Experts and activists hailing from greater New Haven and the South Bronx argued in a panel yesterday that poor environmental conditions have had a disproportionate negative impact on residents of low-income neighborhoods.
The Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies hosted a panel of environmental activists from nonprofit organizations based in New Haven, Hamden and the Bronx to discuss ways to address the poor air quality and lack of open spaces in low-income areas.
Elizabeth Hayes, a representative of the Newhall Coalition, said many people have health problems stemming from environmental neglect around Hamden’s Newhall Street, located between Dixwell Avenue and Prospect Street. She said the area, a predominantly black neighborhood, was built on a toxic waste dump more than 60 years ago. Hayes said the coalition estimates it will cost $50 to $200 million to clean up the area.
“The question is, will we get justice, say, for instance, [as] if this toxic waste dump was in Greenwich?” Hayes said. “Or will we get justice based on our color?”
The 600 residents suffer from high rates of cancer, and several homes have sustained structural damage and contamination, Hayes said. The pollutants originated from chemical factories incorrectly disposing of waste, resulting in dangerous levels of lead and arsenic in the area.
Elena Conte, a representative of the Greening for Breathing program in the Bronx, an area with many of the same environmental concerns as New Haven, explained the group’s plan to plant more trees to decrease air pollution. With the second highest asthma rate in the country, one of every four children in the Bronx has asthma.
“Right now there is an average of one tree per acre,” Conte said. “But there is clearly a lot of room for trees.”
She said the cost of planting and maintaining the trees — as much as $1,500 for a single tree — is a serious obstacle to the program.
Marina Spitkovskaya ’04, who helped organize the panel, said such environmental justice issues allow many groups around campus to become involved in improving New Haven.
“It bridges the gap between Yale and the community, as well as between environmentalists and local activists,” Spitkovskaya said.
Speakers also discussed the importance of open spaces to community health. Panelists Colleen Murphy-Dunning and Evelyn Rodriguez have both been working through the Urban Resources Initiative to replace vacant lots with parks and gardens in New Haven.
“URI creates new programs, led by citizens themselves, who can plant trees, create parks, and have community-managed open space,” Murphy-Dunning said.
With an estimated 700 vacant lots in New Haven, Murphy-Dunning said there is a correlation between impoverished areas and a high concentration of vacant lots — which are not only a waste of space, but also absorb pollutants, contaminating the area.
Beth Owen, one of the coordinators of the panel, said she liked that the panel did not simply elaborate on current issues, but offered solutions.
“I’m glad environmental justice was addressed in a positive way with visions for the future,” she said.