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From the City Sierran, Winter 1992

My Dinner With Andy

By John C. Klotz

Something in the human psyche blunts the impact of large catastrophes. Death en masse somehow fails to move us as deeply as the death of one or two. According to a study by the American Lung Association, at least 60,000 Americans die each year from illness either caused, or fatally aggravated, by just one form of air pollution (particulate). That's more each year than the 57,000 Americans who died in the twelve years of Vietnam combat. When one watches the suicidal incineration-based Solid Waste Management Plan of New York City or the continuing frenzy to overbuild Manhattan further devastating the over-stressed air of this city, it's clear that the politicians don't comprehend just how murderous our toxic air is. The death of thousands is an abstraction.

Yet, each of the deaths caused by air pollution is the death of a single individual and for that individual, his family and friends, a tragedy beyond measure. Take my friend Andy* for example.

Andy is an author and English teacher of accomplishment who lives in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx. He has a keen intellect with a wealth of personal anecdote and is a frequent dinner guest in our home. One Saturday last June, when he arrived for an eagerly anticipated supper, something was amiss. He was distracted and troubled. He explained why.

The night before he had talked to his neighbor across the hall. He was a young Latino man with a wife and two tiny children - one a babe only a few weeks old. His neighbor was attending Hostos College and had come by to thank Andy for helping him with some English assignments. He had gotten A's and B's. That night the man had talked enthusiastically about his plans and dreams for the future. When Andy awoke in the morning, there was a commotion in the hall. His neighbor's wife was weeping inconsolably. During the night, her husband had died from a sudden attack of asthma. His American dream had ended.

After Andy had finished his story, he looked at me. "You're right about the incinerators." Andy left early that night, the stress of the day had aggravated his own asthma condition.

And then there is the story of Richard and Allison.* Richard was a nationally known African-American who had risen to the heights of his profession. Allison was a young adolescent. They both lived on the East side of Manhattan.

On May 9, 1989, pollution monitors in their neighborhood recorded unusually high levels of sulfur dioxide in the air. The following day, both Allison and Richard succumbed to asthma attacks.

The Mayor, all the City's politicians and other dignitaries attended the funeral of Richard Green, the City's school chancellor. The death of this remarkably gifted man was a tragedy for the entire City. Politicians took no note of Allison's passing. The grief of her parents was no less real and her death, on the brink of life, perhaps even more tragic.

A local newspaper publisher remarks how he has late in life developed asthma and been warned of air-born, sulfur dioxide. Another friend, whose only child was hospitalized after an asthma attack, remarks on the ready availability in New York City hospitals of infant pulmonary facilities.

In the meantime, the City Council approves the development of Riverside South. The deal bails Donald Trump out of trouble with his banks.

The sewage from the project would drain into the new North River treatment plant. That plant is over capacity. It is already the source of debilitating odors and is increasing the already deadly concentrations of toxic air in Harlem. According to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Harlem air is especially deadly and increasing utilization of North River will add to the carnage.

The ever generous Trump has agreed to allow the City an easement so that it could build a new pumping station if indeed, Trump City overtaxes North River. But then there is the question of the increased pollution from the increased automobile traffic the project would inevitably engender.

Trump's egocentric demands are deadly. No matter how hard his apologists in government may try, they can't disguise the simple fact that Riverside South would devastate an already overloaded Manhattan infrastructure, increasing air pollution in several ways and leading inevitably to even more disease and death among our most vulnerable residents.

In the South Bronx, the operators of the Bronx-Lebanon hospital waste incinerator are cited for accepting radioactive wastes and puffs of black smoke from this "state of the art" incinerator are photographed darkening the sky.

Emerson wrote: "Without a vision, a people perish." The developers and the incinerator industry are adept at creating cardboard visions of their projects. The establishment is totally inept at envisioning the future of the City beyond the next hot project. It is not enough for environmentalists to curse the dark smoke billowing from the incinerators. We must light the world with our vision. Ultimately, that vision must be life itself.

Whatever the issue, be it wetlands preservation, wilderness restoration, clean air and water, the one consistent factor which motivates the environmentalist is the value of life itself. More often then not, we find ourselves opposed by those "practical" folk who find other values, often profit or political expediency, more important.

In ones and twos, all about us, the victims fall until they number in the thousands. One watches the carnage rise and the indifference of the public officials catering to their special interests. The words of an old Vietnam War ballad return to haunt.

When will they ever learn,
when will they ever learn.

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