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NYCLU Sues NYS Department of Transportation for Refusing to Fully Study and Address Environmental Hazards Caused by Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway Project

NEW YORK – Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) Racial Justice Center sued the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) over its decision to proceed with redeveloping Buffalo’s Kensington Expressway without conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).   

Despite acknowledging the project’s potential to cause adverse environmental impacts and receiving feedback from advocates and community members expressing concerns, the NYSDOT has refused to study the environmental hazards fully and take action to mitigate them accordingly. 

“The NYSDOT’s refusal to thoroughly study the environmental impacts of the Kensington Expressway Project endangers the Humboldt Park neighborhood near the project site – a predominately Black community that has carried the burden of decades of environmental racism,” said Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, Director of NYCLU’s Racial Justice Center. “With this lawsuit, the first filed by the newly created NYCLU Racial Justice Center, we are upholding our commitment to right the wrongs of the past and ensure they do not repeat themselves. In Buffalo, this starts with the state conducting an Environmental Impact Statement. Despite the Governor, federal, and state officials misguidedly championing the Kensington Expressway as a national model, this project will only meet the moment if air quality protections and mitigation measures for impacted residents are provided without delay.”

The construction of the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo in the 1960s ripped through the majority Black Humboldt Park neighborhood, displacing residents and leaving a legacy of ongoing environmental health hazards. Today, the Humboldt Park neighborhood has some of the worst air quality and the highest rates of concentrated asthma in New York. 

Six decades after the Kensington Expressway was constructed, state officials are now promoting a redevelopment plan as a means to reconnect the community separated by the original construction. This is a great first step, however, there is strong evidence that the project will exacerbate the already-poor air quality in the Humboldt Park neighborhood, including increasing exposure to harmful particulate matter and other air pollutants linked to an increased risk of developing chronic respiratory diseases, cardiovascular problems and lung cancer.   

In February 2024, the NYSDOT completed a limited and flawed environmental assessment of the redevelopment project, which the agency used to justify its 2009 premature decision to forego an EIS. In its lawsuit, the NYCLU asks the court to force the NYSDOT to complete an EIS. It also requests that the court direct the agency to implement mitigation measures to protect residents from the increase in air pollution the project will cause in the predominantly Black and low-income community living near the construction site. 

The lawsuit includes plaintiffs and Humboldt Park residents Gwen Harris and James Ragland. Both live near the redevelopment project site.  

“Before the Kensington Expressway was built, we never heard anyone talk about respiratory illnesses. After construction, air quality was a huge concern for our families, and now today, I’m one of many who has asthma and lung cancer,” said Gwen Harris, an 81-year-old resident who lives 500 feet away from the redevelopment project. “This project should make us safer and healthier, not the opposite. If the state doesn’t study the environmental impacts and take action to reduce the harm, my life, and many others will be put further at risk.”  

The NYSDOT’s refusal to conduct an EIS and mitigate the increase in air pollution is in clear violation of the State Environmental Quality Review Act and the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The statutes are designed to protect vulnerable communities from further environmental harm. The laws mandate specific environmental considerations such as: requiring public participation, identifying potential negative environmental impacts, and requiring certification of mitigation measures where significant adverse impacts may occur.   

“As a child, I’d hear stories about ‘reconnecting the community’ that was torn apart by the building of the Expressway and witnessing its devastating impacts on my community. Having hosted a community meeting on the redevelopment project, I am hearing the same refrain,” said Aymanuel Radford, a Buffalo resident and organizer with NYCLU. “The highway tore apart Black neighborhoods and supercharged segregation, to the benefit of white people living in the surrounding suburbs. Without an EIS, this new project is repeating the awful mistakes of the past.”   

NYCLU staff on the case include attorneys Lanessa Owens-Chaplin, Ify Chikezie, Camara Stokes Hudson, Molly K. Biklen, and paralegal Alanis McAlmont. 

You can find case materials here:

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