Editorial by George Payne –
A January 21, 2016, New York Times article by John Elgin asked a provocative question about environmental racism and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan: “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?”
After months on the ground, U.S. Health and Human Services Regional Director Kathleen Falk, President Obama’s point person to examine the crisis, said, “The water was not safe. They knew that it was not safe, and they let them drink it…environmental racism was undeniably a factor.”
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 wealthy vineyard owners and retired white doctors and teachers? 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 managers and employees of the gas industry?
And what about the mainstream media? Would they have covered the movement with the same tone of seriousness and sympathy? Or would they have chosen to disparage the protesters?
Would the DEC have come to their aid with time consuming and expensive reports aimed at stalling the proposal or shrug them off as politically biased demonstrators who do not understand the geological and economic complexity of the issues?
In the end, why was Crestwood ultimately willing to look somewhere else to store their millions of gas barrels? Will they now find a community that they view as less sophisticated, less committed, and less resourced? Will they look to store their gas in a community that is poorer and darker?
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, I could not help but wonder if this outcome would have been different if it were not primarily organized and championed by middle and upper class whites.
George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of humanities at SUNY.