A few dozen people attend an NYCLU rally for Lead-Free Syracuse at Wilson Park on Saturday, Sept. 17. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Yellow signs stretched for a quarter-mile, from the rally at Wilson Park – right next to the Interstate 81 viaduct – to a playground just outside the Institute of Technology Central High School, on South State Street. 

That’s how far rally organizers said they believe lead dust could travel when the highway’s viaduct is demolished. 

Lanessa Chaplin, director of the Environmental Justice Project at the New York Civil Liberties Union, said she has pushed the New York State Department of Transportation to present a plan to bring down the highway without spreading lead dust.

“We have to make sure this viaduct comes down in an equitable, healthy way,” Chaplin said. 

A few dozen residents attended the Saturday rally at Wilson Park. Chaplin was one of about four speakers. The others included:

  • Oceanna Fair, Families for Lead Freedom
  • Michael Cooper, a resident of Toomey Abbott Towers, near the Interstate 81 viaduct 
  • Deka Dancil, president of the Urban Jobs Task Force

Advocates said they are worried about whether contractors who help tear down the viaduct will get proper training on how to deal with lead paint on the viaduct and whether there will be pressure to do the job quickly. 

OSHA standards require workers be pulled off a site once their blood-lead levels reach 40 micrograms per deciliter. Typical levels for adults fall under 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Dancil pushed for local workers to be hired to bring down the viaduct. She said she worries that without protocols on how to handle the lead paint, the construction could further hurt a community already dealing with a lead poisoning crisis. 

“We don’t want people walking into a high-risk work environment,” Dancil said. 

Some of residents’ concerns stem from a study done in St. Louis that found the proximity to demolition sites correlated with a child’s likelihood to have higher levels of lead in their blood. That study focused on the demolition of housing in the early 2000s and examined lead-blood levels of children within a quarter-mile of demolitions. 

Oceanna Fair, who advocates for lead testing, remediation and abatement in homes, said she worries about the damage airborne lead dust could do to the community and workers on the site. She said the threshold to pull a worker off the site needs to be lower. 

“We don’t want commercials saying, ‘If you were harmed when I-81 came down, call this law firm,’” Fair said. 

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