Tag Archives: Kieran K. Meadows

Gowanus Canal Designated a Superfund Site

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today declared Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal a Superfund site over the city’s objections and after considering the designation for almost a year.

On a morning conference call with reporters, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck announced that after holding over 50 meetings with city officials, community leaders and other interested parties, and receiving roughly 1300 public comments, the agency had decided to add the Canal to its National Priorities List (known as the Superfund program).

“We have determined that it is the most efficient and comprehensive cleanup,” Enck said.

The Gowanus Canal, which was built in the 1860s, has long been a heavily polluted industrial waterway, lined by coal manufactured gas plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, paint and ink factories, tanneries, cement makers and machine shops. Dangerous chemicals, coal tar sludge, pesticides, PCBs, and heavy metals are found in abundance in its sediment. Raw sewage and an oily sheen can be seen on its surface.

Superfund gives a federal mandate to the EPA to hold polluters accountable to pay for the cost of the cleanup. The EPA estimates that cleaning the contamination of the Gowanus Canal will cost approximately $300 to $500 million, and could take 10-12 years. Many Superfund sites have taken decades to clean up, due to years of litigation by companies defending against potential responsibility.

“The is not going to happen overnight,” Enck said, but added that it took decades for the Canal to become polluted so a cleanup that lasts one should be reasonable.

The debate in the neighborhood over whether to give the Canal Superfund status had been contentious. The Bloomberg administration had opposed the Superfund designation, claiming it would take too long and drive developers away. The city had instead proposed its own cleanup plan, which it said would not have taken as long due to voluntary agreements with past polluters to cover costs. In addition, it would have utilized funds from the federal Water Resources Development Act. Enck said her agency had concluded that not enough money would be available to take this path. She said there were limited funds available under WRDA and too much uncertainty in requiring annual Congressional approval of federal money.

Walter Mugdan, the Superfund director for the region, said that an agreement has already been reached with one of the potentially responsible parties (PRPs), National Grid, the successor company to Brooklyn Union Gas, which owned three manufactured gas plants along the Canal. Other PRPs include the City of New York, the U.S. Navy, Con Ed, Chemtura Corporation, Rapid American Corporation, Brinks, Beazer East, and Cibro Petroleum Products, with others to be identified in the coming months.

Enck also addressed the suggestion in recent weeks that development would be impeded by the Superfund listing. Pro-development and business groups have claimed that developers with sites within 3,000 feet of the Canal would have difficulty securing private financing and obtaining HUD and FHA-insured loans due to the stigma of a listing. “Unfortunately, there is already a stigma there,” she said. “I reject this as a reason why development can’t move forward.”

The EPA’s announcement clears the way for the next stage of the process to begin. The EPA says it hopes to complete a Remedial Investigation and an Ecological and Risk Assessment by the end of the year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Green/Sustainability, NYC, Politics

The governor’s power to grant clemency

Under the New York State Constitution, the governor has the power to grant clemency to prisoners “upon such conditions and with such limitation, as he may think proper” (excluding for crimes of treason or impeachment). Most states in the U.S. give the extraordinary power of clemency to governors (or at least in some hybrid arrangement with a parole board). The issue is currently in the news because of the recent shooting deaths of four police officers in Washington State, allegedly by Maurice Clemmons, whose prison sentence in Arkansas was commuted in 2000 by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee. The speculation is that the willingness of Huckabee, who ran an upstart presidential campaign in 2008, to grant clemency may hurt his presidential ambitions in 2012. It is in this context that I noticed an excellent post on The New York Times’ City Room blog on this very issue. It begins:

This month Gov. David A. Paterson will be mulling the fate of roughly 150 inmates in New York prisons who have formally applied for clemency in the hope of having their prison sentences shortened or their criminal convictions forgiven.

It is a traditional — if increasingly rare — holiday gesture of mercy. Over three and a half decades the number of inmates who have had their sentences commuted or convictions pardoned has steadily dropped.

The post’s author, A.G. Sulzberger, goes on to say that unfortunately, many governors now weigh the political consequences of granting clemency, particularly if they are to soon to go before the electorate. Prison advocates like Robert Gangi, director of the Correctional Association of New York, fear that this year, Gov. Paterson, facing low poll numbers and the upcoming election, will grant clemency to few, if any, inmates.

Similarly, in 2006, when then-Gov. George E. Pataki was mulling over a 2008 presidential run, he declined to grant clemency to any inmates.

