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Monday, March 28, 2011

Confessions of a NIMBY enabler

NIMBY (“Not in my backyard”) is a common term describing people opposed to LULUs (“Locally Undesirable Land Uses”).

For almost 20 years, I helped to organize hundreds of NIMBY groups as an organizer in the national environmental movement. From 1981 to 1989, I worked with Lois Gibbs of Love Canal fame as her national organizing director in what was then called the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (now called the Center for Health and Environmental Justice).  From 1990 through 1998, I was staff director for the Citizens Coal Council, a national federal of groups fighting the environmental damage caused by coal mining.

In both jobs, I travelled to every part of the country and helped local groups fight to block LULUs such as multi-state giant landfills, hazardous waste incinerators, coal mines, gas discharges, nerve gas and chemical weapons storage, million-gallon lagoons for liquid pig manure from factory farms and so on.

I wrote several guidebooks to help local groups fight LULUs. The most popular was the March 1987 piece “How to Deal with a Proposed Facility,” a generic guide to fighting a wide variety of LULUs. We ran training schools that taught hundreds of leaders how to stop LULUs.

I always felt proud when local groups rose up and beat back giant multi-national corporations such as Waste Management Inc. or Peabody Coal. I encouraged groups take pride in their fight for their families and their communities – and not to be afraid to be called a NIMBY. We even made t-shirts with the motto – “I’m NIMBY and I’m Proud.”

But I hate it when groups used the same organizing methods to block good things. My first direct experience was during the 1980s. I was asked to counter one such group that emerged out of a neo-Nazi cell in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin to fight a group home for the developmentally disabled. My mission in that instance was to help the organizers of the group home to overcome tactics that literally came out of a book I had written. Since I knew the method and its weaknesses, the NIMBY group was defeated.

Now I am near the end of my working days and live in Charlestown, right in the middle of more NIMBY fights, many of them for dubious purposes.
One such local NIMBY fight is led by the Wilcox East Neighborhood Association in Westerly. Their unstated purpose is to drive the WARM Center out of their neighborhood by strangling WARM’s plans to build affordable housing for the disabled and upgrade its services to the homeless. 

Wilcox East's leaders use classic tactics such as “running out the clock,” where you try to delay a project until its funding goes away. It makes me sick to my stomach to see how they used tactics I once taught as a way to stop toxic waste sites to hurt WARM, a fine and necessary local agency.

In Charlestown, we’ve seen small local groups flare up whenever a new affordable housing project is announced. These groups haven’t lasted long or really taken root, mainly because didn’t need to. They can count on Charlestown's premier NIMBY group, its Planning Commission, to kill the project for them.

But Charlestown’s strangest recent NIMBY group is Ill Wind RI, the group formed to block Larry LeBlanc’s proposed Whalerock wind turbine project that has since morphed into a rabid anti-wind energy group. 

When I worked with local groups fighting toxic and environmental threats, I advised them at the outset to avoid turning their opposition to a specific local threat into some sort of pseudo-scientific cult. To oppose a 500-acre multi-state landfill across the street from your local school does not require you to be a scientific expert on landfills nor do you need to religiously oppose all landfills for all purposes everywhere.

The opponents of LeBlanc’s wind turbines did not need to turn into an anti-wind power jihad to fight the Whalerock project. The project was easily defeated on the merits, including US Energy Department wind maps (see right - CLICK TO ENLARGE) that cast doubt on the financial viability of commercial turbines on any Charlestown land that isn’t right on the coast. Plus, the Planning Commission is opposed to building anything anywhere.

Instead of staying focused on the honorable effort to stop Whalerock, Ill Wind linked with other odd little groups in the quest to demonize all wind power. 

They cite thoroughly discredited pseudo-scientists like Eric RosenbloomIll Wind draws on material posted on an energy industry blog called the Energy Collective. This blog is loaded with anti-wind and pro-nuclear material. The blog is sponsored by Siemens, one of the world’s leading manufacturers and builders of nuclear and fossil fuel power plants, though ironically, Siemens also builds wind turbines. Salon called the Energy Collective a tool for the fossil fuel and nuclear industry

The PR firm hired by Siemens to operate the Energy Collective says that’s unfair. They say the blog posters are just a group of energy industry professionals trying to have an honest dialog and share information.     From what I read from the Energy Collective blog myself, I think Salon got it exactly right.

There's lots of fossil fuel industry funding behind anti-wind NIMBY groups. The infamous Koch family is funding the biggest group trying to block the Cape Wind offshore turbine farm. Anti-wind front groups and “research institutes” around the world such as the Heartland Institute, are funded by nukes and fossil fuel giants

Here in Charlestown, a liberal community by just about all objective measures, we see battle after battle against projects that are generally considered good things. Whether it’s affordable housing, a better use for the ugly driving range or alternative energy, intense and often personal conflicts arise to tear us apart.

Two weeks ago, the Sunday New York Times ran a piece that describes the situation we are in (“Green Development? Not in My (Liberal) Backyard). While this article doesn’t offer many ready solutions to resolving our divisive local NIMBY fights, I found it oddly comforting that we are not so unusual when we vote liberal, say we support affordable housing and claim to be staunch environmentalists, yet don’t act on those principles. 

Author: Will Collette