Four years ago, the divide between the health and safety of the residents of the Ezra Prentice Homes on South Pearl Street in Albany and the “maximize profits at the expense of low-income people and people of color” corporations operating in and around the Port was huge. Today, the gap still exists, but thanks to community advocates like the late Charlene McDaniels-Benton, Albany’s South End is finally getting the attention it needs and deserves.
Charlene Benton (Miss Charlene) passed away on May 9, 2017 following many years of battling numerous health problems. While her passing will leave a void in the community, her fighting spirit and dedication to see that her beloved Ezra Prentice community would no longer be ignored by all levels of government and by the entities that put profits before people will live on for years to come.
The image of Miss Charlene, sitting in her wheelchair and speaking into a microphone at community meetings and at demonstrations outside the Governor’s Mansion and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) headquarters demanding justice for the Ezra Prentice tenants she represented, will be forever etched in my mind. And, I believe in the minds of the many other people who met her during the battle for environmental justice for Ezra residents.
Miss Charlene spoke in a soft voice, but the stick she carried was large and persuasive. Miss Benton’s efforts, along with the efforts of Common Council Members Dorcey Applyrs and Vivian Kornegay, the residents of Ezra, and AVillage… Inc., took the Ezra community out from under the “forgotten neighborhood” status to worldwide recognition. Miss Charlene had a way of conveying to the news reporters the fear she and other Ezra residents had of another Lac-Mégantic-like bomb train explosion happening here, in Albany’s South End. She told reporters–this quote garnered national attention–that “We are not going to be cremated without our permission!”
The advocacy of Miss Charlene helped to raise the awareness of the health and safety issues faced by the tenants of Ezra Prentice from both the crude oil-by-rail activity at the Port and the diesel exhaust emitted from thousands of trucks passing through Ezra Prentice Homes each and every day. Miss Charlene’s advocacy led to:
- Both Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan appointing her to panels examining crude oil-by-rail through Albany.
- The federal Environmental Protection Agency coming to Ezra in August, 2016 to hear from Ezra residents about the dangers posed by bomb trains and diesel-engine trucks.
- DEC conducting air quality studies in 2014 and 2015 and this year’s $500,000 year-long air quality study focusing on the greater South End area.
- And just earlier this month, the Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC) conducting a week-long origination/destination study of diesel-engine vehicles that traverse the South End.
Ezra Prentice is also in the midst of a resident-initiated, community-based health research study, facilitated by AVillage… Inc., the RADIX Ecological Sustainability Center, and the UAlbany School of Public Health. Updated findings from the study have just been released. (In previous columns, I have written about some of the early findings from this joint effort.) The May 2017 update continues to show that the health of Ezra residents is adversely affected by environmental stressors possibly caused by bomb trains, proximity to I-787 and the Port, and diesel-engine truck traffic.
Some of the eyebrow-raising numbers gathered from the 196 residents, representing the 116 households that completed the survey: Asthma, 34.2 percent; Respiratory illnesses other than asthma, 9.2 percent; Allergies/Hay fever, 46.4 percent; High blood pressure, 19.9 percent; and Rash/Skin issues, 18.4 percent.
In addition to reporting on health-related issues, the study also asked residents about their major concerns: 74 percent cited train fumes, noise and the possibility of an explosion; 47 percent cited truck traffic and a desire to see the trucks rerouted away from Ezra Prentice.
All of these studies–DEC, CDTC, and the Ezra health survey–are important and necessary in order to build a case for additional resources to be dedicated to Albany to help counteract the injustices the residents of Ezra Prentice have been living with for decades. Injustices that were and are imposed upon them without, as Miss Charlene would say, “our permission.”
Albany’s South End community didn’t give permission for 2.8 billion gallons a year of crude oil to be brought by rail through their neighborhood. The tenants of Ezra did not know that the level of benzene (a known carcinogen) in the South End was the second highest level observed at any of the DEC’s monitoring stations located around the state. And the community wasn’t consulted when Global proposed constructing a heating facility to heat rail cars and piping to more easily offload tar sands oil for transport by barge or tanker down the Hudson River. Throw in the proposed construction of the Pilgrim Pipelines to carry petroleum products to and from the Port to and from refineries in New Jersey, and one can plainly see that the war against environmental injustices that Miss Charlene waged still has many battles to be fought.
At Miss Charlene’s Celebration of Life memorial last week, Rev. Marc Johnson related to us one of the last things Miss Benton told him before she passed from this world to the next. She told Rev. Johnson to keep fighting and not give up. Well, Miss Charlene, we will continue to fight for environmental justice for the tenants of Ezra Prentice Homes. We will continue the battle for clean air to breathe in the South End. We will continue to demand that Global and Buckeye and the other “for-profit at the expense of the health and safety of persons with limited incomes and people of color” corporations provide community benefits to offset the harm they have caused us in the name of greed. And we will continue to make sure that your soft voice has been heard at all levels of government so as to get the resources necessary to turn the South End around from an environmental injustice community to a healthy and pollution-free community.
Rest in peace Charlene McDaniels-Benton. Your spirit and determination will continue to inspire us to “keep fighting” for what is right and to never “give up.”