Organizing for Community Empowerment
West Harlem Environmental Action (WE ACT) was founded in March 1988 by Vernice Miller, Peggy Shepard and Chuck Sutton to address ongoing West Harlem community struggles around the poor management of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant and the construction of the sixth bus depot across from an intermediate school and a large housing development -- a densely populated and heavily trafficked area. WE ACT evolved into an environmental justice organization committed to empowering the community to become a vocal, informed and proactive force that determines and implements its vision of what its environment can and should be.
The North River plant's problem proved to be a rallying point with residents who complained about the foul odors emanating from it and about suffering from respiratory problems since it began operating in April 1986. Using strong community mobilization tactics and a key civil disobedience strategy, "The Sewage Seven" -- then West Harlem District Leaders Shepard and Sutton, State Senator David Paterson, former Councilmember Hilton Clark and three others -- were arrested for holding up traffic at 7 a.m. on the West Side Highway in front of the North River plant on Martin Luther King Day, January 15, 1988. Gas masked, placard carrying community residents held up traffic across from the plant on Riverside Drive to dramatize the unbearable situation.
Three Key Objectives
Three months later, WE ACT formed with three key objectives: to force the City of New York to fix the North River Plant, to participate in determining future siting and planning decisions in West Harlem, and to affect the public policy agenda by positioning environmental justice as a major political issue. The organization has had success in meeting these objectives.
First, the campaign around the North River plant picked up momentum when a key elected official began to respond to community concerns about the plant's operation. WE ACT encouraged then Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins to hire noted environmentalist Barry Commoner to research and submit a study of the operation of the North River plant. The resulting document armed residents with facts and figures critical to fight this complex problem and gain greater media credibility.
WE ACT met with numerous City and State officials through the years in an effort to exact a plan of action for correcting the plant's operational flaws. However, it took a lawsuit to make the City respond. On December 30, 1993, WE ACT reached a settlement of its lawsuit against the City for operating the North River plant as a public and private nuisance. The settlement, negotiated by WE ACT's pro bono legal counsel Mark Silberman and Alan Birnbaum of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind and Wharton, as well as Eric Goldstein, of the Natural Resources Defense Council which was a co-plaintiff, called for a $1.1 million fund which has been established to address community concerns related to health, environment and service delivery.
WE ACT, in consultation with other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, controls the fund and is using it to further institutionalize a West Harlem planning and advocacy organization. Most importantly, the settlement gives plaintiffs leverage to ensure that the City completes its $55 million fix-up of the North River plant. If the City fails to comply, WE ACT can bring suit to enforce compliance with the City-State consent order and other agreements aimed at fixing and maintaining North River.
WE ACT Over the Years
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the "Sewage Seven" are arrested on the West Side Highway for holding up rush hour traffic to dramatize their concern that the poor operation of the North River Sewage Treatment Plant was responsible for an increase in incidents of respiratory illnesses being experienced by local residents.|
WE ACT is incorporated in New York State as West Harlem Environmental Action, Inc.
WE ACT sues the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) over its plans to construct a sixth diesel bus depot in Northern Manhattan.
WE ACT convinces Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins to hire environmentalist Barry Commoner to research and submit a study of the operation of the North River Sewage Treatment plant. The resulting report arms residents with facts and figures that gives credibility to their complaints.
WE ACT sends three delegates to the 1st National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. One of WE ACT's founders serves on the steering committee and assists in drafting the "Principles of Environmental Justice."
WE ACT files a lawsuit in a bid to force the city and state to correct operational flaws at the North River Sewage treatment plant.|
WE ACT and four colleagues start the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYCEJA) located out of the WE ACT office.
WE ACT hosts the initial meeting of the Northeast Environmental Justice Network (NEJN).
Mayor David N. Dinkins pledges $55 million to fix North River Sewage Treatment Plant.
