Working for a Greener Harlem
By Melissa Checker
At 7 a.m. on Martin Luther King Day, 1988, the founders of the soon to be formed West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) donned gas masks and placards, and held up traffic on the West Side Highway in front of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant. For the two years since it opened, the sewage plant had plagued the Harlem community with foul odors and noxious emissions that residents blamed for their respiratory problems.
Twenty years later, WE ACT has 17 staff members dedicated to mitigating the disproportionate environmental burdens that Harlem residents bear and, more recently, to fighting for climate justice. Since PlaNYC2030's launch in 2007, WEACT has lobbied to make sure the proposal's benefits extend all the way uptown. Now it sees the effort as paying off in a variety of ways that could improve public health and the environment in Upper Manhattan.
A History of Activism
WE ACT's fight against the sewage treatment plant did not end with a demonstration. Four years later, the organization sued the Department of Environmental Protection for operating that plant as a public and private nuisance. After six years of litigation, the city settled the North River Sewage Treatment Plant suit and established a $1.1 million fund to address community concerns. The fund enabled WE ACT to hire three full-time staff members and allowed the group to ensure that the city completed its $55 million renovation of the plant.
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