In 2014, I met Shaun Crawford at a Science for Action conference in New Orleans. With similar goals for our communities, we struck up a partnership, realizing science had to converge with civic action and community organizing to affect real change. We also realized that the backbone of this convergence included authentic and equitable partnerships between trained scientists and community members. Shaun is a trained scientist, and although I did receive a BS in Chemistry several years ago, I consider myself a concerned community member turned environmental advocate first. This idea of equitable and respectful collaborations seemed obvious and intuitive to me. Unfortunately, in years to come, I would realize that these practices are often the antithesis of what is cultivated within many university systems that claim to follow this ideology. It is Shaun’s and my goal to bring this issue to light, hopefully to bring about change. The first step is awareness.
From citizen science to winning clean air victories
In 2004, my suburban community in Buffalo started a citizen science campaign of environmental sampling and organizing, including collaboration with the scientists at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC). This unlikely and ultimately successful partnership led to the Tonawanda Community Air Study, revealing that the predominant source of the toxic air pollution in our community was coming from a nearby industrial facility called Tonawanda Coke Corp. (TCC). We organized around science and the results paid off. In 2009, the U.S. Coast Guard, the USEPA, the NYS DEC and the Department of Justice (DOJ) stormed the facility with a federal search warrant, removing the environmental manager in handcuffs.
The ensuing regulatory investigations and lawsuits led to one of the largest environmental justice cases in history. Our goal was never to shut the plant down, only to clean it up. But in 2018 the company filed for bankruptcy and shuttered the plant after mounting violations and costs associated with compliance with state regulations became prohibitive. We eventually won our battle for clean air. Hazardous air pollutants in our community were significantly reduced, including a 97% reduction in benzene. Tonawanda Coke was ordered to pay millions in dollars in fines, including $12.5 million toward two community studies.
Scientists and community members both win when they work together
One of the funded studies included a $711,000 comprehensive soil study that our community group calling ourselves Citizen Science Community Resources, submitted to the judge presiding over the criminal case. This was a big win for our community, or so I thought. Our collaboration with the scientists at the NYS DEC was successful because our partnership was based on respect and equity. There was also a clear plan that our community helped develop.
NYS DEC Engineer Al Carlacci commented, “We ended up working very well together. The only way forward is if everyone is pulling in the same direction”.
We indeed were all pulling in the same direction, in the direction to help the community understand the extent of air pollution’s impact on our health. It seemed the next logical step was to collaborate with scientists at the local university, as we did with the scientists at the NYS DEC and USEPA.
Partnerships must be built on shared trust and understanding
In the next few years, I learned that our successful collaboration with state scientists was not necessarily the norm. With the university, we were not always on the same page. One of the biggest roadblocks was the perception that the community was the opposition.
“There isn’t a unified belief among the opposition,” a university professor commented at a meeting.
The resulting soil study, from our community’s group perspective, was a complete failure. Today, we continue to question if it is safe to garden and if our children and pets are in harm’s way because of toxins in our soil. Regarding the health study, after several attempts to collaborate with the university researchers, we continue to be shut out of the process. However, we will continue to try. Because this is what we do, we don’t give up. After all, we fought 16 years against TCC’s injustice. We cannot afford to quit fighting all of the environmental and community injustice we see in all corners of our country. Our loss of a potentially successful collaboration with our university “partners” makes me incredibly sad and frustrated, but we continue to believe that with communication and education, there may be reconciliation.
Our message would be that university systems must better learn how to work with the communities they serve. And that begins with authentic, respectful and equitable collaborations. Community engagement and collaboration shouldn’t be a check box in a research project. If you are a trained scientist that currently works with or intends to work with a community, the good news is, there exists a document that outlines how to do this. Check it out, Scientist-Community Partnerships. The future of our environment and health depends on forging equitable collaborations.
Jackie James is the founder and board chair of Citizen Science Community Resources. In 2014, she received the Environmental Quality Award from the EPA for her leadership and science-based activism in the fight against clean air violations at Tonawanda Coke. Additionally, in 2018, she was recognized with the “Whistle Blower” award by the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo for bringing attention to pollution coming off the plant and for leading the subsequent #STOPTHESTACK campaign that led to the company’s closure. In 2005, Jackie and her neighbors founded the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, and worked together to hold the company and its environmental manager responsible for emitting benzene, particulate matter, and other dangerous chemicals into surrounding neighborhoods. Today, Jackie works with fellow Western New York residents as board chair of Citizen Science Community Resources and mentors communities nationwide. You can learn more about her current work here.
Dr. Shaun Crawford is the technical advisor for Citizen Science Community Resources. He is an environmental and health consultant with advanced degrees in Environmental Engineering and Industrial Hygiene. Dr. Crawford has participated in extent of contamination studies for environmental pollutants since 1992.
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