Hell on Wheels: Port Authority’s Broken Promise Is Choking Newark’s Kids


It had been a rough couple of years for Tanisha Garner. In 2010 she left an abusive marriage and moved out of Newark’s West Ward, the neighborhood where she was born and raised; around the same time, she lost her job as a Verizon technician. To make ends meet, she eventually turned to welfare, but that only helped so much: After two years, the rental assistance keeping her and her three children in an apartment in Newark’s Central Ward expired. Out of options, and out of money, she moved her family to the Ironbound.

“I couldn’t find anywhere else, no application got back to me, and that’s how I ended up here,” Garner says of her two-bedroom in the Aspen River Park Apartments.

The Ironbound is an eastside Newark neighborhood that abuts the Passaic River, a disused industrial corridor and superfund site. Row homes, subsidized housing, and warehouses crowd the narrow streets, which are clogged with school and public buses. Vacant lots sit next to vinyl-sided houses pushed up beside one another, crisscrossed by low-slung electrical and cable wires. Jammed against Route 9, the public housing projects encircle a dirt field with patches of grass. (During Superstorm Sandy, the field was flooded with chemical runoff.)

On an early, eerily hot spring day, kids run out of their aging red-brick school, filling the streets under the power lines. The low, persistent thrum of machinery is everywhere. Surrounding the Ironbound are a rail yard, an airport, numerous gas tankers, waste stations, incinerators, and rusting shipping containers — the blue-collar engines that keep the New York metropolitan area functioning, all concentrated in this lower-middle-class section of the Garden State. And towering over all of it is the Port Newark–Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the largest port on the Eastern Seaboard and the third largest in the country.

Dockworkers and truck drivers load and unload freight here from dawn till dusk. Each year shipping companies and their thousands of independent drivers move north of $100 billion in goods through here and onto a global trade network that links Parsippany to Beijing. In 2015, a record 3.6 million cargo containers entered Port Newark; XPO Logistics, one of the largest companies birthed there, made $15 billion in revenue last year alone.

The Ironbound represents a bottleneck in that constant flow: Trucks — more than 8,700 of them in a single month, more than 1.4 million trips a year — must pass through its winding streets to move between the highway and the port, hugging the Passaic and entering the port near the Essex County Correctional Facility.

That endless procession — about two hundred trucks per hour, or three every minute — has rendered this beaten-down neighborhood a toxic mess; even a few minutes outside can irritate your throat. According to an estimate by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, diesel particulate levels surrounding the port are up to 1,000 times greater than levels considered safe to breathe. In 2013, the air at a swimming pool in the Ironbound registered twenty micrograms of black carbon (the main component of diesel exhaust) per cubic meter, dozens of times more concentrated than at a private pool in Weequahic, the middle-class neighborhood just a few miles south.

The Port Authority asked the Environmental Protection Agency, the states of New York and New Jersey, and the truck drivers themselves to share the cost of a fix, but not the shipping companies, which claimed they couldn’t afford it — despite record-setting port traffic last year.

Meanwhile, Garner and her family — as well as the 50,000 other residents in the neighborhood — live in a bowl of smog. “The exhaust gets on our food, everything,” she says, balancing her one-year-old, Chozin, on her knee. “I pray to God every day none of my kids get sick.”

Diesel exhaust exposure is a matchless predictor of poor health outcomes, says Robert Laumbach, MD, MPH, a professor at Rutgers’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Nationwide, diesel exhaust has been linked to increased rates of asthma, lung cancer, and pre-term birth, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, some of its component chemicals, have been found to cause both ADD and ADHD in children in the New York metro area. “It contains tiny particles that get deep into the lungs, which carry on them other pollutants like a delivery system,” Laumbach explains.

One in four Newark children suffers from asthma; the hospitalization rate is 150 percent greater for kids living in the city than in the rest of the state, and more than thirty times the rate nationwide. Asthma attacks are now a leading cause of school absenteeism in the region — air pollution levels are highest between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., when kids are heading to school.

Laumbach is working on a study to directly measure the long-term effects of diesel emissions on the health of children in the Newark area. “The idea is to get a better sense of how even short-term exposure from idling trucks might affect kids with asthma,” he says. “The other side of this study is that these kids might be more vulnerable to the effects of particulate matter on their asthma if they also have other chronic psychosocial stressors.” More than half of the kids in the Ironbound are children of immigrants, and many people in the community are undocumented. “[These stresses] all get transmitted to the kids,” Laumbach says.

The chief culprit in the Ironbound are the trucks themselves. Much of the fleet is ten to twenty years old, some with bumpers held on with duct tape, their cab doors fastened with bungee cords. The aging rigs idle for hours, emitting an endless stream of pollution as they wait to pick up their cargo.

