Fighting environmental racism by supporting participation in Providence, Rhode Island

Audrey Irvine-Broque

“National Grid would not try and capitalize on this land if they thought the people would be able to adequately defend themselves.”

In March of 2017, a high-pressure natural gas pipeline owned by Spectra Energy leaked around 19 million cubic feet of natural gas in South Providence (RI). This wasn’t the first time that residents of South Providence were faced with concern for their health. For as long as most residents can remember, the Port of Providence has been home to a high concentration of toxic and dangerous industrial facilities, located next to a low-income community of color that has already suffered high asthma rates and environment-related illnesses.

Now, National Grid is planning to expand their operations to include a natural gas liquefaction facility in the Port of Providence, where they would convert fracked gas into Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) for export. The LNG production plant will be next to an existing LNG storage tank, the biggest oil import terminal in Southern New England, and a chemical storage facility with a 14-mile hazard radius. This blast zone radius puts all of Rhode Island at risk.

Liquified Natural Gas is known to have dangerous levels of hazardous and/or cancer-causing materials including lead, cyanide, arsenic, benzene, toluene, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and others. The grassroots organization opposing this construction, No LNG in PVD says this facility is to be built at the expense of the health of residents of South Providence.

Formed in 2016, No LNG in PVD is a collective of grassroots and nonprofit organizations and frontline community members dedicated to stopping the construction of National Grid’s Fields Point Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) liquefaction facility. No LNG in PVD is fighting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure because of the regional and global impact of fossil fuel extraction and use. But they are also fighting the environmental racism happening right before their eyes - an issue they think city governments and environmental activists alike need to pay more attention to.

Environmental racism is the unequal access to or consequences from the environment due to the race, and often socio-economic class of the community. In this case, the residents of South Providence have been unjustly burdened by the health risks of living near a liquefaction facility, and face continued threats with the expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure.

South Providence is the most racially diverse neighborhood in Providence - in a state that’s around 84% white, this community is only 5% white. Many residents of this neighborhood are English language learners - another barrier to participating in the city’s political process. Organizers say that National Grid is putting the facility in this community of color because its less affluent and less white population is considered less likely to have the means to resist - a move familiar to those who know the long history of environmental injustice (and the subsequent Environmental Justice Movement) in the United States and abroad. Corporations and governments often assume that the lack of traditional political power in these communities means that they will be able to create hazardous environments without the same degree of backlash.

No LNG in PVD knows that some common organizing practices must be changed in order to counter this presumption - namely, to ensure that residents of the South Side are able to participate in the political process and have the support to do so. Recognizing the barriers to the political process that exist in this neighborhood, they use community education, canvassing, and legal engagements, they work to ensure that the community of South Providence has the power to fight this facility. No LNG in PVD organizers prepare residents of the South Side to testify at community hearings, but also offer childcare or other support to the community to remove barriers to their voices being heard. They are engaging with various councils to have a hearing in the neighborhoods that will be affected, so more residents can actually attend close to home.

"We want to make residents’ role in this resistance as seamless as possible. We recognize that the work that is being asked of the community will require stipends to compensate the members for their time as well as mental labor to educate each other. We work to meet community members where they are in order to shift these dynamics,” shared Wassa Bagayoko, a student at Brown University, where a number of students are acting in solidarity with organizers on the South Side.

"We demand alternatives and a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. If $180 million of our own money is being invested in energy, it should be invested in community-owned renewable energy,” says the group. “We want jobs in our own communities in South Providence, that are life-sustaining and support healthy communities, not toxic risks. We demand climate justice, which means racial justice, economic justice, and no new investments in fossil fuels.”

You can learn more about No LNG in PVD and support their efforts here. No LNG in PVD was one of the Grassroots Fund’s fall Grow grantees. Learn more about our grant programs here - the spring Grow deadline is March 15th.