February 24, 2015
Steve Norris, a retired professor from North Carolina, is stuck in the Calvert County Detention Center for the next few days. That is not his chief concern, though. And he’s expressed no remorse for his crime.
Norris was found guilty Monday of trespass on Dec. 3 for putting a bike lock around his neck and through door handles at the offices of IHI/Kiewit, a construction contractor for Dominion’s planned fracked-gas liquefaction and export facility in Lusby. Before sentencing at his District Court trial, Norris told Judge Michelle R. Saunders that he is “extremely, extremely worried” about what the future holds for his five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Another grandchild will be born this summer, a child who will be Norris’ age in 2086. Continuing to put carbon into the atmosphere will be a “disaster for the planet and a disaster for my grandchild,” he said. “I’m doing everything — in a nonviolent way,” he said. “We’ve been losing this battle,” he said, because Dominion has millions
and “we are lucky to have $10,000.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the $3.8 billion facility in September, and Dominion began construction while an appeal is in the works.
Norris was the only defendant jailed among the 20 people sentenced Monday for charges related to actions in November and December designed to raise awareness of the threat to public safety from Dominion’s planned facility in Lusby and its connection to climate change. Most —including Clarke Herbert, who also locked his neck to door handles at Kiewit — received 20-day suspended jail sentences, some with credit given for time served; three years of unsupervised probation, during which they must obey all laws; and $157.50 in fees ($100 fine and $57.50 in court costs). Norris, who had several similar prior charges in other jurisdictions, was taken directly to jail from the courtroom and will be released Thursday at 6 a.m.
Tracey Eno, a co-founder of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community and a defendant as well as a witness in two cases, said she feels “satisfied” with the results. “Everyone was very professional and prepared. Our attorney, Mark Goldstone, is to credit for this. He held numerous conference calls with us in advance. I feel we got our points across: The democratic process has failed; this is a life or death situation; we are opposed to climate change and will do what it takes to create a public spectacle, increase awareness and create pressure for change.”
Early in the afternoon, Goldstone started arguing a “necessity defense,” explaining that the defendants’ actions were to prevent a greater harm. “We’re not getting into that,” Judge Saunders said. And yet with each pre-sentencing statement and some testimony, the defendants “got into that,” creating a court record of all that is at stake.
Many wore red cloth bands around their arms or neck. The cases involved the Dec. 3 lock-in at Kiewit; a Nov. 4 group dash to the top of a pile of dirt at a Dominion construction site and the unfurling of a banner that said “WE > DOMINION PROFITS”; and a Dec. 1 action outside Dominion’s construction site when protesters linked arms and sat in front of a gate. As Eno testified about the Dec. 1 action, the actions were all designed to publicize the “dangerous gas refinery in my neighborhood.” Signs and red T-shirts often say “We are Cove Point” because, Eno said, “Dominion has stolen our community’s name, which is Cove Point. We — the people — are Cove Point.”
Some of the defendants told Judge Saunders that they preferred jail time, but she stuck with the suspended sentences and lengthy probation. Several said they would not likely be able to stay on the sidelines.
“I dedicate my life to this struggle,” said Charles Chandler, who had walked and camped from Ithaca, N.Y., to Cove Point —360 miles over 27 days — and who wore a bright orange jacket with his website in large block letters on the back: PeaceWalker.net. “You’ll probably see me again. I plan to participate in unlawful, peaceful protest. If we just hold signs on the sidewalk, the corporations will just keep rolling on over us. … We’re condemning our children and future generations to a garbage planet.” Without climate justice, there is no peace, he said.
As a public school teacher in North Carolina, Greg Yost said, he tries to weigh his responsibility to his students against the knowledge that his students “face climate change throughout their lives.”
“We are aware of the science, that three years is the time frame” before climate tipping points are reached, if they have not already been passed, Yost said. “I have work to do with my students. I have work to do with climate change. Nonviolent protest is all we can do. I will be back in front of you. I have work to do.”
“I care about the community,” Michael Clark said. “We are experts on living through human-induced climate change. I did what I did in celebration and defense of life. And I refuse to pay the fine.”
“I can’t sit passively while [Dominion’s facility] is built,” Kelsey Erickson said.
