The school sits directly across the street from an entrance to the Manhattanville Bus Depot. Every day, 380 city buses cruise in and out of the station. They are joined in an almost constant parade by hundreds of garbage trucks, which rumble up and down the same street on their way to dump their cargo at the River Front Marine Transfer Station that sits adjacent to the depot.
West Harlem has become a dumping ground not only for New York’s garbage, but for several other ecological hazards – a practice cited as environmental racism by Vernice Miller, co-founder of West Harlem Environmental Action (WHE ACT). Exhaust from buses and garbage trucks is inflicting life-threatening pollution on the community in which she lives. According to Miller, there are eight bus depots in the county of Manhattan – seven of them are in Harlem; all are exacerbating health problems in a community already predisposed to respiratory illness, especially asthma.
“The asthma rate in Harlem has risen 400 percent in the last 12 years, and the asthma mortality rate has risen 40 percent,” says Miller. “Respiratory problems are the single largest factor in emergency room admissions to hospitals.”
A stone’s throw north of the marine transfer station lies the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, a $2 billion dollar facility that stretches between 137th and 145th streets, blocking much of the neighborhood’s view of the Hudson River. Construction of the plant began not long after Earth Day 1970, but it didn’t go on line until 1986. In the interim, New York’s sewage was sent through a crumbling pipe system to treatment plants operating far beyond capacity. An average of 500 million gallons per day of untreated sewage was dumped directly into the Hudson River, the East River and New York Harbor.
Completion of the North River plant may have helped clean up the Hudson, but as soon as the facility came on line, air quality in die neighborhood surrounding it took a nose dive. At 11:30 one night in the fall of 1986, District Leader Peggy Shepard received her first complaint about noxious fumes in a phone call from a resident of the 1,400 unit, low-income housing co-op that rises above the Roberto Clemente Elementary School. Thus, the first organized struggle for environmental quality in West Harlem began.
Vernice Miller met Peggy Shepard in 1986 at a meeting of a Democratic club that Shepard had co-founded the year before. Shepard, an elected district leader, represents about 15,000 registered Democrats in her part of the assembly district. “I joined the club because the first night I went to a meeting, they were having a debate about the North River Sewage Treatment Plant,” says Miller. “It was obvious right off the bat that this was not your run-of-the-mill Democratic club. They were working on real issues that had an impact on real people’s lives.”
Two years later, Miller joined Shepard and Democratic club co-founder Chuck Sutton in launching West Harlem Environmental Action (WHE ACT), the only African American-founded environmental group in New York City. First galvanized by the North River Sewage Treatment Plant, WHE ACT now works to educate the community around the interconnectedness of a wide range of issues. With more than 100 members, WHE ACT serves as an advocacy group, a resource bank and a catalyst for “forward looking planning about what the community could and should be. ” Over the years, they have brought dozens of doctors, scientists, planners, social scientists and other experts to the community. In all its diverse programs, WHE ACT emphasizes the need for community controlled planning as the central ingredient to promoting environmental quality in West Harlem.
In Miller’s words, “Environment is what white people do; quality of life is where we live.”
Residents of the housing co-op above Roberto Clemente Elementary don’t need to look out the window to be reminded that they live across from a sewage treatment plant. A perpetual smell of rotten egg serves as sufficient reminder of their proximity to the facility, and has helped keep them inspired to get it fixed.
“The community organized, ” says Vernice Miller. “We held public hearings to try to find out why this plant was emitting these foul and noxious odors into our neighborhood. We sponsored demonstrations calling on the city to shut the plant down until they had it running right.” But under Mayor Ed Koch, the city’s administration stonewalled. The first breakthrough occurred in 1987, when then-Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins released a study documenting that hydrogen sulfide emissions from the plant exceeded state air quality standards. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide – a colorless, foul smelling gas – is known to cause respiratory problems and a range of eye problems, including conjunctivitis, excessive tearing and extreme sensitivity to light. After the plant opened, many residents in the apartment complex began complaining of shortness of breath and itchy eyes.
Since David Dinkins became mayor, the city has been somewhat more attuned to the community’s problems. The Department of Environmental Protection recently admitted that the plant has significant design flaws ( a position that WHE ACT has held from the outset) and has pledged $55 million to attempt repairs over the next three to five years.
“They are reconfiguring things,” says Miller. “The containment tanks that the sewage comes into in the primary and secondary treatment stages are open; now they are going to put fiberglass tops on everything,” says Miller. By and large, though, Miller feels the changes proposed are cosmetic and fail to address the planes fundamental design flaws. She says this so-called solution “never would have been proposed in a wealthy, white neighborhood.” Then again, she notes wryly, the plant wouldn’t have been sited in a white community in the first place. In fact, the plant was originally planned for the more wealthy and white Upper West Side of Manhattan, on West 72d Street. The intended site was moved up to West Harlem in the early 1960s, due in part to public opposition.
To help spur more timely and thorough action to repair the plant, WHE ACT has joined Natural Resources Defense Council, a nearby day-care center and five individual plaintiffs to bring suit against the plant in New York State Supreme Court as a public nuisance that diminishes property values in its vicinity. The suit calls for a definite time frame and guarantees of effective repair. In November, the city filed a motion to dismiss the suit.
In Miller’s eyes, the crowning irony of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant is that it is already operating at its federally allowed capacity of 170 million gallons a day – before Harlem and northern Manhattan communities have even had a chance to propose development projects designed to restabilize their local economy. Under the Clean Water Act, any development project must have a plan as to how it is going to treat the waste that it produces. The Clean Water Act also imposes a moratorium on new hook ups, once a plant reaches capacity.
