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Local activist Lynn Robinson shares stories from the front lines of the Nicetown Gas Plant fight

Lynn at Maplewood Mall in November

Mayor Kenney must’ve thought he’d fallen into the rabbit hole this November when he walked the Maplewood Mall as part of a “groundbreaking tour” for the Mall renovation project. Instead of an appreciative crowd of business owners and neighbors, he got two protestors in Energizer bunny costumes. They marched in front of a crowd of other protestors in oversized sunglasses, banging pots and pans while shouting “no justice, no peace”, “shame, shame” and other slogans about the Nicetown Gas Plant while the Mayor gamely tried to avoid the disturbance.

Lynn Robinson, one of the Energizer duo, enjoys a theatrical protest and the puzzling look on the Mayor’s face must’ve been a small, but welcome, victory for her in a struggle that’s gone on for years against what she views as a grave threat to the air quality of Nicetown and surrounding communities.

We caught up with Lynn, a Germantown resident and driving force behind the “Neighbors Against the Gas Plants” group, to ask about the bunnies, the gas plant status, and where the Neighbors plan to go next with the fight.

Philadelphia’s Air Management Services has given SEPTA until next year to complete the installation of the gas plant. Does that change your tactics or overall strategy for fighting the plant?

We are sticking to our legal challenge of the air pollution permit given by the city’s Air Management Services, and setting some long-term goals, including an air monitoring study of the mile radius. Also there are some local legislative solutions which would prevent other projects like SEPTA’s.

Why the Energizer Bunnies at your Maplewood Mall rally in November? 

For 11 months, we kept hearing a rumor that the SEPTA gas plant was “a done deal.” Mayor Kenney has promoted the project since its inception in 2015, and we wanted our “green” Mayor to know that ignoring the community’s wishes had not dampened our resolve to protect ourselves and our neighbors from toxic dumping.

Neighbors Against the Gas Plants. Maplewood Mall, November. Photo courtesy of Neighbors Against the Gas Plants.

What has been your most effective tactic (or tactics) in this fight?

  1. Encouraging all voices and democratic decision making.
  2. Informing neighbors door to door and at public gatherings.
  3. Our legal challenge: A powerful and risky tactic was our joint decision, with 350 Philadelphia and The Center for Returning Citizens, to mount an appeal to SEPTA’s Air Permit for the gas plant, granted by the City Health Department’s division of Air Management Services. The Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Review Board presided over the case. AMS commented at one of the appeals hearings, that AMS has “never experienced push back like this” on one of their permits. The 23-month appeal process resulted in public recognition of our long-term commitment, proved the public’s commitment, and raised awareness of environmental injustice by race and income. It also raised awareness of Article 1 Section 27 in the PA Constitution, which gives all of us the right to breathe clean air. By the time we became “Energizer Bunnies” at Maplewood Mall, we had been waiting for 4 months in suspense on the delayed verdict. L & I quietly announced it, two days before Thanksgiving. We lost the first round, but believe we have a strong case and are appealing the decision to Common Pleas Court.

What’s been most frustrating about the fight? Most surprising?

Most frustrating has been Mayor Kenney’s refusal to meet with us to discuss the matter and the lack of political will in City Council to propose legislation to demand a study of the cumulative health impacts within a mile radius of SEPTA’s Midvale property.

Most surprising:

  • All 9 appeals hearings were well attended, even though they were on weekdays.
  • There has been a wide range of support, including a letter from a former Nicetown resident who now lives in China, and petition signers from other states.
  • We found friendliness and interest when knocking on doors. I can count on my fingers the people who said they think the issue is not worth worrying about.

What have been your biggest successes? 

One success is preventing a rubber stamp on this project, which supports the success of any environmental justice struggle in our city. Another success is achieving collaboration on an environmental issue, between neighbors who had never met and were of different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic backgrounds.

How do you keep your spirits up?

I try to cultivate an expectation for unpredictable twists of fate and a focus on positive responses.

Appeals hearing protest. September 2019. Photo courtesy of Neighbors Against the Gas Plants.

Lessons learned so far?

  • Polluting industries lie to politicians and the public, so why get upset every time?
  • When others tire and drift away, they often stay close and return at critical times when they are most needed.
  • Diplomacy is a learned skill. It requires confidence, self-respect, very careful listening, and acceptance of other people’s top agendas.
  • Most of us have no idea how local government works. We need widespread, civic education opportunities.
  • Keep a sense of humor

Have you been involved in other environmental protests before? If so, how have your past experiences helped?

Protesting has not prepared me to organize or lead a struggle, but it has been instructive to witness the failures and successes of strategies used during protest movements that have addressed a variety of issues.

A powerful past experience has been three decades teaching public school students, because it encouraged me to creatively adapt in real time, no matter how meticulous the lesson plan.

Some very early helpful experiences for me were studying and performing dance improvisation and composition, and the meditation of drawing and painting. I learned some organizational skills working as a member of a student organization at Temple University.

I became aware that the people could win a social justice struggle when I co-founded and coordinated the PA chapter of the East Timor Action Network in the late 1990s. East Timor had been brutally occupied by Indonesia for over 2 decades. Unexpected economic events helped to turn the political tide and it was critically important that ETAN was poised to immediately respond to unfolding circumstances. When I saw how East Timor won its independence, I learned that the “experts” cannot pretend to predict the future.

Have other cities in the Northeast experienced similar situations with gas plants polluting their air? Anything to be learned from their struggles?

On my birthday, in March, 2017, just a week after learning about SEPTA’s gas plant, the Toronto Star reported that a neighborhood in the York-Crosstown region of Toronto, Ontario, Canada had successfully prevented construction of an 18 megawatt gas plant, a plant designed to make the Metrolinx transit line more reliable. An organized neighborhood convinced Metrolinx to cancel their gas plant and set up a battery back-up system instead.

