West Harlem and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, USA


In 1988, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MAT) attempted to build a new bus depot in the already heavily burdened neighborhood of West Harlem in Northern Manhattan, New York City. Northern Manhattan is a predominantly African American and Latino part of the city that disproportionately hosts several pollution facilities that harm the health of their residents. Some of the environmental burdens located in Northern Manhattan at that time included: a waste water treatment plant, a marine transfer station, a system of highways surrounding the neighborhood that represent some of the most important routes for transporting goods in and out of Manhattan, and six out of the eight MAT bus depots located in Manhattan. The Northern Manhattan community's asthma mortality and morbidity rates were five to six times higher than the national average. The connections between the environmental burdens and health impacts made spark the controversy.

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Basic Data
NameWest Harlem and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceNew York
SiteNew York City
Accuracy of LocationMEDIUM regional level
Source of Conflict
Type of Conflict (1st level)Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of Conflict (2nd level)Pollution related to transport (spills, dust, emissions)
Urban development conflicts
Transport infrastructure networks (roads, railways, hydroways, canals and pipelines)
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsSix out of seven MTA Manhattan bus depots are located north of 100th Street.

Particulate Matter (PM) represents the most dangerous air pollutant resulting from diesel bus combustion. Other pollutants that have a negative health impact include benzene, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.
Type of PopulationUrban
Potential Affected Population100,000-200,000
Start Date1988
Company Names or State EnterprisesMetropolitan Transportation Authority from United States of America
Relevant government actorsDepartment of Transportation (local, state, and federal)
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersWE ACT for Environmental Justice
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginPREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups MobilizingLocal ejos
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Forms of MobilizationBlockades
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Noise pollution, Air pollution
Potential: Global warming
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts
Potential: Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
OtherAshtma, Cancer, Cardiovascular diseases and other respiratory problems
Socio-economic ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
OtherHigh asthma rates in children have negative consequences in their school performance (higher number of school absence, poor academic performance, etc.)
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCourt decision (victory for environmental justice)
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
The lawsuit was responsible for halting the construction of housing atop the depot.
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.The controversy sparked one of the most successful large scale environmental justice social marketing campaigns and the formation of a prominent Environmental Justice Organization. Today, New York's MTA has the largest fleet of hybrid-electric buses, and claims to have one of the cleanest transit fleets, in the United States.

However, since a disproportionate number of bus depots remains in the area, WE ACT and other environmental justice organizations continue their fight to press MTA to ensure a more sustainable depot operation.
Sources and Materials

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
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Shepard, Peggy. "Breathe at Your Own Risk: Transit Justice in West Harlem." race, poverty & the environment (2005): 51-53.

Shepard, Peggy M. "Issues of community empowerment." Fordham Urb. LJ 21 (1993): 739.

The Greenest Cleanest Depot Possible: Rebuilding Mother Clara Hale Depot
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Article on the New York Times "Environmental Group Files Complaint Against M.T.A"
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WE ACT's Title VI Complaint Against the MTA
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Media Links

WE ACT's Dirty Diesel Campaign
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WE ACT's campaign is featured at local news
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MTA representative Tammy Petzios and Millicent Redick, co-chair of the Mother Clara Hale Task Force, lead a discussion on air quality issues
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WE ACT's Campaign "If you live Uptown, breath at your own risk"
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Locations of Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) bus depots across New York City's Communities of Color by US Census Tract in 1990. Source: WE ACT
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Other CommentsThis is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan
Meta Information
ContributorAlejandro Colsa Pérez, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update08/07/2015