March for Justice for I-81 demonstrators walk across Adams Street with I-81 in background, August 14, 2021, photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

When Lanessa Owens-Chaplin and her team at the New York Civil Liberties Union canvassed the neighborhood around the Interstate 81 project, they kept hearing residents vocalize similar worries.

Residents were unsure how construction on the viaduct would affect their health. 

“Some of them had expressed to us they were genuinely concerned they wouldn’t be able to withstand the construction project,” Owens-Chaplin said. 

In nearly every public comment period since, the NYCLU has pointed out the health risk the construction on the viaduct could pose to residents and laborers. The NYCLU wrote in comments to the New York State Department of Transportation’s review of the 81 project that the NYCLU had “deep concerns that NYSDOT continues to ignore the health needs of its environmental justice community.” 

To soothe those worries, the NYCLU and others have pushed for a health needs assessment for residents in the area. It would include outreach to residents who live closest to the viaduct. The DOT is not legally required to perform an assessment and has so far not agreed to one. 

“What they’re saying is, ‘We have adequate protections.’ And it’s part of my role to say, ‘Well, we want more,” Owens-Chaplin said. 

The NYCLU’s comments on health concerns came back into the spotlight in the fall. Renew 81 for All sued the state DOT to stop it from building the community grid. The group cited the NYCLU’s points as a reason to reconsider the project. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand came to town to hold a press conference opposing the lawsuit in Wilson Park shortly after. Onondaga County Legislator Charles Garland lurked around the edge of the park with a document in his hand: A printout from the NYCLU’s website of an opinion written by Owens-Chaplin detailing the need for protections during construction on the highway. 

Owens-Chaplin said Garland and others who oppose the community grid have twisted the NYCLU’s advocacy. The NYCLU recognizes construction is inevitable. The group supports a community grid and advocates that protections are needed regardless of which project moves forward. 

“How are we reconciling the damage we’ve done in these communities in the past by building the highway while we’re taking it down?” Owens-Chaplin said. “One of the ways that we can reconcile that is by doing a health needs assessment.”  

I-81 viaduct construction concerns: Air pollution, lead, fugitive dust 

Residents could be exposed to increased air pollution, lead and fugitive dust during construction on the viaduct, Chaplin-Owens said.  

Viaduct construction appears several years away, but Owens-Chaplin and advocates say proper protections for laborers and residents need to be considered now.

The DOT has not taken any steps toward performing a health needs assessment. 

Owens-Chaplin characterized her group’s push for the assessment as an “ongoing conversation” with the DOT. 

The DOT said in a statement it plans to work with residents affected by the project and mitigate issues as they come up. Officials declined to comment further, noting the community grid project is being litigated in court.

At a rally earlier this year in Wilson Park, residents focused on the impact lead could have on the community and the construction workers who help take the viaduct down. 

Jeanette Zoeckler, the executive director of SUNY Upstate’s Occupational Health Clinical Center, worries about the potential lead exposure to the laborers. Zoeckler is particularly concerned about the lead paint on the steel that supports the highway. 

Since the 81 project has started becoming a reality, groups like the Urban Jobs Task Force have pushed for training to make sure people of color and city residents can work on the viaduct. 

Zoeckler said denying those laborers heightened protections could re-expose them to lead that exists in city homes at high rates. 

She is among the community members working with the NYCLU to push for the health needs assessment.  

Families for Lead Freedom Now’s Oceanna Fair and Paul Ciavarri, from Legal Services of Central New York, attended the rally earlier this year in Wilson Park. They cited research from St. Louis that showed lead and dust from demolition can travel 1.5 miles from the demolition site. 

“You’re aware that there was racial injustice when the highway went up,” Zoeckler said. “And we’re very concerned there will be some kind of disparity with regard to occupational health as it comes down.” 

A woman stands holding a sign as March for Justice for I-81 demonstrators walk through Pioneer Homes, August 14, 2021, photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

NYCLU pushes for DOT field office near construction site

Owens-Chaplin is pushing the DOT to establish a field office near the viaduct.

People who work out of the field office would do outreach to provide residents information on how construction on the viaduct may affect them, she said. 

The office would give residents a chance to talk face-to-face with officials about their options in case they do not want to live near the construction. 

“It also is contingent upon public participation,” Owens-Chaplin said. “If you’re going to have a health needs assessment, that means you have to have a community willing to talk about their health with you.”

Zoeckler hopes that a health needs assessment could track the baseline blood lead levels in some children near the viaduct to measure any potential adverse effects from taking down the highway. 

She said tracking the air quality in the area would also be important to find out the effect on people who already live with respiratory issues in the city. 

“It’s really a boots on the ground public health move,” Zoeckler said. 

Having a field office would make it easier to reach residents and work with them if they have health issues or want to relocate, Owens-Chaplin said. 

NYCLU officials point to the example of one resident, whose doctor recommended they move before the area becomes a construction zone.

A health needs assessment could help determine which residents may need to be relocated because of health concerns. The DOT currently believes it can demolish the viaduct in about four weeks, meaning any relocation would be short-term, Owens-Chaplin said. 

Ultimately, residents who want to move should not have to divulge their full medical histories to the DOT and should be relocated, at least in the short-term, at no cost to the residents, she said. 

“In the most practical way, what we’re talking about is giving people the option to relocate if they don’t feel like they want to live in a construction zone due to their health,” Owens-Chaplin said. “And I think that’s the least the DOT could do to accommodate the neighborhood that has carried the burden of air pollution for the past 55 years for the entire county.” 

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Chris Libonati

Chris Libonati covers government, accountability and equity. Have a tip? Contact Chris at 585-290-0718 or libonati@centralcurrent.org.