After nearly nine years of intrepid opposition waged by environmental activists, business owners and concerned citizens throughout the Finger Lakes region, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration has finally rejected a long-pending plan to store propane gas in salt caverns on Seneca Lake’s western shore, denying the Houston-based Crestwood Midstream Partners’ push for a permit. Yvonne Taylor, of Gas Free Seneca, said it best, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that David can’t beat Goliath.”
By all accounts, this was an extraordinary achievement for a grassroots movement that began with a few individuals holding signs and linking arms. Over the past 8 1/2 years, it took hundreds of demonstrations, countless letters to the editor, petition after petition, giant caravans to Albany and remarkable acts of civil disobedience. In the end, the people prevailed. As Basil Seggos, the New York State’s environmental conservation commissioner issued in a 30-page ruling “The project is not permittable because it is inconsistent with the character of the local and regional Finger Lakes community” — a precedent-setting decision that could impact communities all across the country.
Impressive as this victory certainly is, and as delighted as I am to see the serenity and pristine quality of Seneca Lake preserved for future generations, as someone who is constantly thinking about the role of race in politics and social action, I could not help but wonder if this outcome would have been different if it were not primarily organized by white, middle- and upper-class individuals.
A Jan. 21, 2016, New York Times article by John Elgin asked a very provocative question about environmental racism and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Elgin wrote, “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, Kathleen Falk, President Obama’s point person to examine the crisis — as a U.S. Health and Human Services regional director — answered Elgin’s question directly. “The water was not safe. They knew that it was not safe and they let them drink it…When asked if environmental racism was a factor, I came up with an unreserved and undeniable yes.”
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 retired white teachers and wealthy winery owners? 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, accurate representation and sympathy? Or would they have chosen to disparage the protesters? Perhaps they would ignore them all together.
Would the DEC have come to their aid with time-consuming and expensive reports aimed at stalling the proposal or shrug them off as reactionary and politically biased demonstrators who do not understand the geological and economic complexity of the issues?
What about the governor? Would he have rushed to their defense or would he have been apt to take the easy road and seek out the short-term profits of Big Oil?
Are these not legitimate questions?
To be fair, the reason that this campaign was successful had to do with its original players; its sophistication, mass support from all sectors of the Finger Lakes community and courageous endurance. Why do I present a hypothetical that does not relate to the actual circumstances of the movement and the reasons why it succeeded?
But why is so much of the Finger Lakes region dominated by white people with white interests? Why are black and brown people not in control of their own clean drinking water sources? Why was Crestwood ultimately willing to look somewhere else to store their millions of gas barrels? Will they find a community that they view as less sophisticated, less committed to the cause of environmental health and less resourced? Will they look for a community that is poorer and darker? Isn’t that what all corporations try to do until they are told not to? What role did race play and not play in the outcome of the We Are Seneca Lake victory? When it’s all said and done, who will pay the highest price for their win?
George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, domestic violence counselor, social justice activist, and adjunct professor of philosophy. He lives and works in Rochester.