Published Jun 11, 2022 in syracuse.com
Author by Darian Stevenson
Rydell Davis’ mother would often wipe black soot from the bedroom window of his childhood home. He grew up in Tyler Court, a street over from Interstate 81 where cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles polluted the air with toxins, causing him, and others around him, to develop asthma. But he didn’t understand that the proximity of the highway was the reason; not until he moved away.
“I began to see that my asthma got better when we moved to another side of town,” Davis said. “I always thought asthma was something that naturally happened, but as I got older and started doing my own research I was like, ‘wow, maybe the highway did play a major role in my development of asthma.’”
The negative health impacts of highways prompted state legislators to pass the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways Act last week. The law prohibits construction of schools within 600 feet of a highway.
Car exhaust is the cause of 4 million new cases of childhood asthma worldwide each year, according to a study published in The Lancet Planetary Health.
It was the concern of Central New York community members that spearheaded the bill.
Lanessa Chaplin, the director of the Environmental Justice Project for the New York Civil Liberties Union, drafted the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways Act, also known as the SIGH Act.
The act will protect school age children from air pollution and will require the New York State Department of Transportation to lessen the impact of roadway air pollution by providing insulation, adequate air filters, and air filtration systems in all schools that are within the 600 feet of major roadways.
Chaplin said community members expressed concern with the proximity of the highway when she and the NYCLU held a listening tour for those living adjacent to I-81.
“[Community members] all kind of highlighted this area of concern around the school being so close to not only the highway but also the construction or deconstruction of the highway,” Chaplin said. “So, we started having these conversations around 2018 talking about the real fear that they had for their kids health and well being around the school, when the highway was going to be removed.”
That led Chaplin to research what protections New York State had in place to protect children from highway construction.
She found about one-third of New York’s students go to school near highways. New York City has over 250 schools within 600 feet of a major highways and more than half of the city’s minority youth live within 600 feet of a major roadway.
“You put this highway by these individuals and it could have been put anywhere in the city of Syracuse,” Davis said. “It’s unfair to our community.”
Chaplin said advocacy efforts were fueled by the New York State Department of Transportation proposing the roundabout just 120 feet away from the Dr. King Elementary School.
According to a report commissioned by the NYCLU in 2019, 53.1% of Black and Latinx children live within 500 feet of a major roadway compared to just 4% of white students who live within 250 feet from major roadways.
Chaplin realized New York State was behind in protecting children from air pollution after she discovered 23 states prohibit the construction of schools near major roads.
That’s when Chaplin drafted the SIGH Act and reached out to Senator Rachel May in hopes she would sponsor the bill.
Senator May said she has been actively involved with the issue of removing I-81 for decades.
Senator May and Assemblywoman Latoya Joyner, co-sponsored the bill.
“It’s partly about passing the bill, but it’s largely about raising awareness,” May said. “It’s important that we be thinking about kids quality of life and thinking about environmental justice when we are taking important steps such as figuring out where to put a school.”
Children who are actively exposed to air pollution have increased risks of asthma, chronic respiratory issues, reduced lung function, cardiovascular effects, and neurobehavioral dysfunction. These contribute to changes in overall school performance for students and can be long-lasting affects.
May said, however, there was some push back on the bill from school districts, especially in the city.
“In New York City it is hard to find a location that is far from major roads and it makes planning more difficult,” May said. “We did hear from school districts and people in the community want the schools built in their neighborhoods and they don’t want to have the schools built far away from where they live and if they live near a highway then that’s an issue.”
Active construction plans for schools are an exemption to the bill.
“We’re not going to stop a construction project that’s currently happening,” Chaplin said. “So what they would do is an affirmative action of putting a letter in to let folks know that this is something that’s already underway.”
According to Chaplin, there have been a lot years, hard work, and advocacy from the community into getting the bill passed.
“It feels great to have a place that is known for the horrific impacts of the destruction of the 15th Ward, because of [I-81], to also now be known as the place where this new law originated and will continue to help children for many decades to come from preventing schools being built near major roadways,” Chaplin said.
The bill passed in both the Assembly and the Senate and will now head to Gov. Kathy Hochul’s desk for a signature.