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In New York, a fight brews between renewable energy and jails

Green businesses can bring blue-collar jobs back to the U.S. and solve health and social problems, says an activist. But getting it off the ground isn't easy.

INDIAN WELLS, Calif.--Jails or jobs. Those are the terms of a battle over a plot of land in the South Bronx, according to activist Majora Carter.

The Sustainable South Bronx, a community group focused on cleaning up poor communities, is trying to build a green industrial park on a 25-acre piece of land in a blighted section of the Bronx slated for redevelopment. The idea is to draw in companies that will make solar panels from solar cells and/or "green roofs" (lawns that are put on top of apartment buildings). The development will create jobs in the area, she said, as well as allow the land to be used in a relatively safe, nonpolluting way.

The city of New York, however, has unfurled plans to build a 2,000-bed jail on the site.

"I find it hard to believe that they would consider these 2,000 beds part of an affordable housing scheme," she said during a presentation at the Clean Tech Investor Summit, taking place here this week.

I have not had a chance to speak to officials from the city to get their view.

Carter spoke at the conference to argue that a connection exists between the growing green industry and some of the problems impacting the inner city. Life in the poor sections of urban America, she said, is awful. In the South Bronx, unemployment has climbed to 25 percent and the percentage of people living in poverty is around 40 percent. The median income is $20,000 a year.

Many of these problems, she argued, can be traced to environmental degradation. A disproportionate percentage of New York's waste disposal facilities and power plants are located in the South Bronx. That has created health problems--one in four kids has asthma, she said. Learning disabilities occur at a higher rate in areas associated with higher air pollution in several studies, she noted.

The area also has little in the way of greenbelts, which leads to the need for more wastewater facilities (greenbelts suck up water runoff), which leads to more power plants and more pollution.

A large portion of South Bronx residents end up in jail or prison, she added, which can follow a lack of job opportunities or learning disabilities. In turn, that requires more tax dollars for prisons. Prisons, in fact, are one of the growth industries in several counties in New York. In short, a despoiled environment can lead to unemployment and crime and more taxes, she said.

Conversely, green initiatives can help. The organization started a job program a few years ago that trained people in jobs such as retrofitting buildings to make them more green. Eighty-five percent of the participants got jobs.

"It is the kind of multiplier effect that cities need to see," she said.