I do not know of a successful struggle over a plant just like SEPTA’s, which must be trusted to operate under capacity to keep its “synthetic minor” air permit. Unlike the plant in Toronto, SEPTA has no practical use for the plant, so battery back-up is not really needed.

Our resistance to this relatively small pollution source is based on looking at the cumulative pollution that would result from 73 tons of toxic emissions a year and the cumulative health consequences, in an already highly polluted, high-cancer and asthma section of the city. (The bowl-shaped topography of the Nicetown traps pollutants.)

Any natural gas struggle is very challenging in PA, because we are a fracking state. Harrisburg, which provides the largest portion of funding to SEPTA, has pressured SEPTA to buy “natural gas.” Our true opposition is not just SEPTA and AMS, but also politicians and SEPTA board members aligned with the natural gas industry.

What does victory in this fight look like?

We will win by preventing the gas plant from being used, and the current pollution level near Midvale begins to be addressed. Another win is educating people that natural gas is a fossil fuel and – contrary to industry marketing – not clean, or climate protecting.

If you could nix the plant, what form of energy would you prefer SEPTA use in its place? 

SEPTA already has plenty of energy to run the trains because electricity is reliably delivered by PECO. If SEPTA is willing to go green, they can invest in solar panels on their vast real estate holdings in 5 counties or choose a wind energy provider. Also, as they update their bus fleet of 1400 vehicles, they can buy electric buses instead of diesel hybrids.

What’s going on with Cindy Bass? She came out against the plant at first but now seems quiet about the subject. Do you think she still opposes the plant? In your opinion, why has she not engaged?

I cannot pretend to know, and to speculate would be unwise. She has dropped the issue, from what we can tell. We would like that situation to change.

It is worrisome that many Democrats in elected office, including Governor Wolf, Mayor Kenney, and the majority of local state representatives support the continuance of fracking in our state and the expansion of methane and ethane gas infrastructure. This includes more pipelines and LNGs for export as well as the highly polluting production of single-use plastics in Beaver County near Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, the majority of City Council – including Councilwoman Bass – voted in favor of PGW’s new LNG plant in SW Philly.

I hope that the rise of the refinery issue at City Council is bringing Cindy Bass back to the awareness she seemed to have last year. She knows about SEPTA’s plan to expand the gas plant later to a major pollution source – possibly 10X the size! (As written in SEPTA’s published “Design Criteria Document Combined Heat and Power Plant For SEPTA Midvale Site.”)

Outside the Nicetown Plant site. September 2019. Photo courtesy of the Neighbors Against the Gas Plants

Have any local politicians been particularly helpful or supportive of your cause?

Politicians have verbalized support and written letters, but no one has introduced legislation or even a non-binding resolution to block the project demanding that SEPTA postpone the building or operation of the plant until a cumulative health study is conducted.

At the state level, Rosita Youngblood remains supportive. She met with SEPTA officials and wrote several letters, including one addressed to Dr. Rachel Levine, PA Secretary of Health, that her staff read to the L & I Review Board. She has also offered her office as a space to meet. When her staff toured the gas plant structure, they told us it was built large enough to add a 3rd generator, even though the AMS permit is for 2.

Senator Street met with us twice in 2018. He sent a list of our questions to the State Department of Environmental Protection and returned their answers to us. In early June 2018, he produced a powerful letter (co-signed by Senator Haywood, and Representatives Youngblood, Kinsey, Rabb, and Fitzgerald) to the L & I Review Board, which was deciding the appeals case.

Representative Rabb has been supportive, even though the project is not in his district. He made a Youtube video about the issue, and wrote letters to SEPTA,

At the City Council level, incoming Councilperson Kendra Brooks has protested the plant since 2016. Cindy Bass has made statements in City Council since March 2017. In November 2017, in response to conversations with 350 Philadelphia, Cindy, Helen Gym, Blondell Reynolds Brown, and Curtis Jones wrote letters to AMS, asking that they delay the air permit until a cumulative health study could be done.

Unfortunately, the letters were delivered too late in the process. In 2018, we met with her and in mid-June 2018, she wrote a powerful letter to the L & I Review Board, and an Op-Ed which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In November 2018, Councilperson Bass spoke passionately at an appeals hearing and in December 2018 conducted a City Council Health Committee hearing on the effects of disease on public health in Philadelphia neighborhoods. Several groups and individuals testified about the SEPTA gas plant. Blondell Reynolds Brown also spoke at an appeals hearing and conducted an Environmental Committee Hearing about environmental justice issues in the city, where several groups testified about the SEPTA gas plant.

Where do you go from here?

  1. We will appeal the L & I decision to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.
  2. We are setting up an air monitoring study of the neighborhood
  3. We will continue community outreach and education
  4. We’re working with other groups to secure a non-polluting use of the refinery land.
  5. We look forward to coordinating with other groups in convincing City Council to update AMS regulations, which would at minimum, enforce already existing environmental protections in codes and laws at the city, state, and federal levels.
  6. We are working with environmental groups to promote local legislation to adequately address the climate crisis.

Join the Cause!

Neighbors Against The Gas Plants meetings are on the first Tuesday of each month, from 5:45-7:30PM, at Triumph Baptist Church, 2nd floor, located at 1648 W. Hunting Park Avenue. (MAP LINK. Enter through the parking lot on Germantown Ave.)

People can email the Neighbors to request reminders of meetings and rallies (or call/text 215-888-1894). Meetings are announced on our website and on the Neighbors Against The Gas Plants Facebook group or Facebook page.

We are currently fundraising to pay for legal fees and air monitors! Tax-deductible donations can be made at this link!


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