‘Our fearless leader’: Greenpoint remembers beloved environmental activist Irene Klementowicz

irene klementowicz at newtown creek event
Irene Klementowicz, a longtime Greenpoint activist, died on Jan. 20 after decades of advocating for the health and safety of her neighborhood.
Photo by Mitch Waxman

Beloved Greenpoint environmental activist Irene Klementowicz died at the age of 94 last week after a lifetime of championing important causes affecting her family, friends, and the neighborhood she called home. 

Klementowicz was among the first wave of passionate environmental activists in the nabe, which is now home to two Superfund sites and a host of other environmental issues resulting, in large part, from its industrial past — a history that the esteemed neighborhood stalwart lived through herself, and one that would shape her activism for years to come. 

“I can’t even name anything in Greenpoint that she wasn’t part of,” said Laura Hofmann, a longtime Greenpointer and friend of Klementowicz. “She was involved with every and any environmental issue that you can name in Greenpoint, she was a part of, or spearheading the organizing for it.” 

‘You met her on the battleground’

A young mother of four who had recently moved to the area from the Bronx, Klementowicz first noticed something was amiss in 1958 as she pulled clothes off the laundry line in her backyard, according to a 1998 article in the New York Times.

Her fresh, clean clothes were covered in a fine black dust — residue from the Greenpoint Incinerator nearby, which burned 1,000 tons of the city’s waste per day.

irene klementowicz with kids in greenpoint
Klementowicz and her young family moved to Greenpoint when she and her husband purchased a funeral home business in 1958. Immediately, she knew noticed environmental issues in the nabe. Photo courtesy of Klementowicz Family

“Twice daily I cleaned off windowsills from accumulated black particles, for years,” Klementowicz wrote in a letter to government officials in the early 2000s.

She soon launched a fierce campaign to shutter the plant — one that lasted until 1994, when it finally closed.

Around the same time, she noticed a foul smell rising from a chemical company across the street from her children’s school — and eventually forced them to install anti-pollution controls on its exhaust stacks. 

Scott Fraser and his wife, Kim, who considered Klementowicz a mentor, met her in the 1980s, around the time their son was born. The acrid smell of chemicals on the air concerned them, too, especially with a new baby. And as soon as you became involved in the environment in Greenpoint, you met Klementowicz, Scott said. 

“You met her on the battleground – meetings, hearings, gatherings,” he said. “We were all young, fledgling environmentalists back in the 80s. And our fearless leader was Irene.”

She was self-educated on the issues, complex as they were, and always showed up to meetings prepared — her research done and and her mind made up, ready to take on any politician, lawyer, or corporate representative, Scott recalled. The Newtown Creek Monitoring Committee — of which she was a founding member — successfully negotiated with the city to alter the design of the renovated Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

With the Concerned Citizens of Greenpoint, Klementowicz helped monitor the initial cleanup of the enormous Greenpoint Oil Spill — after it was discovered in 1978, Exxon Mobile was ordered to install wells that would begin to suck millions of gallons of oil out of the earth. But the work was slow and unsatisfactory for many Greenpointers, who worried about the health effects of living atop so much contamination. 

“If it wasn’t for her and the work that she did with the Concerned Citizens of Greenpoint, there would never have been a lawsuit against the oil companies, that polluted Newtown Creek, because her and her group laid all the groundwork for that to happen,” Hofmann said. “There would never have been a benefits program for the community, there never would have been all the improvements that you’re seeing now.”

irene with big check at newtown creek
There wasn’t an environmental cause Klementowicz wasn’t at the front of, Hoffman said, and she wasn’t afraid to give public officials a piece of her mind. Photo by Mitch Waxman

In 2001, she was awarded the New York State Environmental Quality Award by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which said her work “personifies the commitment of dedicated environmentalists to ‘Think globally, act locally.'” 

“Irene was the real deal, a person rising up and leading us and encouraging us,” Scott said. “It was hard, it’s hard. You get bogged down in bureaucracy and paper and gobbledygook, and Irene would cut right to the chase. She wouldn’t take any nonsense in these meetings.”

He voice would rise over the din to call out the most powerful people in the room without fail, he said.

“She’d throw out, you know, ‘What are you talking about?’ and all the lawyers … these high-fallutin’, high-paid lawyers, and Irene would just let loose,” he said with a laugh. “She would just like scream out, ‘You’re not going to hoodwink us, no way!'”

Mitch Waxman, who spent years documenting Newtown Creek and its surroundings on his website and in photographs, remembered the moment she met the president of National Grid, who was presenting her with a gigantic $50,000 for the upkeep of the Newtown Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant Nature Walk.

“Irene’s only comment when they presented her with the comically-large show check was ‘You missed a few zeroes,'” Waxman said. “That was Irene … if she didn’t like what you were doing, she would like, grab you by the ear and pinch. And she would do that to the commissioner of the DEP. There was nothing stopping Irene.”

‘Not a sour word would come out of her mouth’

Even then, when Klementowicz was fired up and angry, she’d refrain from getting carried away. She would always tell Hofmann to mind her temper — and never to say that government agencies were “full of crap” — instead, she said, “Say they’re full of soup.”

“She was a religious woman, and very proper,” Hofmann said. “She would give you hell, but she would do it in such a way that she would be stern, and to the point, and fiery — and yet, not a sour word would come out of her mouth.”

irene klementowicz in a meeting
Outside of her environmental work, Klementowicz was involved with her church and the local Polish community. Photo courtesy of Klementowicz Family

Hofmann and Klementowicz used to walk to church together when they attended the same parish, Hofmann said. A daughter of Polish immigrants, she was heavily involved in all kinds of community affairs in Greenpoint, which had a newly-blooming Polish community. To her neighbors and loved ones, she was a comforting presence and a confidante. 

“I got to know her as somebody who, when my own mother passed away, I felt very close to her,” Hofmann said. “She was very motherly to me, giving advice and different things like that … when [my family] threw my birthday party many years ago, she was there, and she had given me a crucifix that looks like stained glass. I wear that crucifix when I testify on environmental issues. It means a lot to me.”

Greenpointers carry on Klementowicz’s legacy

At a recent meeting with the EPA regarding Greenpoint’s newest Superfund site, the Meeker Avenue Plume, local environmental aficionados remembered Klementowicz and her work fondly. When Lisa Bloodgood, a former leader of the Newtown Creek Alliance, heard about her death, her first thought was “What beautiful, important thing are we going to name after her?” 

Klementowicz was so deeply involved in Greenpoint that you could throw a pen at a map and hit something she was a part of, Hofmann said. It will be hard to choose just one thing to name after her — though she’s hoping for a new environmental museum. 

“Every single time you breathe in Greenpoint, you say ‘Thank you’ to Irene,” Scott said. “You get a good breath of air, I say thank you. Because before, you were afraid to take a big breath of air.”