Environmental Racism and the Ultimate Losers of the We Are Seneca Lake Victory

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Photo: George Payne

After nearly 9 years of intrepid opposition waged by environmental activists, business owners, and concerned citizens throughout the Finger Lakes region, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has finally rejected a long pending plan to store propane gas in salt caverns on Seneca Lake’s western shore, denying the Houston based Crestwood Midstream Partners’ push for a permit to make the facility a reality. Yvonne Taylor of Gas Free Seneca said it best, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that David can’t beat Goliath.”

By all accounts, this was an extraordinary achievement for a grassroots movement that began with a few individuals who were willing to be arrested holding signs and linking arms. It took hundreds of demonstrations, countess letters to the editor, petition after petition,  giant caravans to Albany, and remarkable acts of civil disobedience. In the end, the people prevailed. Basil Seggos, the New York State’s environmental conservation commissioner, issued a 30 page ruling in which he concluded “The project is not permittable because it is inconsistent with the character of the local and regional Finger Lakes community.” In many respects, this was a precedent setting decision that could have an impact on communities fighting similar battles all across the country.

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Ruth Dan Yup´ik, indigenous Alaskan and student at the University of Rochester 11/05/16 From Iakaonne´tha ne oneka [Photo: David Kramer]

Yet as impressive as this victory is, and as delighted as I am to see the serenity and pristine quality of Seneca Lake preserved for future generations, as someone who is constantly thinking about the role of race in politics and social action, I could not help but wonder if this outcome would have been quite different if it was not primarily organized by white, middle and upper class individuals.

Here’s what I am getting at. A January 21, 2016, New York Times article by John Elgin asked a very provocative question about environmental racism and the Flint Water Crisis. Elgin wrote: “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?”

Kathleen Falk, President Obama’s point person to examine the crisis (as a U.S. Health and Human Services Regional Director), answered Elgin’s question directly. “The water was not safe. They knew that it was not safe and they let them drink it…When asked if environmental racism was a factor, the findings pointed to an unreserved and undeniable yes.”

With Flint as our symbol, what if an Ithaca, Rochester, or Syracuse contingent of the Black Lives Matter movement made Seneca Lake a rallying point for the national issue of environmental racism and injustice? What if young black students were lined up at the gates of the gas storage facility rather than retired white teachers and wealthy winery owners? Would their trespassing charges have been dropped so easily? Would they have been treated with the same care and respect by the state troopers and local police officers? Would they have been tolerated to the same degree by the employees of Finger Lakes LPG Storage?

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Photo: George Payne

And what about the mainstream media? Would they have covered the movement with the same tone of seriousness, accurate representation, and sympathy? Or would they have ignored the protests all together?

Would the DEC have come to their aid with time consuming and expensive reports or disregard them as ignorant demonstrators who do not understand the issues? What about the governor? Would he have rushed to their defense or would he have been apt to take the easy road and cater to the profitable demands of Big Oil and Gas?

To be fair, the reason that this campaign was successful had to do with its sophistication, mass support from all sectors of the Finger Lakes community, and courageous endurance. One could argue, why present a hypothetical that does not relate to the actual circumstances of the movement? Good question. But why is so much of the Finger Lakes region dominated by white people with white interests? Why was Crestwood ultimately willing to look somewhere else to store their millions of barrels of gas? Will they find a community that they view as less sophisticated, less committed to the cause of environmental health, and less resourced all around? Will they look for a community that is poorer and darker? What role did race play and not play in the outcome of the We Are Seneca Lake victory? Are any of those people celebrating wanting to ask the question?  Who will now pay the price for their win?

George Cassidy Payne is the Founder of Gandhi Earth Keepers International.

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Iakaonne´tha ne oneka