by Heather Forest, Ph.D.

Story Summary

White suburbanites shut down a nuclear power plant on Long Island, NY. while indigenous people on the Standing Rock Reservation were unable to stop the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on sacred native lands. Environmental racism?

Discussion Questions

  1. The Dakota Access Oil Pipeline was originally to traverse an area close to the Capital city of Bismarck, North Dakota. Public complaint that the pipeline posed a threat to the city’s drinking water resulted in the Army Corps of Engineers’ rerouting of the pipeline through the Standing Rock Indian reservation instead. Why do you think the city dwellers were successful in their complaint?
  2. What does NIMBY mean?
  3. What is environmental racism? What would you do if a toxic dump site was placed on your street corner without your consent?

Resources

  • Articles about the Shoreham Protest, 1979 https://suffolktimes.timesreview.com/2019/06/at-look-back-at-the-shoreham-nuclear-plant-protest-40-years-later/ https://popularresistance.org/the-battle-to-stop-the-shoreham-nuclear-plant-revisited/ http://large.stanford.edu/courses/2018/ph241/gilbey1/
  • About the Standing Rock Reservation Protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline https://americanindian.si.edu/nk360/plains-treaties/dapl https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_Access_Pipeline_protests
  • About Environmental Racism http://www.pollutionissues.com/Ec-Fi/Environmental-Racism.html http://greenaction.org/what-is-environmental-justice/
  • NIMBY-Not in My Backyard Phenomenon https://www.britannica.com/topic/Not-in-My-Backyard-Phenomenon

Themes

  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript
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Hello, I’m Heather Forest.

In 2016, Indigenous people on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota protested the construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline. People who live on that land feared that the oil pipeline could leak and oil would seep onto their sacred burial grounds and into their sensitive water systems.

Forty years ago, I participated in an environmental protest as well. I was one of six hundred protesters arrested at the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island in June of 1979. I was armed with a rosebush and a shovel. My crime was I waded across a river. I climbed a barbed wire fence and gained illegal access to a highly restricted area of a nuclear power plant.

My defense? Self-defense. I deemed that power plant was a dangerous threat to the health and safety of my community. Just two months earlier, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania had partially melted down.

People across the country were becoming skittish about the dangers of nuclear radiation and, meanwhile, my local electric company, LILCO, was building a nuclear power plant in the middle of our small, traffic clogged island just east of New York City. Long Island residents were outraged at LILCO’s lack of environmental planning and forethought.

How? How were they going to transport radioactive waste through the suburbs? And where were they planning to put it and safely store it for its half-life of 26,000 years? More importantly, how would anyone escape if there was a meltdown? And would safety be equal for everyone? How would low income people living in proximity of the plant who didn’t own cars flee?

In spite of LILCO’s rather vague answers to these questions, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued LILCO a permit based on their assertion that in the unlikely case of a meltdown, LILCO employees would not go home to their families. Instead, they would stay on and direct traffic.

Well, on the day of the protest, 15,000 Long Island residents gathered on a beach near the almost completed reactor. Speeches were made. American folk singer and legend, Pete Seeger, sang.

I was part of the Living Rose Affinity Group. Like other groups at the protest, we were all carefully trained in non-violent protest methods inspired by the civil rights movement. Each group was planning a symbolic action that would take place on the grounds in front of the turquoise cooling towers at the power plant. One group was planning a “die-in”. Another a poetry reading. Another a sing-along.

The Living Rose Affinity Group was planning to stand for the earth and the safety of our community by planting a living rose, a beautiful plant in front of a dangerous unnatural plant.

The river was cold when we waited across and made our way to the fence around the cooling towers. It started to rain and I shivered in my wet clothes as I stood before the fence. We were carrying portable ladders and carpet to put over the barbed wire at the top.

I was amazed when I saw a young mother climb the fence with her baby. When she got to the top, she struggled to maneuver and a police officer on the other side of the fence approached. He put his arms up to her and she handed him her baby. She climbed over the fence and he gave the baby back to her and, then, promptly arrested her and led her babe in arms to a waiting police van.

Our group climbed the fence and then we ceremoniously planted our rosebush. And then we were immediately surrounded by police officers who handcuffed us behind our backs and put us in the police vans where we waited a long time because the police vans didn’t move out until all 600 protesters were rounded up.

Later that evening, as I sat, still damp and with sore wrists in a crowded jail cell that also held that mother soothing her child, I remember wondering, “Is this the best use of my skill set?”

At that moment, then and there, I decided that, perhaps, I could use my storytelling abilities to communicate about the interconnectedness of everything on earth. I was naively convinced that a sensible, clear voice for environmental sanity would certainly prevail over short-sighted economic interests.

That was 40 years ago. Looking back now, I see that in 1979 a high-profile protest by predominantly white middle class suburban residents successfully shut down a nuclear power plant on Long Island.

In stark contrast, most recently Indigenous people on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota were not successful in stopping the Dakota Access pipeline from being constructed through their sensitive water systems and sacred lands. A disproportionate number of people living on environmentally hazardous lands are people of color or people with low income. They protest as we did, but their voices are not always heard.

The natural world is an ecosystem. Impacted by human endeavor. From where I stand now, I have come to understand that although we all share the same sky, not everyone’s voice or shout for environmental justice is equally heard.