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Bridgeport apartment complex residents fight for health, and a say

The smoke stack from WIN Waste Innovations' waste disposal plant looms in the background of PT Barnum and playground across the street.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
The smoke stack from WIN Waste Innovations' waste disposal plant looms in the background of PT Barnum and playground across the street.

The pepperoni and cheese pizzas, organic mango juices and plastic water bottles sat mostly unattended until dozens of people arrived by busload and formed a long line to take advantage of the complimentary Friday night dinner.

PT Partners, an organization of residents who reside at three low-income public housing complexes in Bridgeport, including the P.T. Barnum Apartments, had arrived for a community conversation at Fairfield University on a cold February evening. Founded in 2014, the women-led nonprofit empowers residents to exercise their collective power to foster change in the community. The dozens of people showing up to the forum were a testament to its work.

“As a team, we have had moments where we are in awe of ourselves,” said Vanessa Liles, co-project director of PT Partners, “that we have been able to be the thing we said we would be years ago.”

During the meeting, residents talked about recent partnerships, such as those with the Center for Social Impact and the Bridgeport Police Department, then shared their thoughts on needed public safety improvements, like higher speed bumps, a non-emergency police presence and working property cameras.

Not on the agenda that night was talk about noises, pollution or smells at P.T. Barnum. But the “clean air is justice” T-shirt and an air purifier handed out during a raffle at the end of the night were a silent acknowledgement that all three were a problem for the mostly Black and Latino community.

Residents of P.T. Barnum who live closer to the nearby water waste treatment facility report smells of garbage lingering in the air throughout the summer months.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
Residents of P.T. Barnum who live closer to the nearby water waste treatment facility report smells of garbage lingering in the air throughout the summer months. 

More recently, the organization has been protesting the expansion of two wastewater treatment facilities near P.T. Barnum. The residents say their close proximity to these facilities has played an outsized role in the declining health of the community, prompting them to seek greater involvement in the renovation process.

“In reality, we are demanding to be heard,” said Dione Dwyer, system change coordinator for PT Partners who has lived at P.T. Barnum for two decades. Dwyer is also a member of The Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.

System change coordinator Dione Dwyer stands in front of a converted police substation that serves as a hub for PT Partners.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
System change coordinator Dione Dwyer stands in front of a converted police substation that serves as a hub for PT Partners. 

P.T. Barnum is an outlier in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport, the most expensive neighborhood in a city listed as one of the most fiscally and economically distressed municipalities in the state. Residents there are also regularly exposed to potential environmental hazards, earning it a designation as one of the many “environmental justice communities” across Connecticut.

Managed by the Bridgeport Housing Authority, P.T. Barnum consists of 18 residential buildings with 360 units. Built in 1946, the complex is a short walk from the West Side Wastewater Treatment Plant and stands close to the East Side Wastewater Treatment Plant, both of which have not undergone major upgrades since the early 2000s.

In 2019, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ordered the city of Bridgeport and the Water Pollution Control Authority, which operates both wastewater treatment plants near P.T. Barnum, to upgrade the facilities.

They suffer from aging infrastructure and have been subject to multiple permit violations for not properly treating wastewater discharged into Long Island Sound, according to a recent Environmental Impact Evaluation, which can harm the environment and human health — from fish and wildlife populations to depleting oxygen and contaminating drinking water.

To remedy the problem, renovations are expected to include the “retention and retrofitting” of existing facilities, the construction of new buildings and the demolition of other structures, all of which are slated to be completed by October 2028.

Several plants sit directly across the street from the P.T. Barnum complex.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
Several plants sit directly across the street from the P.T. Barnum complex. 

State law requires that environmental justice communities have “an appropriate opportunity” to participate in decisions about the expansion of existing facilities that may adversely affect their environment or health.

But P.T. Barnum residents say that they were not originally involved in any discussions about the renovation.

Neither the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection nor the city of Bridgeport, which an employee of the WPCA referred CT Mirror to, made themselves available for comment.

Since organizing its first meeting with the WPCA in 2021, PT Partners has expressed a desire for a construction plan that meets the needs of residents living near the plant and addresses concerns about the poor air quality and foul odors most prevalent during the summer.

Among its list of demands: the planting of native trees running along the WPCA and P.T. Barnum border to mitigate air pollution; information on the air quality benefits expected after completion of the project; and transparency and communication with construction and design.

They have not gone ignored. Not only has the WPCA implemented some of the demands into its plans, but the organization’s advocacy has also impressed local officials.

“The PT Partners have been great in terms of advocating for themselves and speaking about what they want and how things could be, should be,” said Scott Burns, a member of the Bridgeport City Council representing the 130th District, which includes P.T. Barnum. It was Burns who alerted residents about the WPCA expansion. “I think they’re really doing the work that needs to be done in terms of building up resident leadership capacity and different skills to be active and effective community members.”

As residents of Bridgeport’s largest public housing complex, the members of this group have always had to fight for inclusion — and for their health.