Elizabeth Conover said her state, Pennsylvania, is being destroyed by fracking, and the infrastructure for fracking “is creeping south … and Cove Point is the terminus.”
Dr. Margaret Flowers, a co-director of Popular Resistance who for 15 years was a practicing pediatrician, called on Judge Saunders to help expose the secrecy around Dominion’s project. She said the company lied about the number of people nearby, about the families across the street and the 2,365 homes, 19 home day-care centers and two elementary schools within 2 miles that have no evacuation route.
“There’s nothing I can do about that,” Judge Saunders said, and those concerns “are not for this forum.”
“I disagree,” said Flowers, who was acting as her own attorney. “You could allow the necessity defense” and call in experts to testify. “I appeal to you as a leader in the community to not allow this severe lack of democracy to take place. … I see the truth. … I ask you to bring that truth to light.”
At that, several spectators applauded but were immediately told to be quiet.
The only other break from courtroom decorum came during one of the brief recesses. A group of half a dozen or so people started singing “We shall not be moved,” prompting evictions from the courtroom of several people — including Norris, whose case had yet to be heard.
The defendants fell mostly into two camps. They were retired and feared for the future of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Or they were young adults, facing a decidedly bleak future — unless they and others intervened.
“I’m motivated by this really serious fear of what the future holds,” said 20-year-old Elias Weston-Farber, who is often the videographer at civil disobedience actions. “Science is telling really important things about our economy and our way of getting energy,” he said.
Berenice Tompkins said she acted to prevent far greater crimes: “the theft of my future and of future generations to thrive on this Earth.” Many people have urged her not to have children, she said. “My children, your children will not be safe as a result of what Dominion is doing,” Tompkins said. “I implore you to consider that … I am acting out of love. This is the only way I can act to express that love.”
“I’m terrified by what I’m seeing,” Deborah Wagner told the judge. The people of Cove Point have gone unheard; even Gov. Martin O’Malley fell asleep at a Board of Public works hearing regarding a Dominion permit, said Wagner, a grandmother with a background in science and nursing. “This isn’t right. I’m really afraid for future generations. I can’t not be there.”
Some charges were dropped along the way. When prosecutor Michael Gerst, assistant state’s attorney, argued during the case of the dirt pile that “protest does by its nature draw attention and that is the definition of disturbance of the peace,” the judge indicated that Goldstone needn’t bother to counter: “You’re going to win that,” she told the defense attorney.
In the bike lock cases at Kiewit, Kevin Zeese, an attorney and co-founder of Popular Resistance, testified for the defendants that his role at that action was as police liaison to prevent escalation. The goal was to get an image of Norris and Herbert locked to the doors, “to let the world know Kiewit is involved in this dangerous project.” The action lasted perhaps 20 minutes, until police cut the locks. Only two doors were blocked, so no one was trapped in the building, he said. Passersby were handed literature and were watching and interested. Gerst, the prosecuting attorney, argued that people and businesses “stopping their normal daily activity” was a disturbance to the peace. But Goldstone, who wore a “We the People” tie with writing from the U.S. Constitution, successfully argued that protests are designed to create an informed electorate. “It’s not a crime for people to speak out or for people to stop and find out what is going on.” Norris, who was acting as his own attorney in the case, said Gerst’s claim was similar to “blaming civil rights’ protesters for the violence [committed] by the people who didn’t like it.” Judge Saunders dropped all but the trespass charge in that case.
Cases against three defendants — Tracey Eno, Leslie Garcia and Martine Zundmanis — were put on a ‘stet’ docket; in return for no verdict, they agreed to obey all laws, stay off Dominion property, have no contact with Dominion employees and periodically discuss plans for protests and “escalation” with the sheriff’s office. While the other trials were in progress, Eno said, she was attending one of these meetings with the sheriff’s department and a Dominion official. They asked her if she had heard rumors about explosions. Eno said she “explained that the [Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community] vision is to protect the health, safety and quality of life of the citizens of Calvert County. Many of our members practice yoga and meditation.”
This morning, Eno spoke at the Calvert County Commissioners’ meeting, her 19th presentation to the officials about the hazards of the Dominion project.
— elisabeth hoffman
UPDATE: Steve Norris was released from jail Wednesday morning, a day early. He reports that he had great conversations with his fellow inmates about Cove Point.