These trucks were supposed to be gone by now. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the agency that controls Port Newark, announced a truck replacement program back in 2010 that mimicked successful clean-up efforts at other ports around the country: Over the next seven years, the agency said it would phase out all pre-2007 rigs — which produce 95 percent more diesel particulate matter than later models — and subsidize the cost of replacing them for drivers, most of whom own their own trucks. The program was to be funded with an initial $21 million from the Port Authority, with more money coming annually from the EPA. “We have worked closely with all stakeholders to make sure that this new program will help clean up the pollution at our ports and, in the process, ensure that we do not overburden our already struggling port and trucking industry,” announced then–Port Authority executive director Chris Ward.

If it had ever been fully implemented, the program could have cut emissions by as much as that 95 percent by 2017. But in January, after spending six years and $35 million on just 429 new trucks, the Port Authority abandoned the program. In a press release buried on its labyrinthine website, the agency announced that its goal was to continue “to balance the need to efficiently and effectively move goods to and from our port terminals, while continuing to be good environmental stewards to the communities that surround our port facilities.” It said it would no longer enforce a ban on pre-2007 trucks entering the port, claiming it could not shoulder the total projected cost of $150 million.

Coming from an agency that had just spent $4 billion on the new World Trade Center hub that even the authority’s outgoing executive director, Patrick Foye, called a “symbol of excess,” pleas of poverty were pretty hard for locals to swallow. Community organizer Kim Gaddy has lived her entire life in Newark’s nearby South Ward, a neighborhood next to the port’s main truck ramp. Gaddy’s three children all developed asthma very young. Her middle daughter, now fifteen, was diagnosed with chronic asthma when she was one.”When you’re a parent and your family members are experiencing all these health effects,” says Gaddy, “having to learn about air quality and pollutants just so your kid can be healthy, and the only rationale that the port gives you is financial, you really have to wonder what’s wrong with that picture.”

Gaddy was working for the city at the time and was determined to get Newark’s black political leadership to do something about the environmental problems plaguing the town. “They were concerned with crime and poor education,” she says. “The environmental side of things didn’t have a voice.” She was part of the original group of environmental advocates that worked with the Port Authority on its Clean Air Strategy, which included the truck replacement program. Gaddy learned the Port Authority was abandoning the plan only hours before the announcement.

In 2015, the Port Authority spent 4 percent of its capital budget on Port Newark. But between 2010 and 2015, the agency drastically ramped up its spending elsewhere. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie often allocates the agency’s reserves to pet projects that have nothing to do with bi-state transit, including $500 million to redevelop the Atlantic City airport and $1.8 billion to repair the crumbling Pulaski Skyway, which connects Jersey City with Newark. (The governor’s office declined to comment for this story.)

Federal money was plentiful, too. In 2008, the EPA began offering grants for newer, cleaner industrial equipment as part of a national push to slash diesel emissions. Ports across the country launched programs to take advantage of the funds. One such program begun that year was at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the country’s fifth and tenth largest ports, respectively. By 2012, all pre-2007 trucks had been banned from those ports entirely, and emissions were down by 80 percent. All told, the EPA has spent $52 million on the program.

L.A.’s approach couldn’t have been more different from the Port Authority’s. For one, the municipalities that controlled the city’s ports had established a schedule of fees to help pay for truck replacement. If a truck or shipping company did not comply with emissions standards, it was charged a fee that went into a fund earmarked for the replacement program. For another, much of the cost ended up being placed on the trucking companies themselves, the entities that could best afford to pay.

The Port Authority, by contrast, resisted issuing fees for politically connected shipping companies and truck carriers, even as the port experienced boom times. Instead, the brunt of the expense was passed to individual drivers, most of whom own their own rigs and earn around $28,000 a year. It was a classic case of passing the buck to the politically powerless.

A new truck can cost more than $100,000. Under the Port Authority’s program, truckers were entitled to grants covering a quarter of the price of a truck and a low-interest loan to help pay the rest. But faced with a $75,000 debt, even at low interest, drivers quickly found themselves underwater. Meanwhile, thanks to bureaucratic inefficiency and the use of pricey consultants, the cost of just administering the program ballooned to $97,902 per vehicle in 2015 — roughly the same price as a new truck. Put another way, the Port Authority’s approach doubled the cost of each new rig.

For over twenty years Juan Reyes, 57, was an independent contractor, and says he never made enough money to buy his own vehicle. Standing next to a brand-new 2016 rig — he’s one of the few drivers employed by a company that provides new trucks for its employees — he says he knows what most drivers go through.

