Stand at the waterfront near Kent Avenue and Grand Street in Williamsburg, and you get an eyeful of both the neighborhood’s vitality and its industrial congestion. On one corner sits Radiac, a tidy one-story building that just happens to be a low-level radioactive waste facility. Across the street is Domino Sugar, its Dickensian brick building home to a bitter, nearly two-year union strike over issues that included accusations of asbestos poisoning. To the south there is the Norval Cement Plant and the Schaeffer Brewery. About a mile to the north is the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant.
Along the waterfront, there are high levels of lead in the ground and extensive contamination from waste-transfer stations, dry-cleaning plants, and coal-tar deposits. According to the the city’s Department of Health, the incidence of asthma in Brooklyn is four times the national average; of the five boroughs, it has the highest rate of two kinds of childhood leukemia.
Yet Williamsburg, home to thriving Hasidic, black, Polish, and Latino communities, a much-hyped new artists’ bohemia, multiple public and parochial schools, city parks, and several huge public housing complexes, has been targeted by the New York Power Authority—a state agency whose job it is to build power plants—and a private company that hopes to quietly site a power turbine and a power barge in the already beleaguered neighborhood.
In its environmental assessment, the Power Authority described the neighborhood as “industrial” and lacking “open space,” as if Williamsburg’s environmental travails justified even greater exploitation—it’s dirty, so let’s build more dirty things here. The privately funded power barge, NISA, is scheduled for Wallabout Channel nine blocks from the NYPA turbine. If the Power Authority and NISA succeed, they will bring the total number of power plants within a 10-block radius to three. These plants will annually blow hundreds of tons of additional airborne pollutants over preschools, yeshivas, public and parochial schools, and Independence Towers, home to an estimated 11,300 people.
The Power Authority argues that these plants, and additional ones planned for other working-class neighborhoods, are urgently needed to forestall a California-sized power crisis come summer 2001. But a burgeoning coalition of local activists disagrees.
A borough-wide network of neighborhood groups has formed to take on both the Power Authority and the agencies that issue the siting and air permits allowing them to fast-track turbine construction. Organized city-wide as CURE (Communities United for Responsible Energy), member organizations in Williamsburg include Williamsburg Watch, El Puente, Neighbors Against Garbage, and Stop the Barge. Together, they have filed suit in state supreme court to stay the building of the turbines pending environmental impact studies. In so doing, the issue of environmental justice has been placed front and center, as has the longtime practice of siting industry in low-income neighborhoods that already bear enormous industrial hardships.
“There has always been a lot going on in Williamsburg because things are so bad here environmentally,” says Deborah Masters, an artist and activist who is director of Stop the Barge and community liaison at the Newtown Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. “But the power plants have lit up people I would never have thought would be interested. We’re meeting all kinds of different people, and together we’re working on this thing that’s very important. It’s been a fabulous experience for me.
“I had experienced a lot of health problems myself as a result of pesticide poisoning,” says Masters. “Then I became an artist and I got cadmium poisoning from grinding paint off sculpture, which I had no idea about. Then I got lead poisoning from the Manhattan Bridge when they sandblasted it. That’s when I got really sick. I realized at some point that because I lived in a certain part of Brooklyn, basically I was poor, so the quality of the air I was breathing didn’t matter to anybody. I got empowered over the incinerator.”
Masters’s neighborhood has a history of environmental activism: For the past 20 years, community groups have been fighting battles throughout Williamsburg and Greenpoint, a combined area considered by the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Environmental Protection to be one of the most environmentally burdened 4.8 square miles in the nation. In the ’90s, residents from the area’s Hasidic and Hispanic communities formed an unlikely alliance to block construction of a garbage incinerator at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Toxic Avengers, part of the Latino community organization El Puente, drew attention to Radiac. The Watchperson Project, an organization formed to map environmental data in the area, was established after the state Department of Environmental Conservation fined the city $850,000 for leaking waste into Greenpoint’s already anaerobic Newtown Creek, a violation of the Clean Water Act. Neighbors Against Garbage (NAG) formed to fight waste transfer stations. The illegal lead-paint removal from the Williamsburg Bridge prompted a successful five-year lawsuit, though not before, according to two department of health studies, 375 Brooklyn children had been poisoned.
The New York Power Authority has gone to great lengths to reassure the public that the turbines are clean-burning, but what power plants emit and what the cumulative impact of those emissions will be on the air quality of a neighborhood are two very different things.
Eddie Bautista, director of Community Planning at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, whose attorneys are representing the community groups in their court cases, thinks the entire system needs an overhaul. “Groups have fought for years for environmental justice, against environmental racism. However you want to characterize it, it’s not enough to do a project-by-project environmental statement if you don’t determine cumulative impact.”
Though local news sources have characterized opposition to the turbines as just another NIMBY—Not in My Backyard—debate, Bautista vehemently disagrees.”It’s NIMBY when communities that are not overloaded environmentally don’t want a facility that’s polluting in their community because of property values. I’m not judging that, but there’s a clear difference between that and areas where there is worse air quality and higher asthma rates. This is the case with all of the neighborhoods in this suit.” In other words, it’s not NIMBYism if your backyard is already a Superfund site.
Ashok Gupta, a senior energy economist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, manages to remain both an optimist and a realist. “There’s a failure somewhere in the system. It’s always been easier for elected officials to get behind a building project than to get lots of people to change their behavior. We used to have a phrase: ‘Real men build power plants, real men don’t do energy efficiency.’ ”
Gupta agrees with activists in Williamsburg and across the city who say that additional electricity can be accessed without building new power plants. In response to power authority claims that the city is 380 megawatts short of anticipated power needs for summer 2001, he says, “To the extent that the state can say, ‘Let’s build turbines,’ and get it done, the state could choose to say, ‘We can look at all the state and city buildings in New York City and change the cooling systems and lighting and refrigerators and save 200 megawatts just like that.’ It can be done, it needs to be done, it has to be done. That’s part of what the fight is about.”