July 18, 2014
Among the 25 arrested for civil disobedience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington this week was Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission.
Also arrested was Gina Angiola of Olney, a retired doctor on the board of directors of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Another was a retired teacher and borough officer from Pennsylvania, Mike Bagdes-Canning, who last month traveled to Garrett County for the unveiling of the final progress report on Maryland’s health study on fracking. There, he issued a warning to Marylanders not to do what his state has done.
The civil disobedience came a day after Sunday’s spirited rally and march to FERC. The actions also followed a week of lunchtime picketing in front of FERC’s offices at the end of June.
“It is no longer business as usual,” said Steve Norris of North Carolina, who proposed the arrest action as a “punctuation mark” to the rally. He also dreamed up and helped organize the weeklong, 100-mile Walk for Our Grandchildren climate march last summer. “Usual will kill us all. It is time to be unreasonable.” (Of the 25 arrested, 15 had participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren or in the related arrest action at ERM, the State Department contractor tied to TransCanada that concluded the Keystone XL pipeline was just fine for the climate.)
The trigger for the protests was FERC’s full-of-holes preliminary approval of the plan by energy giant Dominion to liquefy and export fracked gas from its Cove Point terminal in Lusby. But the protests united groups fighting every stage of shale gas extraction and production: the fracking with secret toxic chemicals, the truck traffic and diesel-fired equipment, the radioactive waste that has no safe disposal, the flaring, the methane that leaks into water wells and disrupts the climate, the forests fractured and the land taken by eminent domain for pipelines, the noise and pollutants from compressor stations, the unthinkable hazards from the export factory. Those protesting came for their children and all children, for grandchildren and future generations, for rivers, mountains and farms, for people trapped by encroaching destruction, for clean water and air, for wolves, turtles and hawks.
wake up, FERC!
Monday morning, as he headed out to be arrested at FERC, Bagdes-Canning got 36 phone messages from people in the shale fields. “They are with us,” he told the others.
“In Cove Point, the people are also counting on you,” said Ted Glick, the national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), who helped organize the action. “And people around the world affected by climate change are counting on you.”
That morning, a few dozen people headed from Union Station to FERC’s offices, chanting “HERE WE COME, FERC” and “WAKE UP, FERC.” The pipelines and compressor stations FERC allows as a “public necessity and convenience” mean communities are gassed and fracked, they said. “As a public necessity and convenience, we are stopping FERC,” another protester from Pennsylvania shouted.
They sang, “No more frackers. We shall not be moved.” And “Stop the rubber-stamping. We shall not be moved.” And “Fighting for our future. We shall not be moved.”
As he sat in front of FERC’s doors, Alex Lotorto spread out large maps covered with color-coded rectangles signifying drilling companies and land leased for fracking over much of Bradford County in northeast Pennsylvania. Shell, Chesapeake Energy, Talisman Energy, EOG Resources, Chief Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy.
After a couple hours of constant maneuvering to try to block both entrances as well as driveways adjacent to the building, 25 activists were arrested. They were handcuffed, escorted a few hundred feet to an office for processing, fined $50 and allowed to leave.
Ann Bristow, the commissioner, said she took part in the arrest action because she has become increasingly alarmed about the threats to public health and the environment from fracking and the infrastructure required to produce and transport the gas headed for Cove Point. “I am protesting [the project] because its impact is being assessed without consideration of the negative health effects from the infrastructure that will supply it,” she said. “I am protesting FERC’s rubber-stamping of Cove Point because all aspects of [unconventional gas development] are connected when you consider public health and the health of our environment. I am protesting because I do not have confidence that the [Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Department of the Environment (MDE)] will strongly advocate for public health monitoring for toxic air emissions.”
Bristow joined the shale commission late, replacing a resigning member. As a volunteer with the state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Marcellus Monitoring Coalition, Bristow arrived with a background in monitoring water quality. During the past two years, though, research in states that have allowed fracking is showing that air contamination — from compressor stations and condensate tanks and particularly from “wet gas” — could pose an even greater hazard, she said. Already, she said, the compressor station in Accident in Garrett County is processing and storing Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania; another is being built in Myersville, with a portion of the gas eventually headed for Cove Point. The state should “measure toxic air emissions at existing facilities … and measure air quality at Myersville before and after completion of the compressor station,” she said.