“Nobody can afford a new truck, because you make no money to begin with,” Reyes says. “So the first thing drivers do is buy a piece-of-shit truck, just so they can start working.” Drivers rarely make enough money to upgrade their rigs in any substantive way, he explains, instead moving from one junker to another.

The trucking companies, meanwhile, own no trucks and have very few employees; they have remained one of the most vocal forces against the truck ban, wary of the opportunity it would give organized labor. (In Los Angeles, the city collaborated with the Teamsters Union to form a new, “green” trucking competitor, EcoFlow, to operate at the port.) Ana Baptista, a professor of environmental policy and sustainability management at the New School, says the carriers’ refusal to chip in is the chief reason the plan failed, and the Port Authority did nothing to require them to do so. By last year just one in ten trucks that regularly used Port Newark were newer than 2007; some of the replacements purchased with the loans and grants weren’t even up to 2007 standards. The Port Authority had been directly subsidizing noncompliance.

“Under the plan, the burden for paying for the new trucks was shifted to the most vulnerable members of the supply chain: the independent truckers themselves,” says Baptista.

But as Fred Potter, director of the Teamsters Port Division, explains, “The industry should bear the cost of this; the Walmarts, Home Depots, and the shippers that use these trucking services should be paying for it. At this moment, only 9 percent of the trucks that regularly use the port are 2007-EPA compliant. Just what did they spend all that money on?”

When staffers in the Christie administration ordered closure of traffic lanes on the George Washington Bridge in 2013, the ensuing scandal exposed, once again, the famously political nature of internal dealings at the Port Authority. Besides becoming fodder for national headlines and torpedoing the governor’s presidential ambitions, Bridgegate demonstrated just how involved Christie’s apparatchiks were in the operations of the authority, an agency established to be above political influence in order to serve the interests of two states at once. Following a lengthy investigation, both the New York and New Jersey state senates crafted a restructuring of the authority to make it far more transparent and accountable to the states’ non-executive officials. In a midnight veto, Andrew Cuomo and Christie shot down the legislation. A final reform bill has yet to materialize.

Amid the political turf war, there had been rare glimmers of hope. In mid-2015, the Port Authority appointed a new commerce director, Molly Campbell, who’d helped oversee Los Angeles’ clean truck program. It was an encouraging sign for clean air advocates, who met with Campbell in the fall and were told the replacement program would continue as they approached the 2017 deadline.

Then Campbell reneged. When the program was cut, activists were given little warning; the Port Authority didn’t even notify the EPA. After canceling the program, Campbell and her staff announced a new, drastically weaker one: The truck ban only extends to pre-1995 models, and the deadline for compliance was pushed back to 2018. The agency did solicit public comment for the new program, which went into effect in March, but unlike other state agencies the Port Authority is not obliged to respond to or incorporate that input. (“We welcome any workable environmental solutions that will further benefit the port community as a whole,” Campbell said in a statement to the Voice. “Our door is always open.”)

Meanwhile, Tanisha Garner is still in the Ironbound, worrying. She and a few other locals are conducting a tour of sorts, pointing out where Sandy sent toxic water cascading through the neighborhood after the Passaic overflowed. Alexi Martinez, a 25-year-old student who has lived in the Ironbound his entire life, remarks that many of his friends carry inhalers. It wasn’t until he started working with the Ironbound Community Corporation that he discovered why.

“Learning about our problem here is going to be our best hope at solving it,” Martinez says. “Just going down to the port for the first time a few months ago was mind-blowing for me. There’s just so many trucks idling, so much pollution, trucks just chilling there for hours.”

As he speaks, truck after truck slowly makes its way through traffic, trailing exhaust. Kids run across a busy street to play with the wary chickens in a community garden. Nearby, an entire alley is filled with murals: One depicts a figure crouching in a gas mask, surrounded by garbage and smog.

Garner hopes it doesn’t have to end up like that. She’s committed to staying in the neighborhood, even if it means she and her neighbors have to keep pressuring the Port Authority to keep its promise to them. “How can we effect any change when everything is political games?” she asks, pointing to a passing truck. “We’re the ones breathing this air.”

Listen to writer Max Rivlin-Nadler speak in depth about why the Port Authority scaled back its truck emissions program on WNYC:

Listen to writer Max Rivlin-Nadler’s conversation with ProPublica about the Port Authority:

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story on high levels of pollution in Newark’s portside communities incorrectly identified Weequahic, one of the city’s southside neighborhoods, as predominantly white. The community is predominantly black, according to the most recent census data. Nevertheless, though Weequahic is only a few miles farther from Port Newark than the Ironbound is, the concentration of exhaust there is dozens of times lower. The
Voice regrets the errors.]