Commentary: Protesting to bring change for a warming planet

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Marchers reach the Brayton Point power plant during a protest demanding the coal-fired facility be closed. (Photo by Susan Hunter)

 

On a hot July morning, my husband and I awoke before dawn and drove north on Interstate 95 from Connecticut to Somerset, Mass., a town tucked into a bend in the Taunton River, near Fall River.

By 8 a.m. that Sunday about 75 people had already gathered at a designated parking lot for Summer Heat, an action organized by environmental groups and supported by 350.org., a group founded by activist and author Bill McKibben, who addressed Fairfield County’s Aspetuck Land Trust in August.

McKibben’s group aims to create awareness about global warming and to build a worldwide movement to solve the climate crisis.

 

Pangs of apprehension

It had been 44 years since I took part in a protest, and I felt the same mild pangs of apprehension about the possibility of confrontation that protesters could meet.

But the cause — shutting down Somerset’s Brayton Point Power Station, a huge coal-fired power plant — out-trumped my doubts.

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Susan Hunter, author of this column.

The research that climate change activists have conducted backs up phenomena I’ve witnessed myself, including unprecedented mega-storms, blizzards, heat waves and destruction of seaside communities.

“There is scientific consensus that our climate is changing as a result of global warming caused by human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions,” according to the website of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Using electricity to heat, cool and light homes relies on the combustion of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which emit carbon dioxide and other gases when burned at power plants like Brayton Point.

Scientists say we must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm in order to avoid the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, major methane releases from increased permafrost melt, the spread of mosquitoes and disease, drought, decreasing food production, rising sea levels and stronger storms.

 

‘Political drive for real change’

Brayton Point protesters demanded that Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick close down the plant that is the largest coal-powered plant in New England, according to 350.org, and has emitted hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide over the past 50 years.

The protest was one of 10 organized across the country by 350.org and other groups this past summer. McKibben sees the growing actions as achieving an important goal.

“The only good news is that we are now also beginning to see some political drive for real change, a dynamic I’ve tried to help accelerate with large-scale activism in recent years,” he said on the 350.org website.

McKibben is calling on people around the world to make the leap into renewable energy, and this was also the message of speakers at the Brayton Point protest.

 

Diverse group of protesters

Our group of protesters swelled to about 350 people by the time we reached a ball field within the shadow of the immense cooling towers of the power plant.

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Protesters listen to a speaker with power plant cooling towers in the background and a wind turbine model at right. (Photo by Susan Hunter)

The group hailed from New England and the Mid-Atlantic states and included silver-haired grandparents, middle-aged couples, college students and young mothers pushing babies in strollers.

As the mist cleared from the river, smoke from Brayton Point poured out of two large towers, adding silent explanation points to the message many of the speakers delivered at the pre-march rally.

Our country needs to replace coal and other fossil fuels such as petroleum and natural gas with renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power, they said.

“A Just Transition for All” … “Governor Patrick, Quit Coal!” … and “There Is An Alternative” were some of the signs held aloft by protesters, who stood in shorts, sneakers and baseball hats, applauding the speakers, who included Peter Knowlton, a 35-year union organizer who’s president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America’s Northeast Region.

 

Moving to renewable energy

Knowlton said his union supports a “just transition” from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on renewable energy.

How to make that transition for workers and how to pay for it are large unanswered questions, Knowlton said, but a similar change occurred in the 1940s, when the United States converted manufacturing to supply a wartime economy in less than a year.

Another unanswered question is whether Energy Capital Partners, the private equity firm that bought Brayton Point from Dominion Resources Inc. in late August, plans to shut down the plant or eventually convert it into a clean energy producer.

Both would help the environment and slow the global warming process. Dominion officials insisted that Brayton Point has cleaned up its act and improved emissions.

 

‘One of the cleanest of its kind’

In a statement released to news media this past summer, Dominion called the plant “one of the cleanest electricity generators of its kind” that is “capable of powering up to 1.6 million homes.” The company has spent more than $1 billion “to reduce its impact on the air and water significantly.”

The power plant’s environmental controls “exceed all existing federal and state environmental requirements,” according to a statement released by Energy Capital Partners, and more than $1 billion of equipment reduces sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury by more than 90%.

But speakers at the protest said much more has to be done. The pollution mitigation at the plant doesn’t address the carbon emissions issue, said David Dionne, a Westport, Mass., activist, who’s been keeping an eye on Brayton Point for 16 years and describes the burning of fossil fuels as an economic system.

“We can’t mitigate these systems,” he said. “They have to be taken apart.”

 

State official responds to demand

“There are no current plans for the [Deval Patrick] administration to order Brayton Point to shut down,” said Krista Selmi, assistant secretary of communication and public affairs at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

The state doesn’t have regulatory authority over power generation companies, and the Global Warming Solutions Act doesn’t give the state authority to order the power plant to shut down.

However, the Massachusetts state Legislature recently adopted amendments to the Green Communities Act to allow the town of Somerset to receive property tax revenue associated with decommissioned power plants.

State funding would provide $100,000 to the town for a redevelopment study that would, among other things, include alternative site uses, cost of cleanup and demolition, and evaluation of municipal finance options.

“We won’t stand down, we won’t stand back; we’ll stop this coal plant in its tracks,” the protesters chanted as they walked past Somerset neighbors sitting on their front yards in lawn chairs.

 

For my children and grandchildren

After setting up large models of wind turbines near the plant, the marchers continued until 44 of the demonstrators, clad in red T-shirts, dipped under yellow police tape and were arrested for trespassing on Dominion property.

As I walked back from the power plant at the conclusion of the march, the sun grew stronger, burning through the heavy mist. Although hot and tired, I left the protest hopeful that the worldwide actions would open people’s eyes to the global warming that is changing our world, and make politicians take its dangers seriously.

I marched to Brayton Point for my children and my grandchildren, who deserve to grow up in a world where the promise of renewable energy will offer them a livable future.

 

Susan Hunter is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Bethany and graduated from Middlebury College, where environmental activist Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar. She previously was editor of The Valley Gazette, another Hersam Acorn publication. Reach her at [email protected]

 

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