In a few months, based on recommendations from the 15-member advisory commission, MDE and DNR will send a report to the governor with conclusions about whether or how fracking could be done safely in Garrett and Allegany counties. Only four commissioners, including Bristow, have expressed abundant concerns and pressed for caution.
Gina Angiola, the retired physician arrested at FERC, is on the steering committee of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. If built, Cove Point would endanger thousands who live near the facility and increase fracking across the region, “further feeding our unsustainable fossil fuel addiction,” she said. “A few people will get wealthy, many more will be harmed.
“It’s becoming ever more obvious that traditional channels of democratic participation simply aren’t working,” she said, “and we are running out of time. Although policymakers pretend that these issues are very complicated, they really are not. It’s all very simple at this stage. Climate change is happening NOW, people are dying or being displaced by the millions around the globe, regional conflicts are escalating, and the U.S. is failing to act rationally. Our scientists are telling us loudly and clearly that we must leave 75 to 80 percent of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we hope to avoid the most catastrophic climate alterations. Why on earth are we allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to move forward? This is insanity.”
“If we would redirect our investments toward efficiency improvements and distributed renewable energy, we could lead a global transformation to an economy that serves everyone. I’m sick and tired of government agencies rubber-stamping bad ideas just to advance corporate profits. Those agencies are there to serve us, the people. If we can remind them of that mission, the Cove Point project will be stopped.”
fighting for existence
The day before the arrest action, nearly 2,000 people rallied at the U.S. Capitol and marched to FERC’s offices with the same message. They carried signs that said: “Don’t frack up our watershed,” “Don’t frack our towns for export profits.” On the stage, a group holding a giant cardboard yellow submarine with a giant rubber stamp sang, “We all know FERC’s a rubber-stamp machine” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood looked to the future. We are on the way to stopping coal and the Keystone pipeline, he said, but if we export fracked gas, “then we are defeating our purpose.” He called the climate change battle this generation’s Birmingham and Montgomery. “Sometimes, you don’t see the transition,” he said. But in 2114, he said, “they will look back on this time. They will say, ‘Those are the ones who fought for us to exist.’ ”
Biologist, author and fractivist Sandra Steingraber drew inspiration from past victories. Dryden, she said, was one of the first towns in New York to use zoning laws to ban fracking within its borders. “Lots of people warned the citizens of Dryden not to do it, pointing out that a local ban on fracking would only invite ruinous lawsuits by armies of industry lawyers,” she said. “All the citizens of Dryden had was sheer determination, a sense of their own righteousness and a willingness to do whatever it took,” Steingraber said. And on June 30, New York’s highest court ruled in the town’s favor. “Dryden beat Goliath with a slingshot made out of a zoning ordinance and so set a precedent that is now reverberating around the world.”
She said she spent the Fourth of July weekend with members of the Dryden Resource Awareness Council. There, they talked of tomatoes, grandchildren, recipes and arthritic knees and hips, she said. “Did you catch that? The people of Dryden, who brought the world’s largest industry to its knees, have arthritic knees. But they are motivated by love. Love for the place where they live and love for the people who will come after them. They feel a responsibility to protect what they love. Because that’s what love means,” she said.
More inspiration from the past: Forty years ago, residents in Rossville, NY, fought another seemingly long and impossible battle against storing liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tanks in their town. For 13 years, united as Bring Legal Action to Stop the Tanks (BLAST), Rossville residents “ignored the counsel of those who said that it couldn’t be done. That the tanks were already built. That of course they would be filled with LNG. That it was all inevitable. That you couldn’t fight the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But in the end, BLAST won,” Steingraber said. In part, it won because of an LNG explosion in 1973 that killed 40 people and led New York to ban LNG facilities. All the LNG hazards present in 1973 remain, Steingraber said, including that it will flash-freeze human skin and, if spilled, will disperse as a highly combustible vapor cloud and that an LNG fire is not extinguishable. Plus now we know about fracking and about climate change.
“We New Yorkers Against Fracking pledge our support, assistance and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Maryland who are fighting the LNG terminal in Cove Point. Our destinies are intertwined. Our success depends on yours,” she said.
