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NY’s Step Towards Environmental Justice

Highway pollution near schools hurts children's education. That's where the SIGH Act comes in.

By: Lanessa Owens-Chaplin Director, Racial Justice Center & Simon McCormack Senior Writer, Communications

At the tail end of this year’s legislative session, New York lawmakers passed a bill that should have future students and parents breathing easier.

People might not consider clean air a part of a quality education, but what students breathe has a major impact on their success and livelihood. For years, the Environmental Protection Agency has warned states that children who attend school within 500 feet of a major road have a significant chance of suffering serious consequences, including a higher likelihood of developing asthma and increased asthma attacks. Over-exposure to air pollution is also linked to increased absences and dropout rates and poor performance on tests.

A recent NYCLU analysis found that about one-third of New York’s students go to school near a major highway. That’s 375 New York schools within 500 feet from a road with an average daily volume of 30,000 or more cars. Around 80 percent of the state’s students who attend these schools are students of color, and 66 percent are low-income.

It’s an environmental injustice that students of color disproportionately suffer the health impacts of going to class near highway pollution.

The bill approved by the legislature is a first step to addressing these problems, and it’s a major portion of the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways “SIGH” Act. The legislation — which must be signed by Gov. Hochul to become law — will end the practice of placing schools near sources of highway air pollution by prohibiting the new construction of schools within 500 feet of a major roadway.

The NYCLU’s Environmental Justice Project worked alongside impacted residents to create and draft a comprehensive legislative package to protect school children from overexposure to air pollution. Part one of the SIGH Act – the first legislation of its kind in New York – is an essential step towards this goal. We’re committed to making sure it’s not the last.

The next phases of the SIGH Act will happen simultaneously. We will work with the legislature to introduce SIGH Act II. This bill will prevent highways from being built near existing schools. The NYCLU will also advocate for state funding for air monitoring, ventilation, and planting air-purifying vegetation at schools that are already close to major roadways.

This three-pronged approach has the backing of a broad coalition of environmental justice groups, education advocacy groups, and environmental law firms. We are determined to get parts two and three of the SIGH Act over the finish line in the years to come so that all students – particularly the students of color who are disproportionately impacted – can focus on their education without worrying about the air they breathe.

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