If you walk along the first-floor hallways of the New York City Housing Authority’s Ocean Bay Apartments in the Rockaways, you see signs. “Repairs ongoing due to damage caused by Hurricane Sandy,” they read. Affixed to doors that were presumably once those of residences, the signs hang from yellowing strips of tape that, judging from when the storm hit, are likely six years old.
If you leave the buildings, head south to the beach and look out over the water, you’ll likely see next to nothing. You won’t see the Williams Company’s Rockaway Lateral pipeline, buried beneath the sea, which was approved just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy brought the neighborhood to its knees. And you won’t see another fracked gas pipeline — the Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline — which would connect with the Rockaway Lateral were the Williams Company to again get its way. All you’ll see are the waves.
We have long had the pipelines. But now we have the storms, floods and fires.
There are other things about the NESE pipeline that Williams would prefer to remain hidden. Like the fact that it would exist almost entirely for corporate profit. If approved, Williams, a Fortune 500 company, would be allowed a 14 percent return on the project’s equity, almost guaranteeing profitability regardless of demand. Williams insists that the need is real, claiming that mandatory New York City boiler conversions away from dirty oil will require more gas to heat homes in coming winters. Yet, as a report issued by the city itself notes, those conversions would require a mere 6 percent increase in National Grid’s gas supply, a number that could be met by renewables. The added capacity of the Williams NESE: 64 percent.
Williams would also love to hide the fact that, in New York Harbor, construction on the pipeline’s 23-mile-long trench — which would be as deep as 15 feet in places — would stir up arsenic, lead, PCBs and other toxins that have laid undisturbed in the sea floor since the industrial days. Those toxins would end up in the water and on our beaches, in our mouths and on our skin. Construction sediments would clog the gills of fish. The noise from pile driving would disrupt the migratory patterns of endangered Atlantic sturgeon. All of it together could scare off the humpback whales that have only recently been returning to the area. Back on shore, the pipeline would include a compressor station that would release poisonous levels of formaldehyde and benzene, built by a company whose projects have routinely exploded, caught fire, and even killed.
But more serious than any of this would be the pipeline’s contributions to climate change and its resulting impact on communities. Four hundred million cubic feet per day of what is essentially methane would flow from the Marcellus Shale into the Rockaways, much of which would leak along the way as hurricane fuel. When Sandy hit the neighborhood in 2012, almost every home was flooded, some under as much as ten feet of water and 110 of them burned to the ground. At least eight people were killed in the neighborhood and 3.5 million cubic yards of sand — enough to fill the Empire State Building twice — were swept away. The Ocean Bay Apartments, with its six-year-old signs, is just one of several NYCHA complexes along New York’s vulnerable coastline that is still recovering. Williams’ latest proposed pipeline, buried though it would be beneath the waves, would only make storms like Sandy worse.
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It is an understatement to say that the seeming invisibility of climate change and its causes is a problem, no less so than the invisibility of its most vulnerable victims. Even the doomsayers occasionally find themselves longing to believe that temperate days mean overstated claims about crippling heat, that the bounty at our farmers’ markets indicate healthy crops and that PBS nature documentaries capture the world as it was, is, and forever will be. We have long had the pipelines. But now, of course, we have the storms, floods and fires. Now we have the victims. Now we have the signs.
If the task before those fighting for climate justice has always been to make visible the invisible, to heed and echo the signs, then it has never been as urgent as now. We are burning, after all. But that task includes the growing need to make ourselves and our movement visible as well and this is where marching comes in. When we assemble at a gathering like the upcoming Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice on September 6, we become that visibility, transforming our corporeal selves into the sign that our movement continues to need. We use our bodies to insist on the merest presence where the corporate media has insisted on absence. We allow ourselves to be heard merely by being seen.
We also empower community — both ours and the larger one beyond. As the environmentalist Bill McKibben said recently, the best thing a person can do for the climate fight is to be a little less of an individual. Giving in to the marching, chanting multitude can seem scary, particularly for those more accustomed to forms of awareness-raising that actively preserve the precious self (consumer politics, social media ranting and the like). Yet that abandonment is itself a small act of resistance. In a genuine community, actions and inactions have consequences, regulation is a matter of course, tolerance habituates and empathy flows. In other words, it’s the only medium in which we’re forced to face our inviolably interconnected existence — an existence that climate change already knows all too well. Solidarity is one with sacrifice. To march is to model the world we want, not just to try and obtain it.
It’s also to do one more thing to force politicians to finally act. This month, it was discovered that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s campaign manager was — and perhaps still is — a lobbyist for Williams, the company trying to build the pipeline off of Rockaway Beach. On Sept. 6, rise to demand our renewable future isn’t sacrificed to two-faced political corruption. Rise against environmental injustice folded into corporate business plans. Rise to make visible the invisible. Rise to heed the signs. And rise for the Ocean Bay Apartments and other buildings like them, still suffering six years after the storm.
Robert Wood is a member of 350Brooklyn.
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Photo credit: Joe Brusky