Student Activists Learn From Residents Living Next to Coal Plants

by Mary Sweeters

July 17, 2012

The Marshall coal plant near Charlotte, NC.

Written by Greenpeace Semester student Sarah Dymecki

For most of the eight Greenpeace Semester students, the issue of coal and mountaintop removal was something we had learned about during the five weeks we spent with Greenpeace. It did not directly affect the majority of our hometowns, but we knew how the problem contributed to climate change. However, all this changed when we got to Charlotte. Suddenly we were hearing real stories from people that have been affected by coal their whole lives. After that week, our perspectives changed.

We spent the majority of our four days in Charlotte collecting petitions and recruiting new volunteers to aid in the effort to Quit Coal in North Carolina. Both the Riverbend and Marshall coal-fired power plants are surrounded by communities that are continuously poisoned. Their air and water are contaminated by dangerous metals leaking from the power-plant stacks and the coal ash waste ponds on site. Even worse, if one of these ash ponds were to breach, the communities and rivers downhill from the plants would be completely destroyed.

On a Thursday in mid-June, the students trained community volunteers to canvass the neighborhoods surrounding theirs and ask their neighbors to oppose the plants. Among those was a mother of two, Sara Ellington Behnke. At the age of 37, Sara was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma while her children Anna and Cade were six and four. Sara’s mother and brother-in-law also go sick with cancer. Sara’s doctor said that he suspected environmental causes for her family’s cancers but could not definitively connect them to the power plant.

Now a five-year cancer survivor, Sara is volunteering with the local Quit Coal campaign to protect her childrens health and make sure history does not repeat itself. She says, I want to control what I can control. She continues to research the quality of her water and air to rally her community members behind her to shut down Riverbend. During our interview she expressed her belief in the grassroots power of this campaign and how excited she was to hear about the support we heard from residents in the past week.

During the canvassing day of action, Sara and her eleven-year-old Anna joined us to canvass throughout their neighborhood of Mountain Lake, where most houses are adorned with a dock and boats. Their story and determination to create change had an immense impact on the people they spoke to that day, Every person that answered their door signed our petition, said Sara.

Our trip may be over, but we have been forever impacted by the knowledge, skills, and determination we have gained from our visit to Charlotte. Saras story is one of many. Communities continue to be affected by the dangers of coal every day, with the constant billowing of the smoke coming out of the stacks as a reminder. We hope that by sharing the stories we have collected, we can shed light on the issue and find more people like Sara to stand up for healthy communities and clean energy.

Mary Sweeters

By Mary Sweeters

Mary Sweeters is a Climate and Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace USA. She works to fight the undue influence of the oil industry in solidarity with communities affected by oil extraction, pollution, and climate change, and to advocate for a just transition to a clean energy economy. She is from Sonoma, California.

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