Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Environmental justice: so far, just words on paper

Recently I've been thinking about Lois Gibbs. Remember her and Love Canal? In 1978 Lois found out that her child's school-- in fact, her whole neighborhood-- was built on Occidental Petroluem's toxic waste dump. Three solid years of community organizing eventually got then-President Carter to relocate 900 families from her community. That gives me a little hope. We're only a year and a half into our organizing here in Springfield, Massachusetts to stop construction of a biomass incinerator. The tough part is we're doing everything right and so far, it hasn't seemed to make a difference-- maybe that's just the way it goes until we win. We do have quite a few more cards up our sleeve. Nothing, from lawsuits and lobbying to direct action and civil disobedience, is off the table.

On Friday, we got the bad news from the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Agency (oxymoron) that the agency is not going to require a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR) of Palmer Renewable Energy's incinerator proposal-- this in spite of more than 450 comments submitted by area residents asking for the full study. You can read the decision here. This could put the proposal on a very fast track-- I think they only need an air permit from the state to start breaking ground-- that and the continued approval of the Springfield City Council.

OK, I'm scared and fighting mad. Our group, Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield, isn't against this plant simply because of some intangible though legitimate fear of global warming. We're talking about our quality of life-- indeed our very lives themselves.. One in seven children in Springfield has asthma. Our kids' asthma rate is higher than Worcester and Boston, and 65% higher than the state average. We know that air pollution affects everyone, especially those with heart and lung disease. Hospital admissions climb on bad air days. And a new study from Boston Children's Hospital finds a strong correlation between air pollution and and an increase in Type 2 Diabetes, even when all other factors are accounted for and even when the pollution is within EPA guidelines and acceptable limits..

And herein lies the problem: "Acceptable limits" are not the same as safe limits; what's acceptable to the state doesn't mean people won't get sick in Springfield. I got the bad news about no EIR from David Cash, Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. He kept talking about how the pollution from the plant-- which is undisputed-- was within acceptable threshholds, did not violate regulations, blah blah blah, and besides that, the developer intend to give $2 million to the city, mostly for "mitigation strategies!"

And what is a mitigation strategy, you might ask? That's where the developers get to make your child sick while paying for heath education for somebody else's child. It's supposed to all come out in the wash. But even if it were true that the negative health impacts from this plant could be offset by two million bucks, which I don't believe for a minute, we have no power over which children and adults get sicker and which get better. Hey, we don't live our lives on paper and in statistics, we're real people here.

Cash said I could ask him any questions I liked, but I have emailed him three times with these two questions and so far have had no response:
  • Forgetting about allowable limits, regulations, etc., can you say unequivocally that this plant will cause no harm to anyone who lives in the Springfield area? Yes or no.
  • If the answer to the first question is no, can you say unequivocally that any negative health impact will be entirely offset by PRE's mitigation strategy? Yes or no.

One issue MEPA clearly doesn't have a handle on is the cumulative effect of pollution. Stopping biomass incinerators isn't just a Springfield fight; residents of Greenfield and Russell have been fighting off plants, too. And it's not just Massachusetts-- tonight we heard from a group in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, which is fighting a plan by the same developers to burn 900 tons of tires a day to produce energy! Check out Crawford Area Residents for the Environment. The woman who contacted us from their group said that looking at our group's website was like looking in the mirror.

So what do we do next? We're looking at some legal strategies, but our big focus for the moment is on the Springfield City Council, which has the power to stop this plant by revoking its original permit. I've heard from several councilors, as well as from Mayor Sarno, that it's all in the state's hands. Well, the state has dropped the ball. I wrote about the last, very disappointing city council meeting, but the next meeting, on December 13, will be significant if not decisive. City Councilor Mike Fenton and several others are sponsoring a resolution calling for a public hearing, but at this point, with PRE now on the fast track, I think we're going to need something a lot stronger, something that actually stops PRE from breaking ground before the end of December.

In June of 2009, maybe fifty people (most in the city administration) knew about PRE's incinerator proposal. Now thousands of people know, and 99.9% oppose it. But now is not the time to oppose the plant just in your head. Call city hall at 787-6000 and ask for the mayor's. Call your ward councilor and all the at-large councilors-- you can get their numbers on the city council's webpage. Call Helen Caulton-Harris, Health and Human Services Director, at 787-6740, and tell her to find a way to stop this. Call Secretary of Environmental and Energy's Ian Bowles' office-- whosae decision it was nmot to require an environmental impact report, at. 617.626.1000. And Call the Governor's office-- 617.725.4005, 888.870.7770 (in state).

Most important, turn up at City Council on Monday, December 13, and let your councilors know it's time to stand up for the people of Springfield. And if you want to come to our planning meetings, let me know. The more of us fighting, the more likely we are to win.

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