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.
In 1988, as a result the disproportionate health impacts from environmental threats located in their neighborhood, local communities founded WE ACT for Environmental Justice, the first environmental justice organization in New York City. Since its foundation, the goal of this organization was to fight against the use of this part of Manhattan as the dumping ground of New York City.
In November 2000, WE ACT and several community residents filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation alleging that diesel bus depots were disproportionately located in Manhattan's minority communities. This complaint also aimed to stop the proposal of building low income and seniors' housing over the bus depot. They co-filed the complaint with civil rights attorneys who asserted that the high number of depots in northern Manhattan violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an act barring federal funding for any program that discriminates based on race. To support the complaint, WE ACT did a land use analysis that showed a high proportion of people of color living near the depots. In addition, WE ACT developed a media campaign and youth programs on diesel buses and air quality.
In 2004, in response to WE ACT's Title VI complaint of 2001, the Federal Transportation Authority found that MTA failed to comply with the required federal environmental impact analysis in constructing, rehabilitating and reconstructing of bus depots and other facilities.
After further local campaigns followed by pressure from state and local authorities, MTA started replacing hundreds of diesel fuel buses with alternative and cleaner vehicles, including ultra-low sulfur diesel (ULSD) and compressed natural gas (CNG) buses.