WE ACT, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Hamilton Heights Day Care Center and seven community residents reach a settlement of their lawsuit against the city. It established a $1.1 million fund related to environmental health and quality of life. It also gave WE ACT the leverage to ensure that the city completed its five-year $55 million fix-up of the plant.
WE ACT moves from a volunteer organization with offices in West Harlem and opens its Central Harlem Headquarters, hires staff and expands its catchement area to Northern Manhattan.|
WE ACT establishes the "Earth Crew", a youth internship project designed to empower community youth with leadership skills and environmental awareness training.
WE ACT publishes the premier issue of the Uptown Eye; a 24 page bilingual, bimonthly community-based newspaper.|
WE ACT convinces the EPA to conduct the first assessment of Northern Manhattan's air quality. The assessment reveals that harmful particulates are more than 200% higher than the air quality standards for PM 2.5 (the smallest particles in diesel soot).
WE ACT helps develop the Minority Environmental Worker Training Program (MEWTP) to provide job training & employment opportunities for young adults.
WE ACT conducts its Clean Fuel bus campaign to inform residents about the dangers of diesel fumes and to encourage the MTA and the Governor to use cleaner fuels.|
WE ACT participates in a pilot study to examine the effect of diesel fumes on the health of seventh graders attending local schools.
WE ACT's Earth Crew Produces its own program for public access television.
WE ACT debuts its premiere public access television program.
WE ACT creates a training manual for its Environmental Health & Justice Leadership Training (EHJLT) program and graduates the first twenty-four community participants.|
WE ACT sponsors a citywide lead poisoning prevention conference in New York City.
WE ACT participates in a press conference with the Governor to announce that the Manhattanville diesel bus depot would be converted to compressed natural gas.
WE ACT's Executive Director is elected co-chair of the Northeast Environmental Justice Network (NEJN).|
WE ACT is named the lead community based organization for the Community-University Consortium for Regional Environmental Justice (CUCREJ).
WE ACT and Community Board 9 organize Northern Manhattan community residents to develop a vision for the Harlem waterfront.
WE ACT serves as community partner for the Columbia Center for Children's Environmental Health (CCCEH).|
WE ACT conducts asthma intervention program in Washington Heights.
WE ACT wins Union Square Award.
WE ACT files a Title VI complaint against MTA.
WE ACT's organizing efforts lead to the New York City Economic Development Corporation developing a master plan for Harlem waterfront based on the community's vision.
WE ACT Executive Director is elected chair of EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC). .|
WE ACT hosts Alternative Fuel Vehicles Workshop for Northern Manhattan to encourage truck and bus fleet owners to switch to clean fuels.
WE ACT sponsors national conference on genetics research and environmental justice.
WE ACT staff participate in the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Durban, South Africa.|
WE ACT organizes historic conference on Human Genetics, Environment, and Communities of Color: Ethical and Social Implications.
WE ACT negotiates with the US EPA Region II to conduct the first assessment of Northern Manhattan's air quality. Data gathered was used to promulgate the national fine particulate standard for PM2.5, which was subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court.
WE ACT serves as the first community-based co-editor of a special issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed scientific journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
WE ACT Executive Director Peggy Shepard wins 10th Annual Heinz Award for the Environment.|
WE ACT celebrates 15 years of existence and organizes its first annual fundraising event - "A 15th Anniversary Uprising!".
WE ACT purchases a Harlem brownstone slated to become the New York City WE ACT Environmental Justice Center of New York and hires a Harlem-based architect to work on its renovation as a LEED Certified green building.|
WE ACT conducts an educational campaign around pesticides, targeting the New York City Council and resulting in the proposal of pesticide legislation currently pending approval.
WE ACT's efforts result in the passage of New York City's Local Law 1 of 2004, a lead poisoning prevention bill advocated by WE ACT.
WE ACT organizes community residents to oppose the reopening and expansion of the 135th Street Marine Transfer Station. Mayor Bloomberg announces that the station will not be reopened.