O&G Bridgeport Asphalt Plant is one of the plants located directly across the street from P.T. Barnum.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
O&G Bridgeport Asphalt Plant is one of the plants located directly across the street from P.T. Barnum. 

They are less than two miles from Interstate 95, which is occupied by tens of thousands of vehicles emitting pollutants everyday. They are surrounded by asphalt, concrete and disposal plants; demolition, plastic fabrication, road construction and waste management companies; and the two water pollution treatment centers.

They say they have had no choice but to fight for their well-being, a characteristic common for people residing in environmentally hazardous areas.

“These are folks who often have marginal employment, marginal opportunity, and they are taking a stand where they can, in the spaces, in the places that they live,” said Michel Gelobter, executive director of the Yale Center for Environmental Justice, speaking about environmental justice communities. “There’s no shortage, without resistance, to what folks will do to communities that don’t have power.”

In 1970, Gary Crooks, an 8-year-old P.T. Barnum resident, drowned in a settling tank at the West Side wastewater treatment plant, according to news archives, when he fell from a cement walk while playing with his brother and another child.

The tragic accident devastated the community, resulting in the establishment of the Gary Crooks Memorial Center in the neighborhood. The center was once home to a vibrant arts center where children from P.T. Barnum participated in camps, music and photography. Currently, it serves as an administrative office space for the Bridgeport Housing Authority.

Residents used to participate in activities at the memorial center as children. They say the growth of the WPCA and other industries in the neighborhood have had a negative effect on their community, from air quality to asthma. And they say the facilities are partly to blame for their declining health, though their supporting evidence is anecdotal.

The emergence of PT Partners has for many people revitalized the community. During the early years of the organization, PT Partners talked about the need for more resident involvement. To earn people’s trust, they realized they needed to feel empowered.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

As devastating as it was, members saw the public health crisis as an opportunity to serve. Wearing gloves, masks and armed with hand sanitizer, they traveled door-to-door, capturing a sense of the community’s needs. The surveys turned into applications for grant funding, and once accepted, they began to deliver essentials like diapers, laundry detergent and toilet paper to the community.

When April Ward moved to P.T. Barnum almost a decade ago, she mostly preferred to keep to herself and her two children, Justice and Licella. The persistence of PT Partners, however, has pushed her to get more involved.

“They are very, very persistent people, and they really care,” Ward said. “It’s not like a facade.”

P.T. Barnum resident and PT Partners member April Ward knocks on a neighbor’s door to distribute a flyer for upcoming home inspections.
Shahrzad Rasekh
/
CT Mirror
P.T. Barnum resident and PT Partners member April Ward knocks on a neighbor’s door to distribute a flyer for upcoming home inspections. 

She now works as a building captain, a position that allows her to engage with other residents and keep them informed about what’s happening in the community, just as she did on a recent sunny spring day following a weekend of shootings in the neighborhood.

One of the people Ward interacted with that day was her friend, Blossom Schovanec, 60, a resident since 2006 who previously worked with PT Partners. She lives with her grandkids, ages 15 and 17, whom she has raised since they were babies. Each of them has asthma, and it has only gotten worse since they’ve lived at the housing complex.

Schovanec said Ward and Dwyer, the system change coordinator, are the two people who check up on her to make sure she’s doing OK. Without them, she wouldn’t know what’s going on, which is exactly what she feels about the current WPCA expansion.

“Are they going to let us know when they are going to start, so we know we have to keep our windows closed?” Schovanec wondered. “And how would it affect us?”

P.T. Barnum residents are fighting to make the best of a situation that, in many ways, is out of their control. Those who have resided there for decades have passed on their persistence to the neighborhood youth, who in recent years have installed air quality monitors, planted trees and built a small community library. On a recent Wednesday, they spent the afternoon watering plants.

“I’ve been here in P.T. for a while. So I’ve never really been outside. But with Youth Corps, I’ve been outside a lot more,” said Justice Gonzalez, 16, who is Ward’s son, speaking about PT Partners’ youth organization.

“I always wanted to help out, so helping out the community is definitely one of the things I’m very proud of,” said his younger sister, Licella, who is 12.

The constant battling with the WPCA and every other industry in the neighborhood has created a resilient community.

“There’s two aspects of resilience. One is people recognizing that if they don’t do it, no one’s going to do it. But the second is the resilience of communities,” said Gerald Torres, a professor of environmental justice at the Yale School of the Environment. “You have communities that some people say, ‘Well, why do you want to save that community?’ And they say, ‘Because it’s our community, and so we’d rather make it a better place than just abandon this community.’”

But residents say they would prefer not to have to routinely attend meetings, prove to others that they are human or constantly communicate why they deserve the respect and inclusion that other communities seem to take for granted.

“They have these health issues that, quite frankly, some of their health issues stem from where they live,” said Liles, PT Partners’ co-project director, of P.T. Barnum residents. “And they are having to fight for something that no one else outside of these circumstances has to fight for.”

“It’s too much sometimes; it really is,” she said. “And that’s, I think, how residents feel.”

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.