Public Housing Tenants Struggle Against the ‘Slow Violence’ of Industrial Pollution
NYCHA residents in Brooklyn say their debilitating health problems are caused by industrial pollution — but it’s nearly impossible to prove.
This story is published in partnership with Capital B, a nonprofit news site covering Black America. Follow them on Twitter.
Elisha Fye jokes that he was a member of the “true little rascals” while growing up in the New York City Housing Authority’s Cooper Park Houses in North Brooklyn’s industrial corridor. The expansive 700-apartment housing project was erected in 1953, and Fye’s family moved in that same year when he was 6 months old.
“Back in the day, they had this big cobblestone hill behind Cooper Park,” remembers Fye, whose neighbors know him as E.W. “We used to convert baby carriages into crash mobiles and go down it. We had a ball.”
The little rascals didn’t know that they were playing on one of the country’s most toxic sites, just a few hundred yards from where they laid their heads every night. Beneath that cobblestone hill — now a baseball field — lies the remnants of a 17-million-gallon oil spill, the largest in U.S. history.
And Cooper Homes is affected by another Superfund site, the federal designation of the country’s most contaminated locations: a miles-wide plume of highly toxic chlorinated chemicals that seeped into the soil from companies operating in the area’s 150-year-old industrial park.
The baseball field has not been used since 2010 because of dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the soil.
“All this time, here we were as kids just playing in it,” said Fye, who requires an oxygen tank to breathe for much of the year. “I spent years looking at these factories and gas tanks without any understanding.”
But Cooper Park’s environmental struggles are not just an issue of the past. Just beyond the hill-turned-baseball field sits one of the region’s largest liquified natural gas plants, a refinery for methane owned by National Grid, a U.K.-based energy company. The utility has proposed a $70 million expansion after recently completing construction of a 7-mile-long methane pipeline, a plan that has sparked vocal opposition from residents and activists.
The environmental and financial burdens of the project would fall on the community, opponents say, with more pollution and higher energy rates to benefit a company that posted more than $20 billion in revenue last year.
Cooper Park is not unique. Roughly 70% of all Superfund sites are located within a mile of public housing. Black folks are disproportionately impacted, representing 45% of residents living in the more than 9,000 federally subsidized properties in contaminated areas.
Cooper Park resident Karen Leader believes that allowing toxic industries to operate in low-income Black communities should be treated as a “race massacre,” but the federal government has been slow to address the problem.
In April, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Housing and Urban Development released an updated plan to ensure residents “are not exposed to contamination above acceptable levels.” It is rare, however, for the agencies to relocate people from hazardous locations or to curb industrial pollution, though HUD’s regulations require the agency to provide tenants with a safe and healthy place to live.
Today, Cooper Park is smack dab in the middle of one of New York City’s most important transit corridors, flanked by scrapyards and landfills. Residents are exposed to more diesel pollution than 98% of the American population.
During two 10-minute periods on a Wednesday afternoon in November, Capital B counted 52 garbage trucks, 18-wheelers, and scrap metal haulers driving by the housing projects. Even in the cold, Leader explained, “you can feel the exhaust and dust caught in your throat.”
Roughly 30% of residents in the census tract where the Cooper Park Houses are located report having “poor health,” double the ZIP code’s average. The city Health Department says residents in the census tract are diagnosed with lung cancer at a rate that is twice what is expected.
Various factors create these hubs of sickness, where poverty, limited healthy food options, and high rates of stress collide with inadequate access to health insurance. Industrial pollution adds another layer of harm that can produce debilitating effects for an entire neighborhood.
But in the United States, the legal avenues for environmental clean-up and restitution are limited. A successful lawsuit requires proof that a company negligently polluted a community and its emissions are responsible for certain health outcomes.
That’s difficult in a place like north Brooklyn, which has been home to various oil, gas, and chemical companies for nearly 200 years. It’s made even more challenging by the country’s approach to industrial pollution, which allows businesses to self-report their emissions, with little verification from the EPA.
Though total emissions from the industrial park surrounding Cooper Park have steadily decreased since the early 2000s, residents have shared fears about the long-lasting impact of heavy pollution on those who lived there in the 20th century. In the late 1980s, air pollution in Cooper Park’s neighborhood was 60 times greater per square mile than the average for the United States, according to a 1992 study by Hunter College. More than 75% of the emissions at the time were “carcinogens or reproductive toxins or both.” The EPA says long-term exposure to pollution can affect people decades later, as some toxins can survive in the body for years after exposure.
