By Colleen Beverly Baublitz and Avantika Goswami
The Sioux at Standing Rock captivated the nation with their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which threatens their access to clean drinking water and increases our dependence on fuels that contribute to climate change. But while a similar battle rages on in our own backyard, few in New York City seem to notice.
The Pilgrim Pipelines are two parallel pipelines, each 170 miles long, proposed to be built between Albany, New York and Lindon, New Jersey along the New York State Thruway (I-87). They would carry Bakken shale oil southwards and transport flammable and carcinogenic petroleum products northwards, crossing five counties in New Jersey and six in New York. The pipelines are touted as an enhancement of New York state’s oil transportation infrastructure, currently comprised of rail and barge.
However, the proposed route passes through the watershed of an indigenous group in north-central New Jersey, the Ramapough Lenape Nation. The pipelines would also cross two primary aqueducts that supply drinking water to millions of people in New York City, making this everybody’s battle, not just the Ramapough’s. In addition to increasing our dependence on fossil fuels that exacerbate anthropogenic climate change, the proposed pipeline route bisects essential habitat for several threatened or endangered species—including bald eagles, bobcats, and barred owls—reducing their capacity for recovery.
In 2016, the New York State Department of Environmental Services determined that “there is a potential for multiple significant adverse environmental impacts” from the Pilgrim Pipelines, including threats to water quality, human health, and several unique geological and archaeological sites. Since then, many towns along the proposed route in NY and NJ passed resolutions opposing the pipelines. The Ramapough opened the Split Rock Sweetwater Prayer Camp (SRSW) on their privately held land in Mahwah, NJ, as a meeting space for organizing opposition to the pipelines, and to support those at Standing Rock.
While the Sioux continue their struggle against DAPL, the Ramapough and their allies succeeded in stalling the development of the Pilgrim Pipelines. However, the Ramapough now face intense pressure to leave what remains of their ancestral land due to persistent legal charges levied against them by a nearby wealthy community called the Polo Club. The Polo Club and the Mahwah Township allege that the Ramapough violated municipal zoning laws by building essential ‘structures,’ like teepees, without a permit. Although the tribe applied for a permit in early 2017, it was rejected because they lacked documentation. Their legal representation responded by arguing that the tribe’s long-standing religious practice shouldn’t be restricted on the basis of zoning regulations, formed in 1995. The Ramapough also argued that the teepees are temporary structures, similar to tents, but the judge didn’t agree. As a result, the tribe was sentenced to pay over $13,000 in fines. Mahwah initially sought closer to $130,000 in penalties, but either sum poses a large financial burden to the tribe.
Since this trial concluded, Mahwah moved to force the tribe to ‘demolish and remove’ all structures at SRSW. The motion was rejected because the county’s Municipal Court can only levy fines, but this action indicates that the township remains unsatisfied while the Ramapough continue to inhabit their plot of land. In addition, current zoning laws restrict the tribe from building more elaborate structures on their land because it is located within a potential flood zone.
While the tribe lacks a mechanism for legal approval to build on their property, it’s unclear how they can continue to live on land they’ve inhabited since time immemorial.
The challenges posed by the Mahwah Township threaten not only the indigenous community’s cultural sovereignty and heritage, but also their capacity to organize against the Pilgrim Pipelines. SRSW camp once served as a useful resource for environmental activists, but this legal battle hinders the tribe’s capacity to welcome others to their land. Despite all of this, the Ramapough continue to focus what remains of their energy and resources to speak out against the Pilgrim Pipelines and in defense of clean air and water for NJ and NY.
To learn more about the Ramapough’s fight for environmental justice, join Science for the People for a documentary screening of Mann v. Ford on Sunday, April 8 at 7pm at Bluestockings Bookstore & Café and follow #RamapoughStrong on social media.
Colleen Beverly Baublitz is a Columbia University doctoral student researching air pollution and climate change at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She’s also a member of Science for the People, an activist organization that works toward improving equity in our societal application of science.
Avantika Goswami is a Program Manager at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a member of Science for the People.