Harlem's Million Dollar Environmental Battle

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[Harlem News]

New York State Senator Bill Perkins and State Assemblyman Herman Farrell are backing efforts by Community Board 9 in Harlem to obtain over a million dollars in a fund administered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in order to develop water-related projects in West Harlem.

There is currently an estimated $1.1 million in the North River Environmental Benefits fund that came from fines that the conservation agency had levied on the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) during the last decade, including violations related to the North River Wastewater Treatment Plant on 144th Street and the Henry Hudson Parkway. The Community Board alleges that the protection agency is most recently responsible for safety code violations in the wake of the July fire at the plant.

“The money is owed to us because the plant was built in our neighborhood and we’ve been carrying that burden for the west side of Manhattan for decades,” said Brad Taylor, first vice-chair of Community Board 9.

The DEP hired an outside agency to analyze the cause of the fire but the report is yet to be published and the agency has refused to comment. “Were going to push to have that report moved faster,” said Senator Perkins. “They’re taking too long and it’s raising credibility concerns. We don’t want to wait until there’s another crisis. The community has been very supportive and now they’re exercising good community activism. There are financial consequences to not resolving the issue but more importantly there are environmental consequences.”

“I fully support the boards efforts at getting that money to reinvest in the area,” added State Assemblyman Farrell.

Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, sued the DEP in 1988 for operating the plant as a “public and private nuisance.” The suit was settled in 1994 and WE ACT was awarded $1.1 million. “I recently sent letters to the protection agency and the conservation agency protesting the fact that the money has not been spent despite the task force and the years of meeting to develop projects,” said Shepard.

She added that the commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation agency, Joe Martens, is “pulling the implementation of the protection agency’s projects back because it has refused to address public engagement.”

The fire, which began on July 20 in the fuel room of the plant, sent plumes of smoke 30 feet into the air, closing parts of the highway and evacuating 1,000 people from Riverbank State Park, which is built on the roof of the plant. Taylor estimated that by the end of the day, hundreds of millions of gallons of partially treated sewage water had spewed into the Hudson River.

“When I toured the plant after the fire, I saw design flaws from start to finish,” said Taylor, the first vice-chair at Community Board 9. “There was a lot of spaghetti work with the cables and general common-sense oversights, like no walls separating pumps, so that if one pump catches fire, it immediately takes the rest of the pumps with it along with the control system.”

Taylor wanted to know why, for example, water sprinklers were not installed in the fuel room.

How serious was the fire? “Purple-K, the chemical for powder extinguishers, was used to treat the fire because water would not suffice for this kind of fire,” said Jim Long, an active firefighter who also works in the FDNY’s press office in Brooklyn.

State Senator Mark Grisanti spoke in October at a hearing hosted by the New York State Senate Environmental Conservation Committee. Grisanti, the chairman of the committee, said he wants to bring about a better system to notify the people and parks of New York City if water has been polluted. “We must continue to seek new ways to reduce sewage discharges into the Hudson River and its tributaries and improve public notification procedures when discharges occur,” said Grisanti at the hearing.

The frustration in the wake of the fire is just another chapter in a storied history of the plant. It began operating in 1986 and the park opened in 1993 as a concession from the state to Harlem for agreeing to host the plant. According to Taylor, the state has yet to make good on a number of promises it made for the park, including an enclosure for its ice-skating rink, rooftop fountains, an Olympic sized pool suited for diving and a spacious restaurant.

“It’s completely inadequate including everything from the ventilation to the seating,” said Taylor. “It can’t be subject to the same budget cuts as other parks because we’ve taken on a special burden for the city. Looking back, it’s obvious that the city planners were praying on the fact that Harlem would remain an unorganized neighborhood without high powered lawyers.”

Now an old chapter could be re-opened due to the controversy.

Lewis Burgess, director of Riverbank Partnership, a neighborhood watchdog group, is investigating how the plant ended up in Harlem in the first place. He hopes that his research will help fundraising efforts that he is spearheading with Rose Harvey, commissioner of New York State Parks, to bring those changes to the park that the state has failed to provide. “The history becomes even more vague when you hear about mostly verbal agreements of what the state had promised to the park long ago,” said Burgess.

In 1956, the Public Works Department began drawing up plans to place the plant in the Upper West Side alongside Robert Moses’ Riverside Park. According to Burgess, the community surrounding Riverside Park was able to thwart the plans perhaps because its members had political clout and they felt it would detract from the ongoing amenities that now include bike paths, baseball fields, basketball courts, playgrounds and a boat basin replete with a full-service restaurant.

“You know how that worked out because they got lawyers and the city planners figured there’s not a damn thing you can do about if we put it in Harlem,” added Anne Rocker, director of the North River Community Environmental Review Board, which was set up by the state to keep tabs on the plant and the park above it.

David Belan, a resident on 150th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, knows about the controversy but he doesn’t think it is racism. “I think it’s just a case of people down in the 70’s knowing to speak up, whereas people up here never really felt like they had a voice,” said Belan.

“There’s a thing called environmental racism,” added Senator Perkins. “Politically speaking, communities of color became dumping grounds despite their resistance.”

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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