Because these health ailments likely result from a poisonous brew of factors over many years, elected officials, large companies, and mega-polluters can evade accountability. Meanwhile, the most marginalized residents live through the debilitating fallout of “slow violence,” a term coined by Princeton University professor Rob Nixon to explain how overlapping social harms gradually kill people.
“I have to use an oxygen tank. Over the last 20 years, I’ve had unexplainable experiences where I’ve needed to go to the hospital and have had extensive recovery where I had to use a walker for months at a time,” said Fye. The 70-year-old, who doesn’t smoke, attributes his health issues “to breathing this toxic air over my entire life, but there is no one to take responsibility.”
‘An Environmental Monster’
When Cooper Park residents talk about the environmental harm in their community, one company’s name is repeatedly mentioned: National Grid.
The energy giant is at the center of two federal civil rights investigations because of the disparate impact of its operations on Brooklyn’s Black and Latino neighborhoods. The Cooper Park Houses Resident Council and other community organizations have also filed a civil lawsuit.
The company’s new pipeline, which transports methane gas from Pennsylvania to two preexisting National Grid pipelines in Brooklyn, carves through multiple historically Black neighborhoods, bypassing most of the borough’s majority white neighborhoods before ending at Cooper Park’s doorstep.
National Grid asserts that the new pipeline and proposal to build two additional vaporizers, which house liquified natural gas at its Greenpoint plant in North Brooklyn, is necessary to meet winter energy demands. During the warm periods of the year, liquified natural gas is stored at the plant, and when temperatures drop, vaporizers warm the liquid back into a gas, which passes through distribution infrastructure to homes throughout the city.
Karen Young, a spokesperson for the company, said the new vaporizers will only be required for two weeks each year and will help “decrease direct emissions from the facility,” while “play[ing] a vital role in delivering clean, affordable energy to customers in the future.”
The fossil fuel industry has pushed natural gas as a more climate-friendly energy alternative to coal, needed to help bridge the gap from oil to renewable energy sources. However, environmental advocates note the damaging climate and public health impacts of the fuel, which is a major emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
In November, independent consultants deemed National Grid’s vaporizer expansion unnecessary because it would extend natural gas production beyond the current trajectory of demand. A December report by the Applied Economic Clinic found that National Grid’s proposal adds new health risks, including possible leaks and transportation accidents, for “vulnerable families already overwhelmed with environmental and financial burdens.”
The expansion needs the approval of the state Public Service Commission, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the governor’s office.
In a letter to Capital B in November, Cooper Park Resident Council’s five-member executive team wrote, “We are contaminated by more than a century of industrial waste, harmful chemicals, and raw sewage … contribut[ing] to respiratory diseases and eventually early deaths to many Cooper Park Houses residents. [If National Grid’s proposal] is to proceed, the lives of many of our residents, our neighbors, particularly our asthma patients, children, and our pets will be at risk.”
Young told Capital B that while National Grid is “aware that there has been some opposition to the Greenpoint vaporizer project, especially from some activists,” they “do not believe that [the opposition] speaks for the whole community.”
The gas supplied through the pipeline and stored at the LNG plant will largely fuel homes outside of Brooklyn, according to National Grid, though local residents are helping to fund the construction through higher monthly bills. The increase follows a national trend: A 2021 study found that Black and Latino Americans pay more for utilities than white Americans, even when using less electricity.
“It’s an environmental monster that, on top of that, folks have to pay for it. It’s not even servicing us, nor did we, the community, ask for that,” said Fabian Rogers, a community organizer raised in Brooklyn’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood, where the new pipeline begins. “National Grid has shown outright entitlement without any guilt.”
In November, National Grid attempted to defray some of the cost burden by donating $6 million to “help disadvantaged customers pay their winter heating bills,” according to Young.
Rogers, who has advocated for public-run utilities and a payment strike against National Grid’s rate hike, said that financial support doesn’t do much to ease the company’s negative impacts.
“They believe that they can take advantage of our community as a way to fatten their pockets,” he said, “even if we don’t want them here and are yelling that they’re harmful to us.”
‘Who Is Responsible?’
Fye gleams with pride for his home, serving as vice president of the housing project’s resident council. But the honor has come at a cost. His relatives who grew up in Cooper Park — including his siblings, nieces, and nephews — have a history of congenital disabilities, asthma, and kidney failure. Fye himself is a recipient of a double kidney transplant.
