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PennFuture Launches the Our Water, Our Future Campaign to Unify Erie Around Clean Water Goals

Photo courtesy of Bryan Bentz

After years of careful and intentional planning, PennFuture recently opened a new office in Erie. We initially envisioned an opening that included an office in downtown Erie, a press conference with local media, and a meet-and-greet opportunity for community members to connect with PennFuture leadership. 

Like every other organization, our best laid plans evaporated in mid-March with the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic that would completely shut down Pennsylvania’s economy and our ability to travel. 

Instead of a new office space or the benefit of in-person introductions and conversations, I started my new role as a Campaign Manager for Clean Water virtually with many emails that began “I am writing to introduce myself… I’d love to set up a Zoom meeting with you.” Not exactly how we envisioned PennFuture’s entry into Erie, of course.

I was worried about being able to connect with people and organizations remotely, but I have been incredibly surprised by the positive responses I have received. I have met remotely with dozens of people in northwestern Pennsylvania and beyond through Zoom and phone calls. From citizens and non-profit organizations to government agencies and others, I have been amazed by the breadth of work being done and passion for protecting our water resources. I have also seen the need for that work and its importance to be communicated to a broader audience.

Erie is the fifth PennFuture office to open in Pennsylvania. We now cover all four corners of the state in addition to our strong presence in Harrisburg. By expanding into Erie with the “Our Water, Our Future” campaign, PennFuture seeks to increase and amplify the voices for the environment and citizens of Erie by developing a coalition of existing organizations dedicated to protecting our most important asset: our water.

The initial goal for PennFuture in Erie is to bring together organizations to develop a Common Agenda for Clean Water Advocacy. The process for developing this agenda has been taking shape with COVID-19, economic struggles, racial inequality, and social unrest in the background.

As I sit meeting with people at my computer to discuss this very specific goal, the world is changing outside my window. It would be naïve to think that this endeavor will not be impacted by this changing world. But now more than ever people need to organize and stand up for what is right. It is right to stand against inequality and injustice. It is right to stand up for environmental protection. The two are not mutually exclusive and both are intimately connected with our mental and physical wellbeing.

The intersection between inequality, injustice, and environmental protection is well illustrated by the situation with Erie Coke Corporation. For decades this plant, which sits directly on Presque Isle Bay, continued operations despite routinely skirting environmental regulations. Coal and contaminated waste water escaped into the nearby waterways and emissions with benzene and toluene above DEP action levels were regularly spewed into the air. The community surrounding Erie Coke has a 49 percent poverty rate and its population is 54 percent minority. Clearly an injustice was occurring that was disproportionately born by people who were already disenfranchised.

Citizen activists banded together to demand justice for all of Erie, but especially for the community directly surrounding the plant. They formed a group called Hold Erie Coke Accountable (HECA) and asked citizens to share their experiences. Through these actions, HECA raised awareness of the injustices of Erie Coke and eventually, continuous pressure from citizens and the City of Erie led to the plant’s closure.

By unifying around a common goal, citizens and decision makers earned a huge win for Erie and accomplished a step in the right direction to defend the citizens living closest to the plant. I hope to build off of this success on a broader scale and bring people together to continuously protect our water resources, and in doing so, protect our citizens and preserve resources for future generations.

In a time filled with great uncertainty and fear, bringing people together for a positive common goal of protecting water resources has offered me solace and purpose. I look forward to working with the passionate people of Northwest Pennsylvania to advocate for the clean water that our lives and livelihoods depend on. 

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