One wonders then, whether he would have been willing to commute the prison sentence of Elaine Bartlett in 2000 if he had faced an upcoming election (his next was in 2002) or considered vying for a spot on the Republican presidential ticket that year. I recently finished the book,“Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett,” which tells Bartlett’s story of serving a 20-to-life sentence for a first-time drug offense under the Rockefeller Drug Laws until Pataki commuted her sentence after 16 years. It was tough enough for Bartlett to receive clemency when Pataki did not face the circumstances described above, so I can only imagine if he had. She probably would have served at least another four years, when in truth, she should have been granted clemency after ten (half of the minimum of the sentence). But in 1995, Pataki had just been elected in the mold of a “law-and-order” Republican — surely not someone who was going to be granting clemency.

But after watching this clip of Pataki last week — considered a dark-horse for the 2012 Republican presidential nod — drawing a contrast between his record and that of Huckabee, I get the feeling that Elaine Bartlett was lucky to have received a commutation at all.

1 Comment

Filed under Criminal Justice

NY high court rejects prison phone rate refund lawsuit

teljus_logo The New York State Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit last week brought by prisoners’ families seeking refunds for the exorbitant phone rates it cost them to speak to their loved ones behind bars. The class action suit, Walton v. NYSDOCS, was filed in 2004 by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of prisoners’ families and friends, who for years had paid inflated rates for collect calls due to the state’s monopoly contract with MCI/Verizon.

Lawyers for the families said that the excessively high rates amounted to an unfair and “unlawful tax” that resulted in millions of dollars being paid over a number of years. The prison telephone service contract stipulated that MCI pay the state 57.5 percent of the fees received from prisoners’ collect calls. Then MCI would be allowed to charge well over the market rate: a $3 connection surcharge and between 16 and 36 cents per minute. The rate of a collect call from a federal prison is 7 cents per minute. Most of New York’s calls are from prisons upstate to loved ones in New York City.

Mostly due to the long struggle waged by the New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, upon arrival to office in 2007, Gov. Eliot Spitzer halted the arrangement. Rates then fell to about half of what they had been. In June 2007, the state Legislature made Gov. Spitzer’s decision into a law, the Family Connections bill.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said that families were paying up to $300 or $400 per month to speak to their loved ones who were incarcerated. Since 1996, they said, the state had collected about $200 million in profits from kickbacks outlined in the phone service arrangement with MCI. The lawyers maintain that families are owed compensation for this unnecessary burden.

The high court’s 5-1 decision affirmed a lower court’s ruling that the families had failed to assert a legitimate claim under the the state Constitution. The court said the the policy was bad, but not unconstitutional.

1 Comment

Filed under Activism, Criminal Justice

NYCLU files lawsuit seeking access to info about police shootings

The New York Civil Liberties Union sued the NYPD last week to obtain more information and facts about police shootings. The organization is seeking access to two internal police reports: one prepared immediately after a shooting of a civilian, and the other, a more detailed report completed within a few months of the incident.

The NYCLU has filed multiple Freedom of Information Law requests over the last three years—since police shot and killed an unarmed Sean Bell in Queens in November 2006—seeking annual statistical reports about shootings since 1996, as well as data on the race of the victim. The police department produced the reports, but stopped releasing information about race after the 1998 report, at about the time officers shot and killed an unarmed Amadou Diallo in the Bronx in February 1999. Nearly nine out of ten shooting victims in 1996 and 1997 were black or Latino.

Also last week, The New York Times reported that the NYPD released a report showing police officers fired their guns about 16 percent less last year than the previous year. The police report also said that 97 percent of the shooting victims in 2008 were black or Latino.

Despite the year-to-year drop in police gunfire, over the weekend, three officers fatally shot a teenager in Queens 11 times. Police said they spotted 18-year-old Dashawn Vasconcellos and two others leave a city park after hours and a chase ensued. The officers fired 14 rounds after they said Vasconcellos pointed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol at them.

Meanwhile, the NYCLU also says that the NYPD is on track to stop a record number of New Yorkers this year, according to new stop-and-frisk data. The organization says if the current pace continues, 535,000 innocent New Yorkers will have been stopped and interrogated by police by the year’s end.

Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, Criminal Justice, Law, NYC, Race

Documentary film about lawyer William Kunstler opens in New York

KUNSTLER_Emily_Sarah_2008_Disturbingtheuniverse_0_posterThis weekend, the documentary film, “Disturbing the Universe,” about self-described radical lawyer William Kunstler, has its New York City premiere at Cinema Village. The film, directed and produced by two of his daughters, Emily and Sarah, for their production company, Off Center Media (which produces documentaries exposing injustice in the criminal justice system), takes a personal look at a man who was known for representing often controversial defendants from the Civil Rights era until his death in 1995. The film was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’ve seen some excerpts in an interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler on Democracy Now!. One of the defendants that Bill Kunstler represented was one of the alleged teenage suspects in the Central Park Jogger case from 1989. Yusef Salaam (who is interviewed in the film) was convicted and spent more than five years in prison for a crime he did not commit (he was exonerated in 2002 when the actual attacker confessed and matched a DNA sample).

The Central Park Jogger case was infamous in 1989 and shock and outrage followed the arrests of the teens. Headlines referred to them as a “wolfpack.” As the teens were convicted in the court of public opinion, Kunstler decided to take the case, as he had taken many others in the past. Unfortunately, he passed away before he could see Salaam be exonerated.

Yesterday, news came from the Justice Department that a number of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, will be brought to New York to face trial in a civilian court. This news has caused the same, if not more, hyperbolic reaction that the Central Park Jogger case did 20 years ago. So I wonder if Bill Kunstler, if he were still alive today, would have represented Mohammed, the self-proclaimed terrorist and mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I think, considering he represented the so-called Blind Sheikh for his role in the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center, that Kunstler would. But maybe not. Speaking in 1970 on why he didn’t represent right-wing groups, he said, “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.” It is true though, that in later years, he would take on cases when he felt a defendant was convicted before the case reached the courtroom. Clearly then, he was a principled advocate who believed in the rule of law, the legal justice system, and the rights of all, no matter how controversial, despised or hated.

Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, Criminal Justice, Law, Media/Journalism, NYC

Police panel to look through lawsuits for bad apples in blue

The New York City Police Department has put together a review panel to look through civil lawsuits that allege police misconduct in order to find out if cops are committing perjury, or are involved in corruption or other wrongdoing. This, all according to the Daily News.

According to the report, in fiscal year 2008, the city paid out $103 million to settle lawsuits against the NYPD. This figure includes $35 million to settle lawsuits that specifically alleged misconduct.

Apparently this panel will increase accountability among the ranks; under the old system, if an individual sued for false arrest, and it comes out in the lawsuit that the officer had lied under oath, the police department might never find out. The city’s Law Department handles settling suits — which sometimes saves the city money by not going to trial — and the NYPD is not involved. Now, with the creation of this police panel, that will change.

But some civil liberties advocates say that this move doesn’t go far enough. In the article, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the NYCLU, says that the panel will not being looking at “nuisance” cases — those suits that are settled for small amounts, usually $10,000 or $20,000 — and that this will undermine the whole effort by the department to root out the bad apples in blue.

It’s interesting that this news is becoming public just days after the re-election of Mayor Mike Bloomberg to the third term. The police union endorsed Bloomberg this year — and the kind of review committee talked about here is not something the union would likely favor.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Justice, Law, NYC

NYPD accused of racial profiling — by other members of the NYPD!

Most of the time, when we think of racial profiling, we think of an incident in which white cops stop (and-frisk, search, or at times do something worse to) a black or Latino individual. The usual back-and-forth ensues: the victim claims he was racially profiled, and the NYPD says that its officers don’t engage in racial profiling.

Therefore it was fascinating to see a story in the Daily News this past week in which those charging the NYPD with bias—were themselves members of NYC’s Finest.

Three hate crime task force detectives — two black, one Pakistani — were going to door-to-door in the predominantly white Gravesend section of Brooklyn as they investigated a possible hate crime. The three, Faisal Khan, Stephon Garland, and Gregory Wilson were wearing suits at the time.

Next thing they know, according to the report, about 15 members of the Shomrim Jewish Community Patrol show up accusing them of impersonating police officers. Of course, the detectives dispute this. The situation escalates and eventually officers from the 61st Precinct arrive and demand to see the detectives’ identification.

The Daily News reports that a tense profanity-laced argument followed between the detectives and the white uniformed officers. This escalated into what almost became a physical fight and apparently both men had to be restrained.

In the end, Detective Garland felt “he was treated in a disrespectful manner because of the color of his skin,” the report states. Now the NYPD brass is investigating the confrontation to see if there were violations of department rules on either side.

Unfortunately, stories like this one echo other recent incidents, all of which would imply some sort of racial profiling going on, if at the least, sub-conscious on the part of the white officers:

The question remains: are plainclothes or off-duty officers and detectives of color subject to racial profiling? As Daily News’ Columnist Errol Louis has noted, you never see the headline ‘Black cop shoots white cop.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Criminal Justice, NYC, Race