Remembering a Community’s Champion

Charlene Benton was a hero in her community and an inspiration to those who knew her—including me.

Charlene Benton
Charlene Benton was a hero in her community and an inspiration to those who knew her—including me. (Earthjustice)

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Let me tell you about a remarkable woman who never backed down in the face of wealthy and powerful polluters.

Charlene Benton lived in the Ezra Prentice Homes, a public housing complex in Albany, New York, that found itself on the wrong side of the tracks during the nation’s fracking boom. Hundreds of train cars filled with flammable crude oil screeched by just feet away from houses and playgrounds en route to a massive crude-by-rail hub next door. As president of the Ezra Prentice tenants’ association, Charlene rallied residents against the facility and its owner, Global Companies, LLC.

As the oil trains grew in number, residents became more and more alarmed about the impact on their health and safety. They learned that fumes laced with cancer-causing chemicals are released when crews unload tank cars at the rail hub. Charlene became the lead plaintiff in state and federal lawsuits against Global. As an Earthjustice attorney, I worked with Charlene for more than three years to help her safeguard her neighborhood. Fighting on behalf of individuals like Charlene and communities like Ezra Prentice forms the core of Earthjustice’s mission to protect people and the planet.

The first time I met Charlene, I was invited to a meeting of the tenants’ association about the crude-by-rail facility looming next door. The Ezra Prentice community was there in force: the elderly, some in wheelchairs; middle-aged men and women just home from work; moms and dads with kids in tow. I was struck by how many residents suffered from chronic health problems. They shared stories like these:

“I moved to Ezra five years ago.  I never used to be sick, but now I’m constantly at the doctor’s office.”

“Both my kids have asthma, and its worse in the summer when the smell from Global gets really bad.”

And: “It seems like I’m constantly coughing.  The smells from Global make me nauseous.”

Charlene could always get folks to turn up for meetings like this through the relationships she built and the example she set. I watched as she navigated icy sidewalks and withstood sweltering summer heat in her motorized wheelchair to educate and motivate people about the dangers of oil trains. No matter the occasion—a public hearing, a court appearance or a face-to-face with government officials—I could always count on Charlene to be there.

Charlene spoke softly, but she wasn’t afraid to stick up for her community when she got into the room with the powerful. No matter how grave the situation or how tense the atmosphere at a meeting or press conference, Charlene was unfailingly courteous, but unflinching in her determination to stop Global from polluting her neighborhood. Her focus was always on the welfare of her fellow tenants, especially children and the elderly, who make up the majority of Ezra Prentice residents.

On more than one occasion, I watched people mistake Charlene’s gentleness for lack of fortitude—at their peril. Once, representatives of a government agency were making a highly technical presentation to the tenants’ association that understated the impacts on the community from Global’s operations. Midway through, Charlene raised her hand and quietly asked, “But what are you going to do to protect the children?”  That was pure Charlene.  She could cut right to the heart of an issue in a way that was peaceful but effective.

Even as she faced increasingly severe health problems, Charlene continued to stay abreast of developments in the court cases against Global. We are currently awaiting decisions in both our federal and state lawsuits. During her last months, I visited Charlene frequently in her apartment at Ezra Prentice. She continued to be engaged and full of ideas, right to the end.

About a month ago, Charlene passed away at the age of 66. I was very affected by her death, and although I knew she had been ill, it still came as a shock to realize that I’ll no longer be working by her side. After years of collaboration, it’s hard to imagine tenants’ meetings, court hearings and demonstrations without Charlene’s calm and resolute presence.

Charlene’s memorial was attended by so many whose lives she touched. The Mayor of Albany, the President of the Albany Common Council and two other council members, among many others, spoke at her service. If they shared one unifying message, it was that the best way to honor Charlene’s memory is to carry on her fight. And we will.

Christopher was a staff attorney with Earthjustice's Northeast regional office in New York, NY.

Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.