients with cancer.

My entire professional life has been focused on evidence-based decision making in the interest of prevention and of public health.

As such, I feel qualified to testify in this matter and hope that the Department of Environmental Protection, which, it seems, up to this point has never considered public health when granting variances to idlers, will not only listen, but finally act.

The biggest question for me is why there seems to be a need to educate the DEP about the most basic and obvious facts related to air pollution. The Department of Environmental Protection should already be aware of the impact of air pollution on human health. Anyone reading the newspapers, let alone scientific medical or environmental journals, is.

So let me just briefly summarize the situation:

  • Nine out of 10 people in the world (and 10 out of10 people in New York City) are breathing polluted air based on World Health Organization standards
  • Breathing polluted air contributes to 7-8 million premature deaths worldwide
  • Air pollution causes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, lung cancer, pneumonia, ischemic heart disease, and strokes
  • Air pollution, particularly traffic related air pollution causes neurological diseases, such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s in adults and causes delays in brain maturation with associated learning problem and behavioral issues in children
  • Air pollution is associated with a worse outcome in patients with Covid-19 infection
  • Air pollution has long term effects on the immune system, and increases the risk for chronic metabolic diseases

As you can see, idling and its resultant air pollution has a profound impact on public health.   

But public health is not just a theoretical construct. Traffic related air pollution adversely affects the health of each and every New Yorker.

When deliberating on [Spectrum’s] request for a variance, I am sure DEP has already spent several hours considering the supposed merits of it. How much time has DEP spent considering the impact of this decision on New Yorkers? Almost nine million people live in New York, and almost two million of them are children. Surely most New Yorkers simply assume that DEP acts in their best interest, certainly in the interest of the environment, since isn’t that what the name says: Department of Environmental Protection?

If every child living in New York wrote a letter about this variance to DEP, and if DEP spent one minute reading each letter without taking a break, then DEP would spend a total of 3,8 years reading those letters. If every New Yorker wrote a letter, then DEP would have to spend 16,7 years to read those letters. I hope this gives you a sense of how many lives will be adversely impacted if a variance was granted in this case.  

In the end, I do not think it is a question about DEP’s knowledge. Rather, the question is whether the DEP actually cares about New Yorkers.  

  • No 8-year-old wrote you a letter about how hard school was after waking up three times over-night because of shortness of breath and the need to take asthma medications.  
  • No 6-month-old complained to you that it took five extra days of laborious breathing and a visit to the ER go get over a horrible viral upper respiratory tract infection.
  • No fetus contacted you to remind you of the fact that his or her intellectual development and capacity for learning will be affected throughout life as a result of intrauterine traffic related air pollution.

But the one letter you did read, is the one from Charter Communications [Spectrum’s parent company]. Apparently, at this point, several iterations of this letters have been submitted, and while the language used is becoming more and more polished — we are now reading about commitments, about lofty goals, about robust reporting, about live alerts, etc. — it remains plainly obvious that the company continues to fail to demonstrate the presence of any hardship at all, as required by law. Although this company may well have been encouraged by DEP’s lack of critical review of idling requests in the past, it should be obvious that the mentioned “2035 goals” cannot serve as an excuse for the fact that no action, or insufficient action has been taken by Charter Communications over the last several years to become compliant with the idling law.

I urge DEP to not let itself be bullied into granting a variance to the idling law for Charter Communications based on a request that even in its latest iteration is hardly more than a confirmation that the company has done nothing over the last several years to adopt available technologies.

If DEP were to re-issue a variance to Charter Communications, it would:

  • ignore binding existing guidelines outlining criteria which must be fulfilled for a variance to be granted,
  • abdicate its role as a public servant, acting against, instead of in the interest of New Yorkers, and
  • it would additionally actively discourage companies such as Charter Communications from investing into alternative power sources.

It is beyond time for the New York City DEP to live up to its name and to be an ambassador for New Yorkers, not for companies trying to maximize their short term profits by harming New Yorkers’ health and wellbeing.

Patrick Schnell is a cyclist and environmental advocate, who has lived in New York City since 1994. He is a board-certified pediatrician in both New York State and his native Germany. 

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