The present consumes Rachel Heinhorst, whose family’s front lawn faces Dominion’s front lawn in Lusby. “We do not deserve to live in fear of an explosion, of the water we drink, of the air we breathe,” she told the crowd. “FERC and President Obama, please hear my family and all the others living so close to this. Feel our worry, know that it is real, know that we are coming to you, not looking for a fight. We are coming to you looking for compassion.” Her family, though, is preparing to move. If they can sell the house.
Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, said the gas industry tries to divide people into those fighting climate change, compressor stations, fracking, export facilities. “We stand together,” he called out. “They have to fight all of us.”
Tim DeChristopher of Peaceful Uprising called FERC a lapdog to the president and the Democratic Party. “Being slightly better than Republicans on climate change is not enough,” he said. “We will not have that energy plan of ‘Frack here’ and ‘Frack there.’ ”
One prop for the rally and march was a large slingshot. “This has been a David and Goliath fight from the start,” said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We have been throwing stone after stone. We have more stones to throw.”
–by elisabeth hoffman
February 10, 2014
I first talked with Steve Norris last summer, while we hiked on the C&O trail during the Walk for Our Grandchildren. Steve came up with the idea for the protest walk as a way to celebrate his 70th birthday while drawing attention to climate change, the Keystone XL pipeline and our ruinous dependence on fossil fuels. A longtime activist, Norris is a professor of peace and justice studies at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C. On Jan. 31, he and his students drove a pickup truck and three cars loaded with water north to West Virginia, to a Boone County town where people still can’t turn on the tap to bathe a child, make a cup of tea, cook a pot of soup. The water was contaminated more than a month ago when Freedom Industries’ tank of toxic coal-washing chemicals leaked into the Elk River. A mile downstream was the intake pipe for American Water, the private company that provides water for 300,000 people in Charleston and nine surrounding counties. Below is his account of the trip. — elisabeth hoffman
By STEVE NORRIS
Last Friday, seven students and I took my pickup truck with the 210-gallon tank from the 2013 Walk full of water and three other cars loaded down with another 250 gallons of water to West Virginia. We also took the $400 we had raised locally and drove to Whitesville in Boone County, where RAMPS has its office in a rundown old storefront. RAMPS stands for Radical Action for Mountain People’s Survival and has been a presence for some time now, leading gritty and dangerous protests against mountaintop removal, including a 50-person occupation in 2012 of the Hobet mountaintop removal mine, the largest strip mine on the East Coast. Twenty or so people were arrested in that action and spent up to two weeks in jail, including one of the student organizers of this trip to deliver water. Now RAMPS is helping to coordinate delivery of donated clean water to residents of the area.
About a month ago, on January 9, a corrupt and poorly run and poorly regulated chemical company called Freedom Industries spilled a highly toxic chemical (MCHM) from its storage tanks into the Elk River, contaminating the water supply of 300,000 people in nine counties. Freedom Industries has a very checkered history and connections to the Koch brothers. It stores and sells chemicals used to process coal from West Virginia mines. At first FEMA and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection got involved, and the governor declared the Elk River water unsafe for all drinking, cooking and bathing. But within a week or so they pulled out and declared the water safe for everyone except pregnant women and babies under 3. In the meantime, Freedom Industries has declared bankruptcy.
People we met in the Whitesville area didn’t accept the reassurances coming from public authorities. Most complained that the water smelled, either with a licorice-like odor or of formaldehyde, which could be forming as a result of interactions between MCHM and other chemicals, plastics or metals in the pipes. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. Some said the water looks murky. A few complained that the odors permeated their houses. One young woman with two young children said she was losing hair and had developed a rash. No one we met believed that the water was safe. Even in the Walmart, where we drove to buy bottled water, when I tried to buy some hot coffee on the cold, rainy Sunday morning, I was told that none was available because of contaminated water.
So in all we had the 450 gallons of water we had carried from Asheville and another 800 gallons of bottled water we purchased with our $400. When we arrived at the RAMPS office in Whitesville on Friday at midnight, RAMPS organizers Bagdhadi, Nat and De explained to us that on Saturday morning we might be working with a group from Texas called the Texas State Militia who do border patrolling in Texas and who had promised to bring 2,000 gallons of water. So we talked about various scenarios of how to coordinate with them. As it turned out, the Militia never showed up, and on Saturday morning, feeling disorganized and chaotic, we were on our own.
