Fighting for Underground Storage And Civil Rights:
the Legacy of MLK, Jr.

by Lauren Neider

Here in Syracuse we commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day,January 17, by celebrating the struggle for civil rights…and by protesting ongoing local civil rights abuse. The County’s proposed — and NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s approved — sewage treatment plant for the Midland/Blaine area of the South Side would burden an already depressed quality of life. Even before construction begins the proposal has led to the eviction of numerous nearby residents from their homes.

On the 17th, about 120 people marched from the NAACP office on West Onondaga Street through downtown to rally around the Jerry Rescue Monument in Clinton Square. Both children and people old enough to have been around to work with King took part in the march and rally. The marchers’ message: “Underground storage is the way; long live the fight of MLK!”

The fight for underground storage (and against above ground sewage treatment) on the banks of Onondaga Creek extends out of the South Side to Armory Square and throughout the entire city. With an aboveground sewage plant the quality of the creek will continue to be sacrificed as millions of gallons of partially treated and raw sewage laced with chlorine will be dumped into it.

The use of a large underground storage tank, however, would almost eliminate sewage overflow into Onondaga Creek, making the surrounding neighborhood healthier for residents. Chlorine is a health risk: when disinfecting sewage, it creates cancer-causing compounds. The underground storage alternative, on the other hand, only temporarily stores the sewage and does so without chlorine disinfection. The stored sewage is then piped to Metro, the main sewage plant opposite Carousel Center, for full treatment (including safe disinfection with ultraviolent light).

Rally emcee Louise Poindexter described underground storage this way: “It’s cleaner, it’s fair, it’s the right thing to do.”

Last April S.U.’s Law Clinic filed for the Partnership for Onondaga Creek (POC) a Title VI civil rights complaint to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. In response, in September, the EPA began investigating the County and State’s sewage plant proposal. According to POC activist, Aggie Lane, the EPA must “make sure Onondaga County and the state Department of Environmental Conservation aren’t using federal taxpayer money to discriminate.”

If the EPA finds both are discriminating by building the plant as they plan to, federal funds can be withheld from the County and the DEC until they pursue the less discriminating option — underground storage. Action taken at the rally included signing about 100 postcards to Governor Pataki and the EPA urging them to initiate a negotiated, equitable solution that fosters civil rights for Syracuse’s South Side.

History helped make clear the current injustice. Reverend Samuel Hudson and Heniretta Persons spoke of the 1960s struggle for civil rights. Reverend Hudson, who worked with King in Mississippi, described how leaders like King affected African Americans in that time; he said, “They trained us [civil rights activists] how to take the abuse that was put upon us.” Mrs. Persons pointed out, “We’ve only been out of slavery a short time according to history.” The 88 year-old woman, a descendent of one of those involved in the Jerry Rescue, braved the day’s below-freezing weather to add a voice of history to share how progress is possible.

The Jerry Rescue Monument flanked the rally. In the 1850s Jerry, an escaped slave, faced imprisonment and return to bondage when he was rescued here in Syracuse and was helped to find freedom in Canada. In the Midland/Blaine neighborhood, freedom is not found by being relocated.

Vernell Bentley, the last of the evicted residents to leave Blaine Street, spoke while holding up a photo of her boarded-up home. She insisted, “I did not want to go. I had no choice.” People like Mrs. Bentley and others evicted due to the sewage plant aren’t remaining quiet despite the County’s unwillingness to listen. With the Partnership for Onondaga Creek, they’re fighting for equity: health, clean water, and an unstigmatized neighborhood. The fight for justice for people like Vernell Bentley is based on the idea, as Louise Poindexter put it, “We’re going to show them we are number one human beings.”

The ralliers united to make it known they’re still fighting for justice and for the civil rights of all people — despite what the County is attempting to do. Reverend Hudson declared, “We haven’t won yet. We’re still fighting the same battle [as Martin Luther King]....”

Lauren is interning at the Syracuse Peace Council during her field work term at Bennington College. When not attending school, she lives in Cicero, NY. The POC’s Aggie Lane contributed to this article.