There’s a Good Reason to Evacuate Albany’s Ezra Prentice Homes. It’s Just Not What You Think It Is.

A good deal of media attention in Albany in recent months has focused on the situation of the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing project in the city’s South End (or really, just outside of it). Various local politicians, most prominently Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, have seized on the paranoia surrounding transportation of crude oil by rail after the Lac-Megantic disaster by trying to make Albany a national leader in protecting its citizens from the #BombTrains threat. Indeed, the very first post on this blog was about the conceptual issues with the campaign, arguing that there are in fact much greater threats to the public health than the exceptionally low-probability event of being blown up by an exploding oil train. Today, it’s time to revisit that question a little bit.

The single biggest focus for Albany politicians who want to make a point regarding oil-by-rail has been the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing development that opened in 1967, in the wake of the urban-renewal clearance of thousands of homes for the Empire State Plaza project. Always something of an anomaly in Albany–the McConnell-Corning machine that ran the city from 1921 to 1983 was famously reluctant to take federal housing money, wishing to avoid any kind of oversight–the Prentice Homes were built with state assistance and federalized  in the mid-1980s, after Erastus Corning’s death in 1983.  As if to symbolize just how out-of-site, out-of-mind the residents of the Prentice Homes (many of them refugees from neighborhoods leveled for Nelson Rockefeller’s singular monument to his own ego) were, the new project was sited next to the Delaware & Hudson Railroad’s Kenwood Yard, and immediately adjacent to the new I-787, which opened around the same time as the Prentice Homes, and probably before (I’ve been unable to nail down an exact opening date). Least-valued people on the least-valued land: it’s a time-honored American public-housing tradition! In any case, the area looks like this today:

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Ezra Prentice Homes at center; Kenwood Yard at right and I-787 at top margin, from Google Earth.

Last week, County Executive McCoy doubled down on his public concern about the Prentice Homes’ adjacency to Kenwood Yard, which has become a terminal for oil trains transported from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota by current yard owner Canadian Pacific. As McCoy pointed out in his press conference,, the backyards of some of the Prentice Homes literally do back up to the yard. Indeed, McCoy went so far as to for the first time suggest evacuating the Prentice Homes entirely, as reported by the Times Union‘s ace city/politics reporter Jordan Carleo-Evangelist:  ‘”Just because we put it here doesn’t make it right,” McCoy said, citing potential health risks from fumes and the threat of a catastrophic explosion. “We can make it right by moving it.”‘ Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, however, was none too happy with McCoy’s surprise, drastic plan, suggesting that the city needs “solutions that do not require people to uproot their lives.”

Is the threat from an oil train blowing up severe enough to justify evacuating the Prentice Homes? I argued in my previous blog post on the subject that the chances of such an explosion are miniscule given the kind of oil involved and the slow train speeds. Oil-by-rail may be the excitement of the day, but it’s long-term air pollution that’s the true threat to public health at the Prentice Homes.

The health impacts of living adjacent to a freeway like I-787 are well-known, even in the popular imagination. The easternmost of the Prentice Homes are actually probably outside the real danger zone, but some of the buildings are as close as 200 feet to the roadway, well within the 500-foot buffer recommended by best practice. Most of the buildings are within 1,000 feet of the freeway, and all within 1,500–distances that represent outer, lesser rings of threat from air pollution.

The challenge of diesel locomotive pollution from Kenwood Yard is less well-known, and more complicated.  Pollutants from locomotives are known to cause an elevated cancer risk in neighborhoods immediately adjacent to yards, as well as for railroad workers. A recent EPA study found that “levels of black carbon, an indicator of diesel exhaust, spiked up to 104 percent higher than the norm for urban areas during early mornings and evenings when winds blew across the freight yard toward a residential area” in Chicago. Kenwood is a small yard relative to the massive facilities often studied in California and Chicago, but it does host idling locomotives, and as we have already seen the Prentice Homes have no buffer from the tracks. Freight rail, though, is an environmental good on the regional level; trains are a good deal more energy- and pollution- efficient than trucks for moving freight, and encouraging freight to move by rail to the maximum extent possible is good public policy. Even if it were possible for local officials to do so (since railroads carry interstate commerce, they are federally regulated, and policy options for local officials are limited), shutting down Kenwood entirely would probably result in an overall growth in emissions and congestion across the Capital Region. That the yard poses a polluting threat to the health of those who live right next to it, though, is pretty inarguable.

McCoy’s right that the Ezra Prentice Homes were built in the wrong place. Sheehan is also right that moving residents–some of whom have no interest in moving–is a drastic and potentially overly hasty measure. Aside from the brewing political struggle, there is, to me, something quite disconcerting about the spectacle of (white) politicians suddenly trying to make a reputation  for themselves in the name of protecting residents of a public housing project who have been breathing freeway and locomotive fumes for almost 50 years. The Prentice Homes were the result of a mayoral administration that didn’t care about African-American constituents (who, then and now, were the majority of Prentice residents) and a gubernatorial administration that heartlessly seized the land of tens of thousands of residents in the name of one man’s ego. They were sited in just about the worst place imaginable from a public health perspective–cut off from the rest of the city by six lanes of roaring traffic, and wedged in between two polluting transportation facilities. And it’s only now–after 47 years of neglect relieved only by periodic renovations, rather than serious consideration for the health of residents–Albany’s politicians are freaking out about a threat to the Prentice Homes that by any objective standard is incredibly remote? I, too, would rather not see oil trains sitting on Albany’s waterfront, and sitting in Kenwood Yard. They’re an unwelcome reminder of our wasteful past, and yes, a potential danger. But forgive me for thinking that our elected officials should be dealing with the existent ongoing threats to public health, rather than trying to build their reputations on the backs of citizens whose needs have been neglected for the longest time.



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