Last week, we made it known to the art public that the Spectra gas pipeline lies underneath the city’s newest museum. Now that we have opened the conversation, we want to expand upon why the dangerous and controversial pipeline is indeed the Whitney’s problem. We are planning an upcoming forum and invite the museum and general public to attend as partners in discussing this issue.
The Whitney’s answers to questions about the pipeline have been insufficient, and in stark contrast to those of hundreds of individuals and responsible institutions along the pipeline’s route. The Whitney’s facile response is that the pipeline “is a federal initiative, supported by the City and State, whose ongoing safety is monitored by the relevant regulators.” Shall we compare this to the Whitney’s engagement with other regulatory agencies? Does the museum place such blind trust in federal oversight when the issue concerns electronic surveillance? No, the museum adds to public consciousness on that issue by staging exhibitions on the topic — such as the upcoming one by Laura Poitras.
Why, then, has the Whitney been evading important questions about controversial fossil fuel infrastructure literally built into its foundation? In the case of Spectra, the Whitney’s caginess clearly benefits the financial interests of the dominant fossil fuel industry and its allies, at the expense of the museum’s workers, public, and its art collection. The museum does not seem to think the public should know or care much about the major fuel line underneath their feet. By operating in such isolation, even if in good faith, the Whitney’s leadership inevitably makes bad decisions.
It is therefore essential to the mission of the Whitney, the legacy of its leaders, and the safety of the museum itself, that it engage openly with the public on the essential issues of fossil fuels and climate change.
The Spectra Pipeline is Dangerous
Climate change presents an existential threat to humanity. From megastorms on the East Coast to droughts in California, its ravages are widespread in the US and of course, beyond. This already impacted the Whitney, well before its new building was complete. As its 2013/14 Financial Statements note on page 10, due to Superstorm Sandy “the Downtown Museum was impacted by flood waters and sustained impairment to certain equipment on site and incurred clean up [sic] costs…of $4,231,000.” Yet the Spectra pipeline, a major fossil fuel artery, was installed at the base of the new museum at the same time that it was being constructed. On this basis alone, the failure of the Whitney to engage on this issue has been irresponsible.
Perhaps even more irresponsible is the Whitney’s silent acceptance of being on the receiving end of a pipeline that transports fracked gas from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and beyond. High volume fracking is specifically banned in NY state for a reason, and not merely because fracked gas is a leading emitter of greenhouse gases. The destructive processes of drilling for shale gas are causing a spreading health crisis in states where drilling is legal. The Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments collects and shares data on chemicals used in fracking that are directly linked to skin, eye, respiratory, and digestive problems, brain/nervous system, immune system, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and are endocrine disrupting and cancer causing or mutagenic. Doctors in a number of states are prohibited from publicly disclosing links between fracking chemicals and medical issues. Each well frack consumes 2-8 million gallons of water along with these chemicals, permanently contaminating the water. Use of these chemicals is permitted by loopholes created by politicians who have ties to the gas drilling industry, bypassing the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other public safety measures. To add insult to injury, our neighboring communities –– which endure the drilling that begets these pipelines and related infrastructure –– have to hold community fundraisers to purchase water for drinking and bathing. There is evidence that banks will refuse to issue mortgages and also refute mortgages where the lendee has signed a lease for gas drilling, due to depreciating property value. Property owners are extorted to accept cash sums in exchange for signing non-disclosure agreements about their disastrous experiences with fracking.
Denial by the Whitney
It is irresponsible for the Whitney to acquiesce to being situated above a potentially explosive large-diameter, high-pressure gas pipeline. Recent breaches of much smaller gas mains have wrought catastrophic damage to residences, communities, and businesses in Harlem and the East Village. We must acknowledge that these two gas pipeline explosions in 2014 and 2015 caused tragic, irreversible damage, and that building more gas infrastructure will lead to the same result in years to come.
According to the US DOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the greatest single cause of serious gas transmission line incidents is damage due to excavation. A sobering recent study by PHMSA found serious gaps in emergency response communication between pipeline operators and first responders, often leading to major delays in response times, which contributed to greater damage. In New York City, streets are frequently opened for construction and maintenance. As Spectra itself acknowledges in its pipeline safety FAQs, construction crews use markers to identify buried lines before digging. Yet there are no pipeline warning markers in the vicinity of the new museum.
Is the presence of the pipeline an inconvenient truth for the Whitney? Apparently so. A Whitney spokesperson recently claimed, “The natural gas pipeline does not cross directly onto the museum’s property.” This is disingenuous. The pipeline is literally part of the foundation of the new Whitney. It runs directly beneath the west steps, not across the street. Who owns the property is irrelevant. By obscuring the location of the pipeline, the Whitney adds to the risk of accidental, catastrophic damage.
Even if the Spectra pipeline escapes accidental damage due to excavation, the pipeline will slowly corrode and be compromised over time by a number of factors including, but not limited to, flooding, equipment failure, earth movement, and vibration from traffic. How is it acceptable that the new home of American art will be endangered by deteriorating gas infrastructure over the coming decades?
Opaque, Insular Decisionmaking
Much of the public commentary seems to question the nature of the connection between the Whitney Museum and the Spectra Pipeline. In fact, it is precisely that connection we are questioning. There has been little transparency in the process that resulted in the new Whitney being co-located with a controversial gas transmission line. The surprise decision to site the Whitney at that location was made by moneyed interests behind closed doors.
We also know that a reversed decision by the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) facilitated the siting of the Spectra pipeline at that location. The HRPT Board initially voted against allowing the Spectra pipeline to traverse the park where it emerges from the Hudson River. But Mayor Bloomberg’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who chaired the HRPT Board, called for a re-vote which mysteriously flipped the decision to Spectra’s favor.
Whose interests were Diana Taylor serving when she pressed the HRPT Board to permit the Spectra pipeline to cross the park towards the new Whitney? Why was the Whitney silent on this, despite being an influential stakeholder? Were powerful members of the Whitney Board aware of the future Spectra pipeline when they suddenly decided to build the new museum at the Gansevoort location?
We Call for a Public Dialog
When we speak of the Whitney housing a pipeline in its basement, we don’t seek to villainize the Whitney. We seek to inspire this important museum to ask the same questions we are asking, understanding that they are likely intertwined with interests both on their own board and elsewhere that would much rather they stay silent.
The Whitney Museum’s mission statement focuses on the institution’s commitment to “innovation” and its ongoing relevance. We expect that same flair when we pose questions to the Whitney to consider its newly emerging prominence in the 21st century. Why did the Whitney feel they had little or no choice but to share a wall with this dangerous and backward fossil fuel project? What assurances does the Whitney have that the regulators and policy makers will protect the museum’s and everyone’s safety? We understand the Whitney has an institution to run and an opening to celebrate. But as a symbol of this new era, the Whitney should join us in being a role model of behavior in this new era.
The people of our city, like the trustees of the Whitney, may feel they have little to no choice other than to accept this infrastructure. They may believe that regulators are doing their job, or that natural gas is a necessity, or that renewable energy is too far off to be viable. It is precisely to question these assumptions that we initiated this action, standing outside of the status quo and questioning assumptions as artists have always done. The ironic thing is that this stance of rethinking assumptions is what the Whitney celebrates in its collection.
Now we invite the museum into one of the most important conversations of our times and one to which it has already directly tied itself. We hope that the Whitney will step forward and join us for a public dialog about these issues, that they will answer the questions put to them and join us as partners to rethink what it means to be tied to Spectra. We invite them to join us at the Westbeth Community Room in early summer-date announced in next weeks- for a community forum on the future of art and the planet.
PS- You’ll be hearing from us again, soon.