United Workers Youth Take Fair Development Fight to their own Community


United Workers is building a city-wide movement for Fair Development, identifying abuses throughout the city, organizing impacted communities and making visible what many of the disparate problems facing Baltimore’s neighborhoods have in common:  publicly subsidized projects that fuel private gain with no accountability to communities.   

United Worker youth members from Benjamin Franklin High School are joining the chorus of neighborhood residents questioning whether development projects in the city truly ensure their rights and meet their needs.  The youth are demanding that Maryland public officials stop the planned development of a 140-megawatt “green jobs” power plant in their neighborhood of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay. 

Like far too many publicly subsidized projects in Baltimore, the project was designed without meaningful community participation and is of questionable environmental and economic value.   The power plant – touted as likely to produce 180-200 green jobs — was approved by the Maryland Public Service Commission despite marked concerns from the environmental community and claims of “green washing.”  

The students found the “green washing” particularly egregious given the industrial sites that already exist in their neighborhood and released a video earlier this month giving a tour of their Brooklyn-Curtis Bay neighborhood in Baltimore. The clip highlights cherished community spaces– a vegetable garden and park– shadowed by industrial facilities that prior development has produced:  a coal terminal, gas and oil tanks, and a chemical plant.  The proposed power plant will be built on the site of a former chemical plant, and is located within a mile of Benjamin Franklin high school, a local elementary school, and a recreation center.

Using the Fair Development Human Rights Principles developed by NESRI and United Workers, which have proven effective in critiquing prior development projects such as Baltimore’s Casino and the Harbor Point Project, the students assessed the project and found it lacking in every way: 

Participation:   The United Workers youth group, Free Your Voices, surveyed over 100 community members and found only a handful even knew of the project.  [Most had serious concerns when presented with the details.]  Few public community meetings had been held prior to Public Service Commission approval, and one key gathering was scheduled during the summer at a time that made participation by working class members of the community difficult. 

Transparency:  Energy Answers, the company that initiated the project, refused student requests for information, and the Company, City, or Commission did not conduct any assessment of the project’s community health risk. 

Equity:  Brooklyn-Curtis Bay appears to have disproportionately borne the negative impacts of harmful development since Baltimore's heyday as an industrial city, and has little to show for it in return.  In 2008, The Brooklyn-Curtis Bay zip code registered the "highest level of toxic air emissions" in the United States.  The Incinerator continues this pattern.  Despite a state law that prohibits its location within a mile of public schools, the Company was able to obtain a project "re-classification" that allowed it to skirt the requirement.  The project site is within miles of a traditional incinerator that already exists in the neighboring community of Cherry Hill. Furthermore, promised jobs, even if they materialize, have not been targeted to community members. 

Universality:  Who benefited from claimed energy savings is unclear.  A consortium of purchasers, including the Baltimore City Public Schools, have committed themselves to buying energy from the project, but little or no benefit will flow to City households already strapped by unemployment, low-wage service work, and foreclosures.   While no one project is likely to benefit everyone, the pattern reflected here illustrated an overall pattern of certain communities constantly being left out.  

Accountability:  The ability of community members to hold Energy Answers or state officials liable for negative public health consequences of the Project is questionable, at best. Energy Answers is not legally required to provide any return to the community, such as jobs, housing, or environmental cleanup. 

In response, the United Workers youth group is proposing a process that includes meaningful community involvement, a Health Impact Assessment, direct mail reports to community members by Energy Answers, a Baltimore "master plan" that ensures an equitable sharing of the negative impacts of development by Baltimore neighborhoods, resident hiring, and a means for holding private and public officials accountable. 

The analysis caught the attention of State Senator Bill Ferguson, who met with the group, and called the student assessment a "case study" for policy makers considering similar projects.  Environmentalists, who had been unable to forge effective community ties with Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, have rallied behind the group, giving it legal and policy support.

The student activism is timely.  In February 2012, Energy Answers missed a construction deadline, but the state Commission granted the company an 18-month extension.  The extended deadline passed in August, and though Energy Answers argues its last minute attempt to break ground satisfied the state-set condition, the Maryland Department of Environment is investigating.

Students are asking supporters to take this opportunity to sign a petition asking Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to halt the project, and create a process whereby impacted communities not only participate in the decision-making on publicly subsidized projects, but are given priority in reaping the benefits of development.