Thousands protest ‘bomb trains’ and environmental racism in Albany

Willie White of Ezra Prentice Homes lifts a fist while marching amongst protesters from across the northeastern United States. (WNV / William Fowler)

Willie White of Ezra Prentice Homes lifts a fist while marching amongst protesters from across the northeastern United States. (WNV / William Fowler)

Thousands of protesters from across the Northeast came to Albany, New York on Saturday to block a “bomb train” transporting fracked oil and exposing communities along its path to major risks of derailment, oil spillage and explosion. While hundreds risked arrest by standing or sitting on the train tracks in downtown Albany, the only arrests of the day took place 16 miles away, where two climbers — aided by a three-person support team — blocked a train from North Dakota carrying fracked crude oil by suspending themselves from train tracks on a railroad bridge.

The protest in Albany was just one of many targeting the fossil fuel industry to take place that week. Others were held in the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria, Pennsylvania, Washington and Colorado — each under the banner of Break Free, a 12-day global grassroots effort lasting from May 3-15. Tens of thousands of people in 13 countries, across six continents were reported to take part, amounting to what 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben called the “largest civil disobedience in the history of the environmental movement.”

The common link between these actions is grassroots and frontline communities targeting the world’s most dangerous and dirty fossil fuel projects. In Albany, the issue is “bomb trains,” which are trains that stretch a mile long with cars carrying the explosive power of two million sticks of dynamite. There are at least eight known “bomb train” derailments, the deadliest of which occurred in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where 47 people died and the explosion demolished a town with a 0.6-mile blast radius.

While the trains carrying fracked crude oil pass through many poor and marginalized communities on their trek across North America, Albany’s South End neighborhood may have it the worst, as it is located next to the Port of Albany, where the trains sit, venting toxic fumes, as they wait for their cargo to be loaded onto barges. For the people here, every breath is negatively impacted by fossil fuels, with many — particularly children — suffering from asthma and upper respiratory issues, not to mention cancer. It was this fact, along with the increasing impacts of climate change, that led organizations like 350, Citizens Action of New York, AVillage of Albany and 97 other regional groups coordinating Break Free Northeast to want to make Albany and South End a focus of their campaign. That meant getting frontline community members the resources necessary to lead Saturday’s action and shine a light on the environmental injustices they’ve been suffering.

“We’ve been working hard to build alliances with people who are working for justice right here on the South End of Albany,” said Marla Marcum, an organizer with Break Free and the founder of the Climate Disobedience Center. “We first asked, ‘Would it help your efforts to fight these bomb trains if we came and brought this action here?’ We felt like that was the most important thing to do because we’re bringing people from all over the region right into their community and they are the ones baring the highest burden.”

The highest burden, however, has fallen on the shoulders of families living in an affordable housing community called Ezra Prentice Homes, which AVillage executive director Willie White refers to as “ground zero for environmental racism.”

Ezra Prentice Homes is a family development with 16 buildings and 179 units. Surrounded on three sides by massive transportation infrastructure projects, the homes are on a busy street just south of Interstate 787. The playground, basketball court and railroad adjacent buildings back up to a railroad storage yard and the Port of Albany.

Children growing up in the Ezra Prentice Homes play on their basketball court with the train tracks that carry bomb trains just beyond the hoop. (WNV / William Fowler)

Children growing up in the Ezra Prentice Homes play on their basketball court with the train tracks that carry bomb trains just beyond the hoop. (WNV / William Fowler)

“I’ve lived in this hell hole well over 20 years,” said Deneen Carter, a resident of Ezra Prentice Homes, “and I’ve never had any health issues until I came here.”

Since moving to Ezra Prentice, Carter says she has survived two forms of cancer, thyroid complications, sinus problems and allergies that she attributes to the air she breathes and the water she drinks.

Sadly, Carter isn’t alone in receiving a never ending pile of medical bills necessary to survive at Ezra Prentice. That’s why she now works with local organization AVillage — named for the ancient African proverb “it takes a village to raise a child” — which has been organizing the community around health and safety issues for years.

Carter is one of AVillage’s several resident outreach workers hired from the South End community to collect health survey data from residents at Ezra Prentice in order to document the effects of the racist and classist government policies and corporate loopholes.

“I believe this is the worst example of environmental racism I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Jim Freeman, one of the organizers with the Break Free demonstration in Albany. “When I first came here, there were oil trains three rows deep right behind the chain link fence. Those trains were venting toxic fumes up into the atmosphere. The trucks run down here into the Port of Albany at close to 100 trucks per hour, spewing diesel fuel and whatever dust and crap that comes out of the trucks.”

Adding insult to injury, Freeman says the “bomb trains” don’t have to be there. “[The trains] can go in the Port of Albany, but the Port of Albany charges a fee for the trains to park there. They can park [behind Ezra Prentice] for nothing,” said Freeman. “They cared nothing about the people, the citizens of this community, and we’re here to change that.”

In the past, White said he has unsuccessfully requested Governor Andrew Cuomo to visit Ezra Prentice to meet the people and talk about the issues impacting their community. While local leaders representing the people of Ezra Prentice have generously welcomed these climate activists and protesters into their community, they hope it will result in more attention to the health and safety problems here, as well as other frontline communities around the world.

“I believe that us getting together from throughout the northeast, from different states, [we are] showing our government that this is a unified voice,” said Vivian Kornegay, who represents families in Ezra Prentice as the councilmember for Albany’s 2nd Ward. “This is a national problem. It’s not one small community in this country, it’s small communities across this country that are affected by big oil.”

White, who spoke and led chants throughout the march, was enthusiastic about what this event could mean for his community moving forward. “I’m really inspired to have Break Free here today to support this issue. So hopefully we can create relationships that will last forever and be educated through their protests,” he said.

A protester with the Break Free action in Albany tapes a piece of art that reads, “ferocious love will save this planet,” to a fence blocking entry to the Port of Albany. (WNV / William Fowler)

A protester with the Break Free action in Albany tapes a piece of art that reads, “ferocious love will save this planet,” to a fence blocking entry to the Port of Albany. (WNV / William Fowler)

Specific demands from the community and regional activists involved with Break Free include: revoking the clean air permits for Albany Terminal, denying permits for the tar sands heating facility on the Port of Albany proposed by Global Partners; and forcing Global Partners, the Fortune 500 company operating the terminal, to build a sound wall for the Ezra Prentice community. More broadly, the agreed upon demands for all Break Free actions are to keep, at a minimum, 80 percent of fossil fuel reserves in the ground; to oppose all new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, including fracking for natural gas and the installation of pipelines like the Pilgrim pipelines that would actually increase the flow of bomb train traffic coming into Albany; and to call for an end to government subsidies for fossil fuel and a transfer of those subsidies to renewables.

While the fossil fuel industry and its lobbyists have, up until now, held enough power over state and federal governments to allow for the continuing neglect of communities like Ezra Prentice, actions like the one on Saturday are aiming to change things. By placing the issue of environmental racism on a national, and even global stage — given the expansive nature of Break Free’s 12-day stretch of actions — the climate movement is helping to shift the balance of power away from those who benefit financially from fossil fuel infrastructure projects and towards those whose lives they put at risk.

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