First stop was Amazing Grace Covenant Church, a fairly new and spacious church in Seth, about 15 miles up Route 3 from Whitesville. We set up our water operations in the front parking lot, and all day long people came in their cars, some with bottles of their own, which we filled after answering the all important question of “where did this water come from?” Another group of us loaded bottles of water in two cars and went house to house in nearby Prenter Holler, a small neighborhood of trailers on Sand Lick Road down the mountain from four coal mines. We knocked on the doors of these old, broken-down homes with muddy mid-winter yards and asked people if they wanted free bottled water. No one turned us down. Many people were elderly and told us they had a hard time getting out. A couple of people said they were out of fresh clean water entirely and we had shown up just in time.
A little while later, a student Emily and I set up my truck with its 210-gallon tank full of water in front of Tamara’s trailer on the corner of Prenter Road and Sand Lick Road near a creek. Tamara, who is a high-spirited 35-year-old woman with a tattoo on her neck, and 4 or 6 children living with her, is a natural-born community organizer. She roused two of her teenage daughters from their beds and somehow inspired them to go knock on doors up the holler, telling people to come and get the water. She also put word out on Facebook. All day long, as huge 18-wheelers loaded with coal rushed past on Prenter Road, families drove up in pickup trucks or all-terrain vehicles or cars, and we filled their bottles with the water which, I explained, came from my spring in North Carolina. “You brought this water all the way from N.C.?” “Yeah, we came here yesterday.” “Oh, you are so kind. Thank you for coming all this way.” Seldom in my life have I felt such gratitude.
One older man gave us $5 in appreciation. When I protested, he replied, “You’ve gotta take it. Buy yourselves some coffee.” He must not have realized even Walmart was not making coffee with water from the Elk River. One very thin 61-year-old man stayed long enough to tell us his story: “27 years in the mines, and now I have black lung and a herniated disc.” A teenage high school girl spent 15 minutes talking with us: “I get all A’s in school.” She obviously loves school and would be a teacher’s joy, and I could not help but wonder where this holler will take her in five or in ten years, or whether maybe she could get out. And a young guy in a small RV talked about how the fish in the streams have disappeared in the last few years.
Everyone seemed dazed about what had happened and more or less resigned to this new way of life. No one knows how long the water emergency will last or how they will cope as days and weeks may become months. No one talked about it, and although some people clearly were angry at Freedom Industries or their public officials, no one talked about protest. A couple of people explained how, until two or three years ago, people had been drinking well water. However, the well water eventually became contaminated from coal slurry sludge, which had been pumped into abandoned mines and then found its way into their groundwater. And eventually their wells. At that point, the public authorities insisted that people take water from the county. Now the public water supply is also too polluted for human consumption.
Immediately across the road was a fast-moving stream, mostly covered with ice on this winter’s day, flowing at a rate of maybe 1,000 gallons a minute This would be enough water for a small town, and yet, there’s no water for the 200 people in this holler to drink. And what about the animals and the fish? We could hear this water singing its way past us as a Confederate flag flew above a nearby trailer, and we filled people’s gallon jugs with water hauled all the way from North Carolina.
At the end of the day, a few of us gathered back in the parking lot of Grace Covenant Church to fill a few more gallon jugs and to pack up our supplies. As we were about to leave, a woman walked up to us across Route 3 and with a friendly smile asked: “Hi. I’m Julia. I want to introduce myself and ask you if you folks oppose coal?” We chatted amicably for several minutes, letting her know that yes, some of us had even been arrested protesting against coal, but at the same time avoiding a heated argument. She never did say where she stood on the issue. As she left, she waved and repeated with the same smile: “I just wanted to know where you stand.”
Good question. For the last several days, I’ve been pondering it. I have no questions about coal. It has to go. In North Carolina this week, this has been made glaringly obvious to anyone willing to pay attention by the massive spill from a coal ash retention pond owned by Duke Energy; up to 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water has spilled into the Dan River, which is the public water supply for several nearby communities downstream. The river water and riverbank have turned gray with the sludge, which contains a witch’s brew of poisons like arsenic, selenium, lead and mercury.
