Dateline : Thursday, July 13, 2006

Grey Skies Cause Group to Target Grey Areas

By Nik Kovac

When political activists and lawyers with political aspirations get together, government agencies better be careful.
"We have been trying to do this for years," recalled Dr. Frans Verhagen, founding chairperson of the Queens Green Party, "and we think Mr. Baldeo has the right temperament and experience and community standing to do it."

The Mr. Baldeo in question is Albert Baldeo, Esquire, Ozone Park resident and former City Council candidate in southeast Queens. What he, Verhagen, and several other local community activists are threatening to do is file a class action lawsuit against the city, state, and federal governments in order to clean up air travel - not for the skyward passengers, but for the residents they fly over.
"Scientists have raised concerns about the health effects of aircraft noise and exhaust," announced Baldeo in a recent press release, "for many expanding reasons. There are studies that link excess noise and toxic exposure to increased stress levels and other illnesses, such as asthma, pneumonia, respiratory problems, tuberculosis, pregnancy complications and mental deficiencies."
That release came from a new community group called the Alliance Against Air Pollution (AAAP). As part of that new alliance, Baldeo joined another group Verhagen helped start several years ago, Sane Aviation For Everyone (SAFE). "We decided to take aviation as one of our main concerns," explained Verhagen, who describes himself as an environmental/sustainable sociologist. He teaches courses at several local colleges about sustainable aviation.

"It's unbelievable," decried Verhagen, "how short-term all the planners and politicians are. The FAA wants to triple what they are calling airport 'efficiency,' but they are giving no thought to the social and economic impacts on the region. They should be looking to other forms of intermodal transportation, like high-speed trains."
"These people are dedicated solely to aviation," added Dr. Allan Greene, a Howard Beach resident who is also a founding member of AAAP. "There's no concern about who they're bothering or disturbing. All they're concerned about is getting these planes up in the air, as many as possible."
Verhagen and his colleagues at SAFE and inside the Green Party have been trying for years to get various bills passed in the state legislature. Even though some of their efforts are finally getting some political juice - State Senator John Sabini and Borough President Helen Marshall recently held a press conference calling for more air quality testing near airports the group says it's still not enough.

"We complement both of them on that," commented Baldeo by phone, "as a step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. This issue has been pending for years and generations have been affected. Unless we all step up to the plate, the cancer, the asthma, the pneumonia, and the respiratory illnesses are only going to get worse." As Sabini announced at that press conference, every airplane that takes off releases toxic particulates equivalent to 3,000 automobiles.
"A class action lawsuit to alleviate our problems may become necessary," warned Baldeo, "if our rights and welfare continue to be ignored. These planes fly so low that we can feel the condensation and vibrations on our heads." Baldeo knows from class action lawsuits. A few months ago he filed one on behalf of residents of Rochdale Village, the second largest group of cooperators/shareholders in the world.

In this case, however, Baldeo isn't yet certain who he will end up suing. "Probably the FAA," he predicted, but the bureaucracy here is such a game. The state pushes you to the Feds who push you to the city. We'll have to sit down and sort through this nonsense."
Verhagen, meanwhile, had other targets in mind. "We'll have to sue the [state-run] Port Authority and the city," he said. "It's true that to a great extent aviation has become a federal responsibility, so much so that the local and state governments have abdicated a lot of their responsibility. Right now there's a lot of gray areas."

When the Star contacted Sabini, he declined to comment on the specifics of any pending litigation, but was happy to discuss his overall approach to making the neighborhoods near both Queens airports more liveable. "My goal," said the Senator, "is that we have cleaner air to breathe in and around the airports. We have to force the regulators to recognize that car traffic, truck traffic, and air traffic all contribute to the problem."

It is a high priority for the senator, but before a lawsuit is filed, he'd like to see his bill for more air quality testing pass. "First we have to have the empirical data," he argued, "and then we can discuss mitigation strategies."

There is at least one mitigation strategy strongly endorsed by AAAP that Sabini is also on board with. It turns out that majority leader Joe Bruno has appointed him to sit on the high-speed train committee. According to Sabini, they are looking into new, faster rail links to Albany and Buffalo, but he doesn't want to see too much reduction in local air traffic. "Those airports," he said, "are economic engines of Queens."

For Howard Beach resident Nancy Di Croce, the airport she lives next to is a nightmare. "I only have one lung and I'm marooned in my house," she told the Star by phone. She has already spent over $60 thousand of her own money to better soundproof her home.

Licensed sound engineer Jerry Goodman argues that the government should reimburse her for at least that. "I have done testing near LaGuardia," he said, "and the decibel count is so high there that if the Port Authority was doing it's job it would buy all that property. It's not inhabitable, and it's even worse at Kennedy. The windows shake and the car alarms go off every time one of those jets go by."

PHOTO CAPTION: The founding members of AARP are, left to right, Dr. AllanGreene, Dr. Frans Verhagen, Albert Baldeo, Mary Ann Carey, and Nancy Di Croce.


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