COVID-19, pollution and race: new health concerns for Nicetown

ByNydia Han and Heather Grubola WPVI logo
Sunday, April 19, 2020
COVID-19, Pollution and Race: New Health Concerns for Nicetown
COVID-19, Pollution and Race: New Health Concerns for Nicetown

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- According to a nationwide public health study, people in areas with high pollution levels are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 and that is devastating news for some of our most vulnerable communities.

Nicetown in Philadelphia is nestled under the Roosevelt Extension and it struggles to live up to its name.

"I have four daughters, ages 15, 12, 6 and 4. my 15 year old has asthma, and my six year old has severe asthma," said resident Sherita Bibbs.

That isn't unusual, as studies show 1 in 3 children in that neighborhood have asthma a significantly higher rate than anyplace else in the country; science shows a clear link between asthma and pollution.

"This particular community is already burdened with a lot of toxic exposures and a lot of disease," said Lynn Robinson of Neighbors Against the Gas Plants.

The EPA reports Nicetown has 75% more fine particle pollution and up to 95% more diesel exhaust compared to other communities across the country . And now SEPTA is putting a natural gas plant on the same property as the Midvale bus depot.

"Carbon monoxide, ultrafine particles, sulfur oxides, it puts up pollutants that cause, especially asthma, and cancer and heart disease," said Robinson.

Nicetown residents are predominantly black and low-income. Bibbs said that is no coincidence.

"And I totally feel like environmental racism is real. It's very real," she said.

Our 6abc data journalist looked at the rate of hospitalizations for children with asthma in Philadelphia and found stark racial and income disparities. Kids in predominantly black zip codes with the lowest median incomes are hospitalized at the highest rate. That includes the Nicetown zip code of 19140.

"It's like they're trying to kill us off quicker," said Bibbs.

And again, Nicetown has a new concern related to COVID-19.

Meantime, SEPTA said: It is "committed to being a good neighbor in Nicetown" and the new plant is "a key part of SEPTA's Sustainability Program" and "reduces the risk of climate change..."

SEPTA Statement - Midvale ESCO Project

The Midvale Combined Heat and Power (CHP) project is a key part of SEPTA's Sustainability Program, and both reduce the risk of and prepares for climate change. With this project, SEPTA will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent compared to base electricity supply, while at the same time improving the transportation system's overall resiliency to extreme weather associated with climate change.

The Midvale Complex is the only place the project could be built because it is the location where all of the power from SEPTA Regional Rail is fed from PECO.

Additionally, SEPTA commissioned a local air quality study that found the CHP adheres to all EPA air quality standards. By using the industry's best available technology, the study found that ground-level emissions from the facility will be virtually non-detectable at the fence line, using standard instrumentation for measuring air quality. Solar and wind are not viable options for this project. There is not enough room for wind infrastructure at Midvale, and solar would only provide a fraction of the power.

SEPTA is continuing to pursue renewable energy technology options in all facets of its operation. For example, solar panels will be installed at the Roberts Regional Rail Shop, next to Midvale, as part of a 3.1-megawatt project that will represent the second-largest solar installation in the City of Philadelphia, behind only the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. SEPTA is also an industry leader in hybrid electric-diesel buses. By 2021, 95 percent of all SEPTA buses will be hybrids. The Authority also introduced its first 25 electric buses into service in 2019. SEPTA also has plans to purchase 10 additional electric buses, which will be based out of Midvale.

SEPTA is committed to being a good neighbor in Nicetown, and in all the communities we serve.