At the same time, though, my heart breaks for the miners and their families who live in Prenter Holler. How do I tell them that coal, which is the bedrock of their homes and the icon of their culture and the center of their way of life – how can I tell these very poor people that their bedrock is not sustainable and that it is killing their mountains, and killing their fish, and will, if not contained, kill much of human civilization?
I don’t know how to answer Julia’s questions, or how to spend the gentleman’s $5, or what to say to the high school girl, or how to bring the fish back, or even how to get a hot coffee at Walmart.
August 1, 2013
What a walk we had.
Last week, we walked for our children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren and siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and strangers. The oldest walker was 78, the youngest, 11 (grandfather Mahan Siler and his granddaughter Leigh). We walked for a future free of enslavement by fossil fuels that have provided an abundant lifestyle for some but at escalating cost to humans and other species, to plants, water and air and future generations.
About 25 people walked 100 miles, from Camp David to the White House, while about 50 others, including me and several others from the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County, joined at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown tried to start a rebellion against slavery several years before the Civil War. Along the way, other walkers joined for a day or two. Over the days, we walked on the C&O trail, once part of the Underground Railroad. As organizer Steve Norris said on that first night in Harpers Ferry, we felt the spirit of Harriet Tubman and the movement to break the bonds of slavery, just as we are trying to break the bonds of fossil fuels. Slavery and fossil fuels, both cheap energy sources for those with power. One immoral on its face, the other increasingly so.
The Walk for Our Grandchildren expanded my world. I became part of a community of walkers who had given a great deal of thought to where we’ve been, where we’re heading and where we ought to be going. For a week, we shared stories and photos, meals and snacks, sunblock and ibuprofen, bandages and a lack of showers. We headed for Noah’s medic tent in the late afternoon to soak blistering feet. We headed for the medic tent in the early morning for a new layer of moleskin, gauze and duct tape so we could walk another day. Grumble, the aptly named cook with Seeds of Peace, organized meals of steel cut oats, scrumptious hash browns, blueberry pancakes, rice and lentils, fresh fruit, hummus and much more. Those who crossed the ferry into Leesburg Tuesday evening for a small detour to a protest organized by a new 350.org chapter enjoyed a potluck banquet prepared by members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Loudon County. A few from the Leesburg group, at the request of a Leesburg councilwoman, stayed into the evening to testify at a town meeting and possibly helped stop a new highway of fossil-fueled vehicles. The first day back home was jarring. As Laura Narayani emailed: “I just can’t figure out why I’m sleeping inside and why no one is cooking for me now : )”
The Walk for Our Grandchildren also contracted my world. My days were measured in steps, in relative slow motion compared with the world I’d left behind. We were quiet by 10 p.m. and started rising with the sun. We saw the moon rise in Leesburg. We walked with butterflies and by turtles, fish, snakes, herons, deer. We were invited inside the Harpers Ferry youth hostel to take shelter from a violent thunderstorm. Each day, the trail was different. Sometimes the canal was filled with algae, or the trail was covered with sycamore bark. We stopped at a lock house, where perhaps 150 years ago a family had lived in its four rooms without electricity. That family had walked 50 feet up a hill to get water from a spring. We, too, often had to walk that far or more to the water pump near our campsite. Water became precious.
When we all lived at a human scale, before industrialization, the atmosphere contained 280 ppm of CO2. By using fossil fuels, we have accomplished engineering, medical and technological feats. But we also have managed to do something no other species has done: We have changed the atmosphere. At 400 ppm, a level never before seen by humans, we are melting glaciers, acidifying the oceans, worsening droughts, fueling storms, driving wildfires, wiping out species. If everyone on the planet consumed resources at the rate we do in this country, we would need eight Earths.
And so, for a week, we lived on a human scale, nomads wandering toward a new civilization that we hope will be untethered from fossil fuels. And we pledged, by whatever peaceful means necessary, to reinvent a more just, more human-scaled future.
