Taking the sheen off ‘clean coal’

We didn’t get arrested over spring break. There was a chance of getting arrested, though, and not from drunken vacation revelry. We spent a week in southeast Ohio trying to stop the expansion of the deadly coal industry.

American Municipal Power wants to build a huge coal plant in an area that already has four coal plants crammed within five miles. The coal industry promotes itself as a clean way to stimulate the economy, but local residents have learned the bitter truth. The area is one of the poorest in the state, even with the coal plants. Almost every family in the community has had a member suffer from cancer, and the region is one the country’s hotspots for premature death from air pollution. The coal industry often writes the state regulatory laws, and requests for more complete assessment of health risks go unanswered. The industry buys off the state’s governor and many of its legislators.

Most of the area’s residents feel powerless to stop new plants, let alone fight the existing ones. One of the few options left is to invite as many people as possible to visit and see just how bad it is. These visits are part of a movement called Mountain Justice, which brings youth like us to coal country in the spring and summer.

We spent the week camping in the mud and rain and talking with passionate and committed people. With 25 other young people, we learned about the injustices of coal, visited local residents, toured the existing plants and proposed construction sites and shared activist skills. As we learned more about the ongoing injustices in the region, we made a plan to take action.

We needed something swift, direct, and filled with the passion of the residents who were fighting for their lives and had invited us there. In a crowd of 40 people, we marched into the company’s offices and said that we weren’t leaving until we were granted a meeting with the president and he cancelled plans to build the new plant.

Activism isn’t like this at Williams. Activism here means having meetings or putting up posters. We can walk into the president’s office without too much trouble, and the most radical thing that happens on campus is Queer Bash. This confrontational, in-your-face tactic felt very edgy. To prepare, the day before we had practiced yelling at each other, playing the roles of police and protestor, and then linked elbows and tried to keep the police impersonators from prying us apart.

We didn’t end up needing those skills. After an hour of very terse conversations with the employees, we got a meeting with the president of the company. He didn’t agree to our first demand to cancel the building plans altogether, but he did agree to our secondary demand: scheduling a special board meeting with residents to discuss the human impacts of the plant. Because this meeting means delaying construction, it is likely that the costs of the plant will rise too much to go through with it at all. One point people, zero points dirty energy.

We were so successful and quick that the TV station that wanted to cover it didn’t get there in time. We felt ecstatic as we sat in a nearby parking lot to regroup; a bunch of young people with no money or status had just forced a corporate power to delay building a plant and agree to our demand.

Since then, we’ve been asking hard questions. What do we do when citizens are confronted with problems that letter writing, legal action or press coverage can’t solve? How do we begin to tackle big money interests that have a stake in exploiting poor communities as well as governments that hear when rich people say “not in my backyard,” but not when poor people do? We can take more direct action, and it can be effective.

We’re at a crucial point in this battle for environmental justice. Coal has been exposed as the greatest risk to health and climate, but companies are launching last-ditch efforts: current proposals would build over 200 plants that would last at least 50 more years. But communities are also fighting back. Citizen action and the riskiness of investment killed 59 proposals last year alone. If enough coal plant proposals fall through, the country will be forced to consider safer and more economically viable options.

As students, going to meetings and conferences is important. It’s great that we’re taking over 30 people to Massachusetts Power Shift this week. But we can also learn from examples of powerful community action taken across the country. We can and should be on the front lines, building the future we want to enjoy.

We don’t all have to join a non-violent direct action, because this movement needs many different kinds of work. Direct action, however, is still a powerful option. You might say that the time isn’t right, that we’ll alienate the moderates or miss an opportunity. But if not now, when? And if not us, who?

Morgan Goodwin ’08 is a Chinese major from Keene, N.Y. Julia Sendor ’08 is an environmental studies major from Chapel Hill, N.C.