Confronting the Coal Industry in North Carolina

by Robert Gardner

January 23, 2011

Yesterday, Greenpeace hosted a non-violence training and candleight vigil with community members in North Carolina, as part of our Coal Free Future Tour. Climate Campaigner Robert Gardner shares his story from the day:

These days, it seems America loves walls. We’ve got walls between neighbors, walls between communities and walls between countries. However, hands down, some of the most interesting walls that I have seen have been invisible walls.

Today, the New Hanover County Sheriff erected just such a wall with a little help from the folks at Progress Energy.

The breeze blowing onto the ship was chilly this morning but our spirits were incredibly high. The weather was harsh, but getting to the Fischer Student Union at University of North Carolina Wilmington brightened an otherwise chilly day.

The day began with an amazing Non-Violent Direct Action Training on campus. Around fifty people went through an amazing set of exercises, discussions, and lectures on theory. From seasoned activists to those uncertain about their role in the movement, everyone agreed on how important it was to be in Wilmington, training activists in non-violence. Several times during the training, I was personally inspired by the depth of conviction in this community. So many folks are ready for us to move past coal and embrace a clean energy future.

After the training, we loaded up and headed to a vigil at L.V. Sutton Steam Plant. Driving up to the station, we immediately noticed the stacks. They dominate the landscape. Out of these stacks spew some of the primary drivers of climate change. In 2009, this filthy coal plant produced over 2 million tons of CO2, 17,947 tons of  SO2, and 4,272 tons of NOx. SO2 and NOx are major contributors to acid rain and smog pollution. As if that wasn’t enough, the plant produced 262 pounds of mercury in 2008.

While Sutton is only one coal plant, it stands as a symbol of the footprint left by the coal industry across the country. It’s time for these plants to shut down.

We exited the bus, gathered our candles, unfurled our banners, and began marching up to the plant. As expected, there were sheriff cars blocking our path, marking the invisible line in the sand (well, pavement) between where we could legally gather, and where we would be trespassing on Progress Energy property. That invisible wall kept a team of committed activists from confronting one of the major sources of toxic pollution in their community.

Since we couldn’t visit the plant, we wondered if someone from Progress would visit us. We all picked up our cell phones, and began calling the company – seeing if just one person would listen to our concerns. And we were told no such person was available.

Coal is an everyday part of life for people in North Carolina. Whether you live in a mining town or have a set of smokestacks on the horizon, there is no escaping the consequences of our coal addiction. Unless of course you’re a coal industry CEO – in which case, you can relax comfortably indoors, where invisible walls and telephone receptionists protect you from facing the people whose lives you risk for profit.

In the end, we left the plant with hope in our hearts. We were a small crowd of everyday people, but we managed to rattle a billion dollar company.

And as our friend Mickey McCoy instructed us in the shadow of that coal plant, we will rage on.

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