Here’s Steve’s message on a banner directed to President Obama: When in the course of human events it becomes self evident that the greed and avarice of the 1% are a serious threat to the lives and well-being of the 99% as well as the animals and vegetation we share this planet with, it behooves courageous leaders to make difficult and courageous decisions. STOP KXL!
I thought the teens and 20-somethings on the walk would resent us old-timers for having bequeathed this mess. Instead of looking back and laying blame, though, they are looking forward, feeling the urgency. “We must be the ones to act. It can’t be, ‘Someone will figure it out.’ That someone must be us,” said Jerry Stewart of Aldie, VA, who walked for his days’ old nephew. Jerry walked from Camp David, as did Lillian Marotta who endured horrendous blisters to try to stop the Keystone XL pipeline and the suffering of poor communities hit hardest by climate change. Wild-haired (ok, most of us had wild hair) troubadour-philosopher Alex Hunter-Nickels, who woke us most mornings with his singing and ukulele and said he was as old as the cosmos (or 18), is working for “dignity of all life forms, including the banker, the senators and the blade of grass.” He says “Wow” a lot, not as trite rejoinder, but in genuine awe of the present. He’s weary of hate and evil and picking enemies. “If you recognize [our] interdependence with plants and animals, then you can’t cut down the trees without recognizing their dignity and live a lifestyle of complete disregard of all life forms.”
Benjamin Bushwick, who walked from Harpers Ferry, sometimes barefoot, spoke eloquently, passionately and with no notes at a rally in Leesburg and a civil disobedience action Friday in DC at Environmental Resources Management, the firm that assured the State Department that the Keystone XL pipeline would be just fine for the environment – after lying about its ties to pipeline builder TransCanada. Here’s Benjamin: “If we continue business as usual, if we continue burning fossil fuels, we are heading down the road to atmospheric hell on earth incompatible with human life as we know it…. I’m marching because I matter. I’m marching because my future matters. My future matters more than politics. My future matters more than frivolous executive salaries. It matters more than the economic well-being of shareholders. And most importantly, it matters more than a primitive addiction to an outdated source of energy. We have all the technology to make this transition.” He doesn’t expect the “muckety-mucks” with titles to have a change of heart: “This struggle is really about taking control back into our own hands … taking power back into the youth.”
Jerry, Lillian and Alex were among the 54 arrested at the civil disobedience action Friday when they refused to leave the ERM offices. They were among six who hooked themselves together there in a contraption that looked a little like a mini-tar-sands pipeline, and the police had to cut them out. Never before have I been part of such a powerful and targeted action. Inside, but also outside the building, we seemed to move as one, like a school of fish. I asked Jerry: Who was making decisions inside the building? “We all were,” he said. Lillian said she couldn’t stop smiling for her mug shot. By the third try, officials wanting a serious look gave up and went with the mug with the small smirk. Those jailed reported singing and chanting, inside the ERM building and in their cells.
Come on people
Can’t you see?
We don’t got
No planet B.
Giving advice is not so cool
When you’re in bed with fossil fuel
And the jailed men sang … in a round:
Dear friends, dear friends
Let me tell you how I feel
You have given me such treasures
I love you so.
On the last morning, there was silence — because Alex had broken all but one string on his ukulele in the excitement of the civil disobedience action the previous day. We woke in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where we had slept on the sanctuary floor, like refugees from an overheated planet. But then Alex started playing the church piano. And we all packed up one last time and headed in a grand march to the White House for speeches and a reading of the Declaration of Independence From Fossil Fuels. Garrett and Grant Serrels, 17-year-old twins who walked from Camp David and are from iMatter: Kids vs Global Warming, brought the scroll with the Declaration and 40,000 signatures to the rally. They are part of iMatter’s lawsuit, now on appeal, against the federal government for failing to protect the atmosphere as a public trust. “I fear for my future,” Garrett said. “Climate change has a human face.”
At the end of the rally, the adults encircled the youth, and Mahan Siler had us look at each other, to feel how much we need each other, youth, adults and elders. And we pledged: “We … declare that we as a community… ought to be free and independent from lifestyles and forms of energy that cause global climate change.”
Before parting ways, we met one more time in the shade of trees near the White House, held hands and sang, in a round:
Dear friends, dear friends
Let me tell you how I feel
You have given me such treasures
I love you so.
— elisabeth hoffman