While it is difficult to prove that pollution directly caused an individual health issue, studies have shown that dirty air easily slips past our body’s defenses, infiltrating our blood stream, respiratory, and circulatory systems, and damaging our lungs, heart, and brain. A study from the World Health Organization found that nearly one third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease are due to air pollution.
Fye has learned, however, that knowing this information doesn’t necessarily mean change and restitution will happen. “I know what living next to a gas company and on top of chemicals has done to me — we all know,” he explained. “But how do we prove who is responsible?”
The inability to pinpoint absolute culprits allows environmental harms to continue plaguing Black communities despite a supposed shift toward cleaning up our environment and energy sources. In the U.S., the use of clean energy sources has tripled over the last decade, but emissions have not wavered, rising by 6% between 2020 and 2021.
Anastasia Gordon, energy and transportation policy manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, says this is attributable to a simultaneous rise in new natural gas projects. Across the country, natural gas projects are sharply outpacing the phasing out of coal and oil projects, so while individual projects are cleaner, they add up to more pollution.
“Yes, [natural gas] is cleaner than coal, but it’s still a fossil fuel. It still emits not just carbon pollution, highly potent greenhouse gasses, but also particulate matter, which causes egregious forms of environmental injustices, and causes cancer, lung disease, and premature death,” said Gordon, a former environmental policy analyst with the government of Trinidad and Tobago.
The expansion of natural gas over the past few years has been buoyed by strategic lobbying from fossil fuel companies and electric utilities, Gordon said. Since 2016, these companies have spent more than $1.7 billion lobbying U.S. energy policies, like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
Last year, as Democrats struggled to pass meaningful climate policy, energy companies opposed some of the party’s cornerstone proposals, including raising fees for oil and natural gas companies’ methane emissions and increasing incentives to buy electric vehicles.
Industry leaders, such as Chevron and Koch Industries, are also some of the country’s largest political donors, having given more than $445 million to politicians since 2016, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit organization that tracks political donations. The donations have largely skewed toward conservative benefactors, with 73% of donations from energy companies ending up in Republican coffers.
This year, National Grid has spent more money lobbying political issues than nearly 95% of all organizations in the United States. The energy company is a leading member of the American Gas Association, which opposes U.S. federal and state climate policy and advocates for the long-term role of fossil gas. Recently, the AGA has led the charge against a $4.5 billion rebate program slated to give low- and moderate-income families as much as $14,000 per household to install electric-powered heaters and stoves. The association favors the continued use of appliances using natural gas, which can leak nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and methane into homes.
In each state that National Grid operates — Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts — the company has directly opposed landmark climate proposals since 2020, according to Lobby Map, a database of lobbying actions of climate policy. The company recently opposed Massachusetts’ 2021 climate bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and Rhode Island’s Affordable Clean Energy Security Act of 2022. In New York, the energy company helped create a “front group” called “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy” to oppose the state’s bill to phase out gas appliances in New York households.
A History of Neglect
Seven decades of living in the Cooper Park Houses has turned Fye into a historian. He survived the racial violence permeating the historically Polish and Italian community surrounding Cooper Park, where white street gangs, primarily made up of teenagers and early 20-somethings, routinely patrolled the block in the 1950s and ’60s. He lived through de-industrialization in the 1970s, watching doughnut and toy factories pack up and leave, taking residents and jobs with them. He watched his community lose a “whole generation of Black people” to the war on drugs. And most recently, he watched the drastic change in the area, which is the fastest gentrifying in New York City.
The common thread, he says, is neglect for the area’s Black residents. As it tends to go, the neglect started nearly 400 years ago when the first settlers, who were slave owners, arrived in North Brooklyn. Slave labor was used to “drain the swampy land and clear the brush,” paving the way for farming, shipbuilding, and the industrial haven that has sickened Fye and Cooper Park residents.
“National Grid is just falling in line,” Fye said, “and with [the area’s residents] being so beat down by the political aspect of the world, they expect it will be more of the same, more of giving us the short end of the stick.”
Fye’s pragmatism about the historical battle that Cooper Park is facing helps ground his community’s fight. He and other residents don’t believe financial investment from National Grid — namely its utility bill support and partnerships expanding green spaces — will not erase decades of racism and targeted oppression against Brooklyn’s Black residents.
“The offers these companies make are not even a Band-Aid; it’s less than a Band-Aid. It’s an insult,” he added. “They’re quick to plant more trees, but if they really wanted to give back to the community, they’d help us put solar panels on the roofs, give us windmills — let us be self-sustaining, so we don’t have to depend on their gas and oil.”
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