The Clean Water Blog

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Campaigning for Environmental Justice

You can't fight City Hall. We'll never make a difference. The government doesn't care about us. Our voice isn't strong enough.

There are times in environmental battles when communities can start to feel this way. However, community organizing can play a critical role in bringing people together to rise up and make a difference. That's why I'm proud to be a community organizer with Clean Water Action. This past weekend, I had an incredible opportunity to work with activists in Staten Island who - like other seaport residents across the nation - are fighting for their health and environmental justice. You can read more about this in a recent Washington Post article which features Clean Water Action's environmental justice organizer Kim Gaddy.

Residents of Staten Island's North Shore have been subjected to the ongoing closures related to construction and raising of the Bayonne Bridge. The roadway is being raised 64 feet to provide clearance for supersized Panamax ships that are planned to dock at the Ports of Newark and Elizabeth. This project was originally slated for completion in 2016, but was very recently extended another two years. One might imagine that this would be little more than an inconvenience for local residents and commuters. All they'd have to do is reroute their commutes and deal with a little more traffic, right? Wrong.

The effects of the Bayonne Bridge raising has had an appalling impact on the health and quality of life of Staten Island residents. The bridge construction has brought with it a myriad of different hardships for the North Shore community. Choking and eye-tearing air quality is just the tip of the iceberg. Lead paint chips are falling on the ground, then inadvertently ingested or inhaled by pets and people. Contaminated soil is being disturbed and creating dust with few, if any, safeguards.

If that wasn’t enough, construction debris has landed on homes and cars. Concrete barriers have narrowed streets to the width of one car, making it extremely difficult for residents to drive in and out of their own driveways. Of greatest concern to the community, however, is the lack of respect they've been shown throughout the entire project.

That's when we stepped in and partnered with a local group, the Northshore Waterfront Conservancy of Staten Island to form a coalition to combat these issues from both the New York and New Jersey sides of the bridge. We held trainings for Staten Island residents on effective canvassing.

We recently joined them in going door-to-door campaign to gather signatures for our petition to New York Governor Cuomo. The petition urges Governor Cuomo to visit the construction site and meet with community residents and groups; establish medical testing, monitoring and assistance programs, set up a fund to compensate the community for financial hardships caused by the project, and demand that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey develop an effective mitigation plan for environmental impacts felt by the residents.

Throughout the day, I was struck by how many individuals were not only happy to see that someone was paying attention to their concerns, but also how many wanted to become actively involved in the campaign. The unexpected positive response was invigorating. Engaging with a community that is so optimistic and positive in the face of such hardship was a truly inspiring and humbling experience. Every one of us should strive to embody this community's willingness to get out there and create the changes they want to see in the world.

You can fight city hall!