It had to be a bittersweet moment for Brian Woolley when The Standard-Times named him the New Bedford Man of the Year in 2008.
At 51, he was finally receiving the kind of public recognition and admiration that had eluded him for years as the founder and driving force behind Wasted Away. That was the name of the neighborhood group that was fighting the city and big business interests over industrial pollution problems on more than 100 acres of land around the new Keith Middle School and New Bedford High School – part of the site of the former Parker Street “burn dump,” where manufacturers burned and buried contaminated waste for decades.
But Woolley also was in the last year of his life, his body weakening from the effects of ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He would die the following October.
Since 2000, he and fellow Wasted Away members Eddie Johnson, Karen Vilandry and the late Evan Rousseau had been the lone voices calling for action against the threat that industrial pollution represented to the thousands of people who lived and worked in the area.
A lot of city leaders tried to marginalize Wasted Away as a bunch of eccentrics – or worse. That’s because Woolley and his friends didn’t have a lot of money or power. What they had, however, was faith in what they were doing and courage to see it through. It is not easy to hold your course when most people wish you would just shut up and go away because you either scare them or threaten to cost them money.
But the city is better off for their fight. Millions of dollars have been spent to clean large swaths of property in and around the old dump site, federal and state environmental officials have been permanently put on notice, and there is good reason to believe that people who live in the neighborhood and who might have gotten sick years from now will not because of the work of Woolley and the courageous members of Wasted Away – which since has been renamed CLEAN (Citizens Leading Environmental Action Network Inc.).
Something like it is happening now in Fairhaven, where a group of citizens who call themselves Windwise is engaged in a fight with the town administrator and Board of Selectmen over a deal they signed with a private wind developer who is building two 400-foot-tall turbines near the Fairhaven bike path on town-owned land off Arsene Street.
The town entered into the agreement because it would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to Fairhaven and enable the developers to skirt a court fight under state regulations that allow communities to enter into such contracts without undergoing the same zoning reviews that would have been necessary if a private developer tried to build the project alone.
The problem is that the town never brought the neighbors into the conversation about whether such a project would be good, safe and smart. In fact, the town signed the contract on the q.t. within days of a townwide vote in favor of building a new elementary school at the top of Sconticut Neck. The wind turbine project was never part of the debate over the new school, and in retrospect it is easy to see why: Had it been part of the discussion, Fairhaven quite possibly would have said “no” to the school project.
Fairhaven is like most other places in 2012. People understand the need to develop renewable sources of energy so that we do not need to rely so much on imported oil and the economic, political and military risks that oil promises. That said, not every project is good for every location. And Windwise points to studies that raise questions about the potential effects of low-frequency noise on the health of children at the new Wood School and families that will live in the shadow of the vast turbines.
The Board of Selectmen no doubt would prefer that Windwise simply get on board, enjoy whatever financial benefits the turbines would represent to Fairhaven and accept assurances that the turbine project will not be harmful to the health of anyone living, working or going to school nearby.
However, good citizenship means challenging elected officials at every level when it makes sense to do so, and it is far wiser to assess health concerns before something is built than after the fact – especially since it seems likely that this matter will end up in court no matter how it is decided.
Fairhaven selectmen and all locally elected officials in every community should find a simple lesson in all this: If you want people to support something you wish to accomplish, you must invite them into the discussion from the start. If you don’t, they will dig in their heels and fight you every step of the way – as they should when government at any level behaves arrogantly.
Call it Democracy 101.
Bob Unger is editor and associate publisher of SouthCoast Media Group, which publishes The Standard-Times and SouthCoastToday.com.