Williamsburg/Greenpoint (Brooklyn) Case Study

    The Williamsburg/Greenpoint (hereafter "Williamsburg") areas of Brooklyn, New York long have endured more than their fair share of pollution. Williamsburg is a low-income area in the New York borough; African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Latinos combine to account for more than half of the area's population. Robert W. Collin & Robin Morris Collin, The Role of Communities in Environmental Decisions: Communities Speaking for Themselves, J. Envtl. L. & Litig. 37, 79 (1998). Since 1967, the area has hosted New York City's largest sewage treatment plant (which receives waste not only from Brooklyn but also Manhattan). Nancy E. Anderson, Notes From the Front Line, 21 Fordham Urb. L.J. 757, 762 (1994). Williamsburg also contains a number of heavily polluting industries. Collin at 79. For years, residents have argued that their community not only has endured objectively unacceptable levels of pollution but also that it has been saddled with a disproportionate share of the city's waste. Douglas Martin, Boroughs Battle Over Trash as Last Landfill Nears Close, N.Y. Times, Nov. 16, 1998, at Bl. See also Joseph R. Lentol, Editorial, Let's Make a Start on Environmental Justice with Brooklyn, N.Y. Times, Feb. 25, 1994, at A28 (complaining about environmental racism in the Williamsburg area). Not unexpectedly, rates of pollution linked illnesses such as stomach cancer and leukemia are higher among Williamsburg residents than other New Yorkers.  Robert D. McFadden, Survey Finds High Cancer Rate in Two Neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y. Times, May 23, 1992, at 1-27.

    After years of complaining about their neighborhood's environmental situation, residents of Williamsburg finally got results. Under a 1991 court order, the Williamsburg community 'obtained funding for an environmental benefits program (EBP) with the stated objective of involving community in environmental planning, risk assessment, and decision-making,' Collin at 79. This program empowered local residents, allowing them to monitor their community's environmental situation rather than deferring exclusively to external organizations. Id. Moreover, in 1995, Williamsburg established an 'environmental watchdog office" that hears environmental complaints from residents and passes them on to the appropriate city office, thereby acting as a facilitator between the people and their government. Laura Williams, Northwest Brooklyn Pollution Watch On, Daily News (New York), July 27, 1995, at 8.

    As cries for environmental justice have intensified over the past decade, the federal government has invested more time in assessing the problems in Williamsburg and, hopefully, remedying them. Early in 1999, the White House Council on Environmental Quality included Williamsburg in a nation-wide environmental justice investigation. The council chose cities and communities with high minority concentrations that seemed to a bear disproportionately high environmental burdens. Paul H. B. Shin, Waste Probe Launched Garbage Transfer is Pops on Feds' List, Daily News (New York), March 9, 1999, at 1. The federal government also made efforts to work along side, rather than independent of, local grassroots organizations such as the EBP. Id.

    Despite community involvement and national attention, Williamsburg remains plagued by its high levels of pollution. The Williamsburg case study reminds us that shortcomings in environmental justice do not disappear over night.

    The law review articles by Anderson and Collin & Collin give the best general overview of the "who, what, when, where" questions regarding Williamsburg. The articles also discuss the efficacy of the movement to reduce environmental injustice in the neighborhood and how that movement compares to similar efforts in other cities. As with the other case studies, the newspaper articles combine to add more factual detail and anecdotal evidence to supplement the law review articles.