By Dineen O’Rourke
In Springfield, environmental racism has been threatening one of humanity’s basic rights for years – the right to breathe. 1 in 5 people in the city have asthma, a rate that sharply increases for children and people of color.1 “We have to stop taking the air we breathe for granted,” shared Michaelann Bewsee, founder and organizer of Arise for Social Justice.
To highlight this issue, the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition (SCJC) recently organized a panel filmed live on Focus Springfield Community TV, bringing together representatives of local and statewide organizations working towards environmental and climate justice. The panel, hosted by Springfield Ward 1 City Councilor Adam Gomez, featured Michaelann Bewsee of Arise, as well as Claire Miller, community organizer at Toxics Action Center, Ivette Hernandez from Keep Springfield Beautiful, and Jesse Lederman, spokesperson for Stop Toxic Incineration Springfield.
Over 20% of children in Springfield have asthma, which is more than double the statewide rate of childhood asthma, and 50% higher than the national average. This rate almost triples for African American and Latino children in Springfield.1 This is what environmental racism looks like.
Ivette Hernandez spoke of being a single mother of three children while living in the North End, one of the most low-income areas of the city. One of her children has chronic asthma, which has caused upwards of 15 school absences a year. “The lack of accountability and action from our city’s government on these issues is unacceptable,” she said, adding that low-income communities like the North End are treated as “less than human.”
With over 500 known gas leaks in the city and a proposal to build a new toxic biomass incinerator, Springfield is heading in the wrong direction of fixing this asthma emergency, even though these organizations have been highlighting problems like this for years. Two years ago we marched to the Springfield City Hall and witnessed the unanimous vote to pass the Climate Action Resolution developed by the SCJC. The determined hope was palpable in the air of the courtroom. From the Springfield high school students who spoke about climate change, to the parents of children with asthma, and from religious leaders to community organizers, everyone had a pertinent story to share about why climate justice is the necessary path for Springfield.
But now, over two years later, Mayor Domenic Sarno still has not implemented the Climate Action Plan that his government unanimously passed. The SCJC has increased their pressure by demanding a Climate Justice Plan, one that would employ Springfield residents to alleviate the city’s unemployment issues. “We don’t want a climate change plan. We want a climate justice plan,” Michaelann voiced on the panel.
There’s a critical need for a framework of race and class politics when discussing sustainability and climate action. Without these frameworks, the constant push for renewable energy and electric vehicles from wealthy environmentalists becomes isolating and polarizing for those unable to afford such solutions. We are not going to buy ourselves out of climate change; our emotional and societal dependence on consumerism is part of the very problem that laid the groundwork for climate change. The changes we require come from collective action and dedicated grassroots organizing. We are not free until everyone is free.
Climate Action Now is one of the co-founding organizations of the SCJC. Our work has also included organizing against the Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct, a pipeline that would have carried gas obtained by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, from Pennsylvania through New England. After a two-year-long grassroots movement, with a wide array of strategies, Kinder Morgan withdrew their pipeline application from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and our struggle became a success.
Yet even with this recent victory, fracked gas and methane will continue to be a threat in our region – our work is not over. Springfield is now organizing against a dangerous amount of methane leaks in the city’s gas heating system, with over 500 discovered in the city in one year alone. “These streets can explode at any given time,” remarked Jesse Lederman. “It’s unacceptable.”
Not only does this gas leak into the atmosphere, rapidly accelerating climate change and increasing the risk of asthma and neurotoxin disorders, it also is an economic loss that falls on the backs of electric ratepayers in the city. Home Energy Efficiency Team estimated that in 2014 alone, this escaped gas accumulated to a loss of $2.3 million. Northampton is facing almost 100 known gas leaks, believed to be have cost ratepayers $600,000 in 2014. The SCJC is currently awaiting a response from a letter sent to Colombia Gas, the city’s electric utility company, requesting a meeting to discuss this issue. You can sign this petition to demand Colombia fix these leaks immediately. “Yes, fixing the leaks can be costly,” remarked Ivette Hernandez. “But we have a lot of people here looking for jobs,” echoing the interconnected justice aspect of the Climate Justice Plan.
As City Councilor Adam Gomez aptly stated to close the panel, “creating real change in our community will begin with real unity.” In a world rapidly warming world with rising seas and increased pollution, hope can understandably be a difficult emotion to turn to. Our hope for a better world becomes more actualized when we come together and take collective action.
Get involved with the Springfield Climate Justice Coalition!
What: SCJC Monthly Meeting
When: Wednesday, June 8, 6pm
Where: Arise for Social Justice office, Springfield
RSVP: (413) 734-4948
This meeting is open to all interested in being apart of the campaign to make Springfield a most just, sustainable, and healthy place for all. Whether you were apart of the founding of the coalition or you know little about climate change, all are welcome to learn about the work of this inspiring coalition.
Dineen O’Rourke is a student at Hampshire College and an organizer with Climate Action Now. Follow her on Twitter: @dineenorourke.
By Dineen O’Rourke
Throughout the bitter months of winter in 2014, veiled representatives of the billion-dollar energy company Kinder Morgan knocked on the doors of residents in the small hill-towns of Massachusetts. Their company emblems were covered and their smiles were wide. “Do we have permission to survey your property? We’re collecting data for a regional environmental study.”1 Clipboards and cameras in hand, they were shown to the backyards of dozens of properties, quietly collecting and recording information. It was weeks later when homeowners learned what they had actually granted permission for, when Kinder Morgan-marked letters were received in mailboxes across the state outlining the plan to build a fracked gas pipeline in those very backyards. Naturally, this didn’t favor well in the birthplace of Shay’s Rebellion; a movement quickly spread like wildfire, with resolutions and ordinances banning the project in over seventy towns, tens of thousands of petition signatures, legal cases, multiple marches across the state, and opposition declared by dozens of public officials.2
Now, after a dedicated two-year-long grassroots movement, Kinder Morgan suspended the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline on April 26, 2016 and then officially withdrew their application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on May 23. Our grassroots movement defeated one of the largest energy companies in the country.
This following research was originally conducted and written in December of 2015, when Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas had just significantly changed the proposed path of the pipeline, brining the eastern section of the route into New Hampshire. Publishing this research now is a way to portray a capsule in time of a successful social movement and reflect on the strategies that brought on a major victory in the fight against the fossil fuel industry. What did our movement do particularly well? Where could we have improved? The threat and consequences of this pipeline are shared with all the other proposed fracked gas projects in our region. Fighting one helps us fight others; we must not back down because we’ve won just one battle. Reflecting on this recent victory can help strengthen our understanding of this industry and inform us on how to defeat Spectra Energy’s AIM Pipeline, the West Roxbury Lateral, the compressor stations in Burrillville, Rhode Island and North Weymouth, and inspire us to continue organizing for a just and sustainable world.
In this light, I hope you will join us in escalating this summer against Spectra and acting in solidarity with our neighbors in Eastern Massachusetts. On Tuesday, June 28th, the Sugar Shack Alliance will be bringing a contingent of Kinder Morgan pipeline fighters to risk arrest in West Roxbury. Then from July 14-18, we will march along the route of the proposed Spectra Access Northeast route, back to West Roxbury, and end at the Boston Statehouse to send the message: Stop the Pipelines or the People Will!