Now the city is close to giving Donald Trump a green light on his new mini-city for the upper West Side, despite the fact that Trump’s proposed development has no sewage disposal plan. According to Miller, everyone expects that its sewage waste will end up at the North River plant. But not if WHE ACT can help it. WHE ACT has called for a moratorium on any development project below 110th Street on Manhattan’s West Side that would have to be hooked up to North River.
WHE ACT opposes Harlem becoming a dumping ground for garbage generated by development geared to profit wealthy investors. For Miller and Shepard, if a community shoulders the burden of environmental degradation associated with a project, it should at least be afforded benefits related to that development. WHE ACT’s programs link environmental protection with development, based upon the need for both a healthy environment and employment opportunities in African American and Latino neighborhoods. They support only “sustainable development” that serves the community rather than diminishing it.
WHE ACT has seen some victories. In July 1991, the Trinity Crematorium was shut down for spewing black ash and airborne mercury, the latter from incinerated dental fillings. It sat right across the street from an apartment building. “The mercury would just float right into these people’s apartments,” says Miller.
But even as one neighborhood environmental hazard is overcome, another waits in the wings. The city and Columbia University are planning to transform the historic Audubon Ballroom, site of the assassination of Malcolm X, into a biotech laboratory.
WHE ACT joined the effort to save the Audubon, calling in health and scientific experts who found the biotech project’s Environmental Impact Statement seriously lacking and enlisting legal representation in preparation for a court battle. If the Ballroom were to be redeveloped, Shepard argued that it should be a health clinic or day care center.
Here, WHE ACT counts a partial victory. In November, to coincide with opening of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, the city announced that it would spend $8.1 million to create a memorial to Malcolm on the site of the Audubon, retaining the facade of the building and the ballroom. On the second floor, the city also agreed to build a community health clinic.
Nevertheless, Columbia Presbyterian will be allowed to go forward and build its biotech research lab on the site, but behind the facade. According to Miller, environmental considerations connected with the new facility have been largely ignored. The leasing agreement that they have put forward does not specify the exact nature of the research that clients who rent from them will be doing. “There was no discussion of what they would be doing; how they would dispose of their waste; any kind of health impacts, if there is any kind of accident in the context of their research,” says Miller. “This is a very harmful situation, and again, it’s a cosmetic victory.”
Shepard and Miller see yet another siting battle looming on the horizon. They fear that the city is moving further from sustainable development and toward garbage incineration. Though one incinerator proposal has already been thwarted, Shepard – a member of the Mayor’s Solid Waste Advisory Committee – fears that with no significant reduction in disposable trash, an incinerator will become necessary. The city’s track record on siting makes this prospect extra frightening for West Harlem. “They can talk about an incinerator quick, fast and in a hurry,” adds Miller, while the recycling program has been slow to move. Harlem was the last community in Manhattan to get curbside recycling and still only collects newspapers.
Four years ago, when WHE ACT first formed, “We were all alone in New York City,” says Shepard. In those days, mainstream, white environmentalists didn’t seem to understand their issues. Over time, however, WHE ACT has developed contacts and support within environmental groups, though, Shepard asserts, “the commitment is not yet institutional.”
Speaking of some national environmental groups, Miller says, “I don’t think we have enough green stuff – trees and all. We don’t have any birds, except pigeons. Maybe we could get them to deal with us if we declared ourselves an endangered species.”
While feeling her work has done a lot to raise the consciousness of white environmentalists, Miller says, “I’m really glad that I helped you learn something, but are you going to do anything differently? Are you going to be less paternalistic in working with communities of color? Are you going to feel comfortable talking leadership from people of color?”
“What’s very heartening now is that there is a real strong environmental justice movement, gathering steam across the country,” says Shepard. Miller and Shepard were among 15 New York City delegates to the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit last October.
Miller sees the summit, which was organized by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, as a crucial step in building a multi-racial multi-cultural movement for environmental justice. While employed at the Commission, Miller helped to prepare the landmark “Toxic Waste and Race” report, which identified race as the single most common factor associated with the siting of toxic dumps nationally.
Among the summit’s highlights was the creative political tension resulting from cross cultural debates. Native Americans stated that “Their concerns were preeminent because this was their land,” asserts Miller, but African Americans felt the experience of being taken from their homeland and forced to work the land in slavery was as significant. Miller also points to differing perspectives brought by Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and Hawaiians as adding to debates that needed to take place.
Another source of tension was the urban/rural debate. She describes many southern African American activists as, “Thinking that the only environmental issue of concern is hazardous waste dumps.”
These are differences that must be explored not only nationally, but internationally as well. This past year, Miller worked intensively to ensure that concerns of communities of color in the United States were seriously addressed in preparations for last June’s United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro. Miller worked closely with the U.S. Citizens Network to bring together activists from all around the country at the fourth UNCED Preparatory Committee.
During the preparatory meeting, WHE ACT arranged toxic tours of environmental hazards in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, intended to help activists from around the country and United Nations staffers from around the world to see “up close and personal what they had only read about.” These efforts helped make connections between the North-South environmental debate and the movement for environmental justice in this country. However, when Miller participated in the Global Forum in Rio, she found that people from developing nations largely could not accept that in the wealthy U.S.A., “There are underdeveloped communities being environmentally destroyed.”
Peggy Shepard says, “They need to know we have a Third World right here.