Significant Maritime Industrial Areas, or SMIA’s, are zones designed to encourage the clustering or concentration of heavy industrial and polluting infrastructure uses .
More than 600,000 people live and work in six communities in New York City designated as SMIA’s .
These six SMIA’s are all in storm surge zones . NYC-EJA discovered that the City had not analyzed the cumulative contamination exposure risks associated with clusters of heavy industrial use in vulnerable locations such as these . In response to this discovery, NYC-EJA launched the Waterfront Justice Project (WJP) in 2010, New York City’s first citywide community resiliency campaign to convince the City administration to reform the waterfront SMIA designation .
An SMIA of particular concern has been the Sunset Park SMIA which extends from Erie Basin to Owls Head, an area characterized by water-dependent facilities, concentrations of industrial activity, well-buffered manufacturing districts, and vacant sites and brownfields. Additionally there are chemical and petroleum bulk storage facilities, power generation plants and a water pollution control plant within Sunset Park .
The population at risk within this SMIA is largely low-income (44%) and population of color (66%) . Sunset Park has a very dense population of 39,710 people per square mile (compared to 34,917 in other neighborhoods) that suffers from high rates of cancer and asthma as well as diabetes and stroke . Concerned residents and community activists from this SMIA and the other five joined together to form the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance (NYC-EJA) to address the disproportionate environmental burden of siting pollution-generating plants on communities of color . The nature of SMIA’s is concerning for vulnerable populations, specifically the threat of storm surges (similar to Hurricane Katrina) that could wash over these clusters of heavy industry and infrastructure, spreading chemicals throughout waterfront communities such as Sunset Park and leaving brownfields in a worse condition .
A Sandy Regional Assembly Recovery Meeting convened in 2013 to develop community priorities for the Administration to consider. This association environmental justice organizations, community-based groups, labor unions and allies from Superstorm Sandy-impacted and storm surge-vulnerable areas in New York City, New Jersey and Long Island met to assess the aftermath of Sandy and the role of local communities in the Sandy Recovery process. They advocate for a grassroots-led recovery that includes priorities of low-income people, communities of color, immigrants, and workers. One of the priorities that came out of this meeting was to expedite and prioritize remediation of Superfund sites and badly contaminated brownfields in waterfront areas vulnerable to storm surge. A second priority is that NYC must complete its update of the Waterfront Revitalization Program begun 10 months prior to Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 .
An important consideration for the ever growing threat of climate change impacts is that storms don’t discriminate based on race or class. The disparity is in the response to the disaster. Neighborhoods that suffer the most after hurricanes and large storms are low-income, communities of color and elderly populations. SMIA’s like Sunset Park are classic environmental justice communities . Located in Brooklyn, Sunset Park is NYC’s largest SMIA and clusters the city’s most toxic and polluting land uses.
Hurricane Sandy’s surge covered the majority of this SMIA . In response to this natural disaster, UPROSE, a partner with NYC-EJA, launched the Sunset Park Climate Justice and Community Resiliency Center, NYC’s first grassroots-led, bottom-up, climate adaptation and community resiliency planning project . NYC-EJA worked closely with members in SMIA communities on a reform campaign to overhaul NYC’s coastal zone management plan known as the Waterfront Revitalization Program (WRP) which was approved by the City Planning Commission and City Council in October 2013 . According to the WRP, it will consider climate change impacts, mandate vulnerability assessments by new industrial businesses seeking to site in SMIA’s, ensure that vulnerability assessments reveal potential impacts on residents and workers, consider risks associated with open storage of hazardous materials during extreme weather, and include design guidelines for coastal development.