Q&A / Clearing the air with Rebecca Newberry

Photo by kc kratt


The executive director of Clean Air Coalition (CAC) of Western New York is a font of energy, a passionate environmentalist who sees herself as a coach, and an activist for people power. In fact, the organization’s mission is to foster grassroots leadership and support communities in environmental justice and public health campaigns. For Newberry, a native Western New Yorker who joined CAC as an organizer in 2011, the empowering factor in her work is trust, a belief that people in a neighborhood, specifically those disproportionately affected by environmental contaminants, are the ones who best know what they need to move forward. CAC staff, in alliance with community and labor groups, provide training, support, and encouragement for effective action, whether it is prying assistance from recalcitrant environmental protection agencies or holding companies accountable for harmful impact on a community. From a just transition for the Tonawanda area following the Huntley Power Plant closing to Buffalo neighborhood concerns like better lighting and park improvements in the Masten District, Newberry contends that she learns from and is inspired by the “smart and strategic” folks who make up CAC membership. 


A decade ago, Clean Air Coalition was founded by Tonawanda residents unhappy with the state response to concerns that their illnesses were caused by industrial pollution. What are your projects now, and how is it all working?


Our work is a lot deeper—we are focused on creating equity in neighborhoods disproportionately affected by pollution. Participatory budgeting (PB), in which community members directly decide how to spend part of a public budget, is one of our big campaigns. We succeeded in securing $150,000 from the city for a pilot program in PB in the Masten District. Working with councilmember Ulysees Wingo, we held a series of meetings with residents who proposed projects and then voted on what to fund—the result is neighborhood investment directed by Masten residents. This year, we’re doing a similar project in the Niagara District, using discretionary funds from councilmember David Rivera. West Side residents have very high rates of respiratory ailments. We’ve secured funding for the Peace Bridge plaza area, to reduce  emissions from diesel exhaust. In Tonawanda, we have succeeded in reducing the level of benzene [a known carcinogen, which was a widely used industrial chemical and a byproduct of the production of industrial coke] in the ambient air by ninety-two percent.  We’re also focusing on a site in the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood, a waste transfer site where there is a huge problem with soot and noise from trucks and a concrete crusher;  the company is operating without a permit. 


Your work around the closing of the Huntley Power Plant led to a trip to Germany last fall, when the German government invited CAC and the Western New York Area Labor Federation to a kind of minisummit on progressive solutions for communities affected by fossil fuel plant closings. The community labor alliance here resulted in historic legislation to assist communities devastated by these shutdowns. Tell us about what happened in Tonawanda.


The Town of Tonawanda, with its many industrial sites, has the highest concentration of air-regulated facilities in the state. Within a three-mile radius, industrial pollution has taken a toll on people’s health, their quality of life, their rights to live in their homes and raise their kids. For many years, we have helped neighbors to advocate for themselves, to support folks in calling out unresponsive agencies and corporations. As the largest employer in town, the Huntley Station closing affected everyone. We knew it was coming; after all, this was no longer a profitable business model, with natural gas being so much cheaper and cleaner. We worked with labor, including Kenmore teachers, local government officials, and citizen groups to figure out solutions proactively, and help to create a New York State fund to close the gap in funding for the town and school district when that plant closed. This funding has been extended for seven years, to other communities and energy companies across the state. As we look at what’s happening nationwide with the coal industry, ours is a model for community response. This is not planning that can be done in time of crisis. We believe we cannot approach these issues without approaching them from a position of equity and justice, and directly involving the residents, which results in better solutions. Let the people make their own decisions about what is needed, and the government can respond to that. More invested residents make for better neighborhoods.


The Trump administration has brought a whole new tone to the conversation around environmental issues. How do you respond to this? 


Let me just say this work around environmental justice and environmental racism has been going on for a very long time. There are always people who profit off of the bodies of others. I was not surprised by the Trump election, but this business of bringing coal back—well, that is not going to happen, due to market forces. There is a narrative out there that environmental regulations have killed the coal industry, but it’s simply not true. Extracting and burning coal is expensive; it’s no longer a profitable business. Contrast that with the influx of natural gas. The kind of pandering we have seen around this issue is cruel. I have done a lot of work with people in the coal mining states. Rhetoric is a lot easier and less complicated than telling the truth. But folks are going to be out there, working on solutions, no matter what. Resources need to be in the hands of the people most impacted, who can prioritize what is needed.


What are your biggest challenges, looking ahead? And how do you stay motivated?


We’ve done some great work with the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Attorney General’s office in New York State. It’s not so much the federal laws, but how they are enacted and enforced by the states. What types of pollution controls are in place, for example, and how are companies made to demonstrate compliance? Participation in decision-making by residents is paramount. Neighborhoods and communities have not been prioritized.


We prioritize developers here! I think the real question is how accountable are the leaders, of any party? We try to help citizens hold them accountable. Our work at CAC is to coach and support, to validate people in their own experience—telling folks to trust their guts. This is how you mitigate exhaustion, because it is hard work. And I am continually impressed by how smart and strategic our membership is. I have seen the magic and healing that can happen when we organize and get control of our lives. We win a lot. I really like winning, and we have won a lot in a short time. It is really a testament to how and why our members do this work.           


Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.


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