An Open Letter to the Brookhaven Town Supervisor During Black History Month

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Dear Supervisor Ed Romaine,

This past Thursday, you told me, and other members of the Brookhaven Landfill Action & Remediation Group (BLARG), that by speaking out about environmental justice we are not only in the wrong pew, we are in the wrong church.

You said this at a town board public hearing where we spoke FOR a sustainable and equitable waste future for Long Island and AGAINST the Town’s ongoing strategy of investing in non-sustainable, non-transparent, and poorly thought-out waste “solutions” that just pass Long Island’s waste problem onto someone else. For the past fifty years, the community of North Bellport, which sits adjacent to the high-volume Brookhaven Landfill, has been that someone else.  

These were our main points:

1. The proposed Gershow/Peconic waste transfer station in Medford furthers environmental injustice. One of the proposed end destinations for the waste is Sunny Farm Landfill in Fostoria, OH, a troubled and mismanaged site with dozens of violations and citations, and millions in settlements. The small rural community of Fostoria is fighting for their lives and their children’s lives in the midst of an onslaught of waste from all over the country.

2. Allowing special permits and waivers for a waste transfer station to rail out up to 600,000 tons/annually of construction and demolition (C&D) waste is unsustainable. Brookhaven Town needs to FIRST develop an equitable waste plan with measurable benchmarks and strategies to reduce, reuse, and recycle C&D waste and divert it from landfills. Then, with that plan in place, we can talk about new waste infrastructure.  As you know, Brookhaven Town does not currently have a New York State- approved solid waste management plan. After submitting a plan that received substantial critical comments from the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) three years ago, the Town’s plan has still not been revised or approved.

We at BLARG reached out to our neighbors in Fostoria, OH to tell them that hundreds of thousands of tons of our Long Island waste would be coming their way if the Gershow/Peconic plan was approved. Dismayed, they wanted to make their voices heard. The community sent a moving letter and Dr. Katy Johnston read it at the public hearing.

It was after Dr. Johnston shared this letter that you told us that we were both in the wrong pew and in the wrong church, meaning that the plight of our Rust Belt neighbors, however terrible, was not your problem, nor that of the Brookhaven Town Board. You evaded responsibility, Supervisor Romaine, even as you sought to approve a plan to dump up to 600,000 tons of waste on their heads.

A few weeks before this public hearing (remember: wrong pew, wrong church) you presided over the Town of Brookhaven’s Martin Luther King Jr. luncheon, where you highlighted one of Dr. King’s most well-known quotations: “the time is always right to do what is right.”

We have the misfortune of living in a time when all and sundry parrot Martin Luther King, Jr. in the first two months of the year, and ignore MLK’s message for the other 10 months.  This is the way of things. Our hero Martin has been consumed by the U.S. media machine and is spat back out to us and our children as a mangled facsimile of himself, for shame. But still, in this Black History Month I will call out the contradictions in order to fight for Dr. King, this brilliant person gone too soon, and his legacy of words and deeds.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “the time is always right to do what it right,” he was not speaking at an MLK Jr. Day Luncheon. The year was 1964; three civil rights leaders had been murdered in Mississippi, six U.S. cities had erupted into riots, and the future seemed to hang on tenterhooks.  Dr. King described what was required of each of us. “If we are to go the additional distance to make justice a reality…. we are going to have to do something about it.”

The words you uttered come with a context. They are heavy; laden with the frustration of the man who wrote from Birmingham Jail a year earlier about the white moderate more devoted to “order” than to justice. These words admonish those who rely on bureaucracy and fear to justify their inaction. In short, Dr. King was speaking directly to you, Ed Romaine, who hears the pleas from a landfill community in Ohio and quips that we have chosen the wrong forum, that we are in the wrong pew and wrong church.

Also, a note about this callous analogy.  As a person raised in the Christian church, who remains part of this battered and bruised Christian church despite the ways that love, justice, and holiness are wrung out of the institution by patriarchy, anti-blackness, and homophobia, I take great exception to this idea that it is possible to be in the wrong pew, or the wrong church. If I enter any house of worship crying, “brother, I am dying,” and am told, “no, sister, you have the wrong seat,” or “the church around the corner might be a better place to carry your suffering,” I would posit that I am not *actually* in a church at all.

There will always be people like Town attorney Annette Eaderesto who would try to press us into ignoring the singular power we each hold: the ability to say ‘no’ when it matters. There are those who insist that acting based on ethics and not ease is against the rules; that we lack the “precedent” to evaluate a land use proposal and consider that land and lives outside our own zip code also matter! You and your colleagues at the Brookhaven Town Board are surely not alone in claiming that justice is not in your jurisdiction.

The problem, Supervisor Romaine, is that you cannot quote Martin on a Tuesday and scorn him on a Friday. You should not preside over Black History Month celebrations or call the names of civil rights heroes if you will not listen to their words or ponder their import.

The Brookhaven Town Board has considerable power over Long Island’s waste future because our Landfill is the largest waste depository in downstate New York. When Brookhaven decides to roll up its sleeves and get to work on this matter of waste, the rest of the region and the private sector will have to follow. It is absolutely appropriate for the Town Board to assess whether the Gershow/Peconic proposal fits into the town’s solid waste management plan. Unfortunately, the Town has yet to develop and pass a plan!– let alone one that is sustainable and prioritizes human life, clean water, and clean air! 

But none of this is news to you, Supervisor Romaine; you just have not decided that this is the time to do what is right. The only question I ask you now, echoing another civil rights hero, Grace Lee Boggs, is what time is it on the clock of the world?

Sincerely,

Abena Asare

The Brookhaven Town Board is accepting public comments on the Gershow/Peconic Waste Transfer Station Proposal until Thursday 2/25. Background documents for the proposal are found here. Please send comments to pfountaine@brookhavenny.gov

Follow the Brookhaven Landfill Action Group (BLARG): https://www.facebook.com/BrookhavenLandfillAction/

https://www.instagram.com/landfillactiongroup/

Call to Action Toolkit: rb.gy/nlvv7t

BLARG GoFundMe

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