By Tandy Lau

Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways Act (SIGH Act)—which bans constructing schools 500 feet from highways unless there’s special approval—this past Thursday, Dec. 23. The bill was passed by state legislatures earlier in the summer. 

The SIGH Act was drafted by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) and co-sponsored by State Sen. Rachel May (D-53) and Assembly Member Latoya Joyner in an attempt to combat long-standing environmentally racist urban design in a state ranked first in schools built within 500 feet of highways. 

“Governor Hochul’s veto of the SIGH Act is an enormous disservice to Black and brown communities who have suffered most from the devastating health and academic impacts of highway pollution,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in a statement. “We hoped the governor would heed the call of directly impacted students and residents, who have been organizing for years against this kind of systemic racism. 

“Despite this setback, we will continue to work to right the historic wrongs that ‘urban development’ has caused to Black and brown communities, particularly young people, so that students and their parents are able to focus on their education without worrying about the quality of the air they breathe.”

We will continue to work to right the historic wrongs that ‘urban development’ has caused to Black and brown communities, particularly young people, so that students and their parents are able to focus on their education without worrying about the quality of the air they breathe.

Donna Lieberman

Car pollution is the highest within the first 500 feet from the road, according to a 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report. Children exposed to this level of emission are particularly susceptible to risk of asthma, weaker lung function and stunted lung development. And the NYCLU found roughly 53% of Black and brown youngsters live within 500 feet of a “major roadway” in 2019. 

The NY Daily News reports city representatives pushed for Gov. Hochul’s veto of the SIGH Act due to the difficulty of placing new schools. The EPA notes further that commutes due to a school’s distance from a major road can expose youngsters to more car emissions than attending a campus that is within 500 feet of a highway. While the agency recommends locating schools away from pollutant sources, it also recommends including the proximity from the local community when planning to break ground for a new school. 

Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News.